News recently broke that the former president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, is to be tried for the murder of his presidential predecessor, Thomas Sankara. Over 30 years ago, on October 15th, 1987, Thomas Sankara was assassinated by an armed group during a coup d’état organized by his former colleague and friend, Compaoré. Sankara was a popular and charismatic leader who was passionate about bettering the lives of African people. He was extremely successful in improving Burkina Faso’s infrastructure, healthcare and self-sustainability, so why was he killed? Exploring Sankara’s legacy makes it clear that his biggest enemy was not just Compaoré, but the unshakeable grip of colonialism remnant across the world.
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was born on December 21st, 1949, in the landlocked west-African country of Burkina Faso. Sankara’s catholic parents wanted him to become a priest but instead he joined the military, incentivised by the opportunity of free education and the popularity of the military at the time. At 20 years old, Sankara witnessed an uprising of students and workers in Madagascar during his military training. The uprising successfully toppled the Madagascan government and this experience is likely what inspired him to begin studying leftist theorists such as Lenin and Marx during the rest of his time in Madagascar. Sankara was quickly radicalised, and with his strengths as an eloquent public speaker and dedicated soldier, it was no surprise he soon pursued a political career. In 1983 Sankara became Prime Minister, giving him a platform in international politics and allowing him to meet with many famous revolutionary leaders such as Fidel Castro and Samora Machel. Before long, however, his anti-imperialist and leftist views ruffled many feathers within Burkina Faso’s government and Sankara was removed from his post as Prime Minister and imprisoned. Due to his charm and popularity, Sankara’s arrest angered many people and eventually a coup supported by Libya and organised by his prior military companions (including Compaoré) resulted in Sankara being freed and becoming President on August 4th, 1983 at age 33. He began immediately to implement socialist policies that prioritised healthcare, education, reforestation and bettering the lives of his citizens. In 1984, he released the country from the French colonial name ‘Upper Volta’ and proudly renamed it ‘Burkina Faso’ meaning ‘Land of the Upright People’.
During his presidency, Sankara vaccinated over a million children, increasing child and infant coverage for diseases such as measles, meningitis and yellow fever from 19% to 77%. He increased the literacy rate from 13% to 73%. He outlawed female genital mutilation and forced marriages, hired many women to important government positions and increased access to contraceptives. He built schools, health centres and railroads by supporting local industry as opposed to foreign aid. He redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it to peasants. Sankara worked tirelessly to make his progressive ideals a reality and the results spoke for themselves .
Sankara’s drive for self-reliance and sustainability was ambitious and commendable. He rejected neo-colonialist intervention and advocated for Pan-Africanism, believing that Africa would be stronger if it united and rejected foreign aid. He believed that “he who feeds you, controls you” and spoke at forums such as the Organization of African Unity. His passion for collectivism and open solidarity with the working class was especially notable: he lowered his own salary and rejected excessive luxuries such as first class air travel, an abundance of material possessions and even air conditioning. He and his wife also worked as civil servants and their children went to public schools. Another shining example of his independence and charm was that he wrote the new national anthem for Burkina Faso himself, the opening line translating to ‘Against the humiliating bondage of a thousand years’. Clearly, Sankara was extremely passionate about freeing Burkina Faso from its colonial chains. His policies and ideologies remain relevant not just to the liberation of African people but to working class and marginalised groups around the world. Yet in spite of his passion, humility, progressive views and popularity, Sankara’s time as president was short. Just 4 years after he became president he was murdered in a successful coup that abruptly ended his reign.
As soon as Sankara was assassinated in 1987, Blaise Compaoré overtook him as president. He immediately began overturning Sankara’s progressive policies and repairing relationships with neighbouring countries and France, reinstating the binding political and economic ties Burkina Faso had to its former coloniser. Sankara’s wife, Mariam Sankara, has openly accused France of masterminding the coup and assassination of her husband. She has formally requested the declassification of French military documents and interviews with French officials who were involved in Burkina Faso’s affairs at the time. While France has not complied, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to assume their involvement given that ex-colonial powers like themselves have a long history of disdain for leaders like Sankara. Many see movements that present African and working class liberation to the masses as threats to the western way of life, justifying violent intervention in order to preserve control over third-world resources and affairs.
The story of Thomas Sankara is achingly familiar. There are countless instances of colonial and capitalist superpowers violently intervening in developing countries’ affairs in order to dismantle revolutionary movements. We are consistently shown that progress is possible only until it is stifled by greed and corruption and that revolutionaries who enact positive change live short lives. Even Sankara seemed to be aware of his impending death while president, sometimes referring to his wife as ‘la veuve’ meaning ‘the widow’, prophesying the fate he would eventually meet alongside countless other socialist leaders and activists.
Sankara’s legacy proves that it’s possible for leaders to have genuine compassion and to prioritise the needs of its people. The western world often pities countries in the global south and marginalised communities on their own doorstep, but it’s important to understand that capitalism is a vicious tool in stifling progress, especially in black and brown communities. Sankara’s murder illustrates the violence and systemic oppression imposed on these communities to keep them underdeveloped and overexploited. We are repeatedly shown that our current economic and political systems reward imperialist violence while they punish liberation and progressivism. So why do we remain faithful to these systems? Why do we idly allow them to continue?
Of course, as individuals we have limited power. We cannot topple oppressive systems on our own, but there is unlimited power in collectivism. It is a radical act to aid your community, to be educated and to be optimistic.
It’s also important to remember, as Thomas Sankara said just a week before his death:
“Revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, but you cannot kill ideas”.