By Hamza Waqas
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary who served as the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. In the early 1970s at the age of 22, Sankara went to Madagascar for his military training. There he found that the country was rising up against lingering colonial control. It was the anti-colonial struggle of the people of Madagascar that encouraged Thomas Sankara to learn about and read the works of socialist leaders like Marx and Lenin. Known for his charisma, his popularity grew when he returned to Burkina Faso. He eventually joined the ruling government and became prime minister. Months after becoming Prime Minister Sankar was put under house arrest. This led to a lot of public outcry and protests. After an attempt on Sankara’s life was foiled, and as tensions rose, the current government was dissolved and Sankara came into power. He was only 33 at the time.
Sarkana renamed the country which was first called the “Upper Volta” to ‘Burkina Faso’ (the land of the upright/ the land of the incorruptible). The former French colony had arguably not developed much after colonial powers had left. Sankara introduced a wave of radical reforms after coming into power. He started a nationwide literacy campaign and ordered the plantation of thousands of trees. He was dedicated to the promotion of gender equality. He banned forced marriages, polygamy and genital mutilation and encouraged women to work. He appointed women to key political positions in his government and encouraged women to join the military. Sankara once said that the revolution was about “Establishing new social relations … upsetting the relations of authority between men and women, forcing each other to rethink the nature of both. This is a formidable but necessary task.” Sankara’s government also laid down over 700km of rail, connecting various parts of the country and giving them access to the railway network. The construction of the railway lines was done without foreign aid or outside help. During his presidency, large vaccination drives were held in which roughly 2 million people were vaccinated. Infant mortality fell from 21% to 14.5%. His government was also the first to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic as a major health crisis for the people of Africa. Sankara also sold off the government’s fleet of Mercedes cars and replaced them with a fleet of ‘Renault 5’, one of the cheapest cars available in Burkina Faso at the time. He once said to his ministers that they can no longer take first class and business class flights because this was a waste of taxpayer money since both economy class and business class “…arrive and depart at the same time.”
Sankara was famous for his wonderfully charismatic speeches aimed at spreading his revolutionary ideas among the people of the country. He promoted anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist sentiments and explained to people the importance of reducing the country’s dependence on France as well as capitalist African nations around Burkina Faso. Sankara presented an alternative to not only the people of Burkina Faso but also to people across Africa. He is a popular figure in Africa particularly among young people till today. Judging from his interviews he seemed like a man who was conscious of the needs of his people, who consistently rejected and tried to end the dependency of the country on imperialist forces and their allies. He understood the importance of ideologically training members of the government, the military as well as the public and was also against violence.
“When you are bearing arms that can spit fire and death, and when you can receive orders standing to attention in front of a flag not knowing who will benefit from this order, you become a potential criminal. … Many soldiers are going around such and such country, bringing grief and desolation without understanding that they are fighting men and women that argue for the ideals as their own. A soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal.”
“Our country produces enough to feed us all. We can even produce more than we need. Unfortunately, for lack of organization, we still need to beg for food aid. This type of assistance is counterproductive and has kept us thinking that we can only be beggars who need aid. … We must put aside this aid and succeed in producing more. We must produce more because the one who feeds you usually imposes his will upon you. …. People sometimes ask me, Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism. Let us look no further.”
“Imperialism is a system of exploitation that occurs not only in the brutal form of those who come with guns to conquer territory. Imperialism often occurs in more subtle forms, a loan, food aid, blackmail. We are fighting this system that allows a handful of men on earth to rule all of humanity.”
Over time Thomas Sankara’s policies became more authoritarian. He banned trade unions, fired teachers that went on strike and clamped down on the free press. His economic policies isolated members of the influential Burkinabe middle class as well as tribal leaders who no longer enjoyed the same privileges as they used to. Sankara was assassinated while he was attending a meeting, on the 15th of October 1987. The attack was carried out by troops led by Sankara’s close friend and revolutionary ally Blaise Compaore, who became the next president of Burkina Faso, reversed most of Sankara’s policies and ruled for nearly around three decades before being overthrown in a popular uprising in 2014.
If Sankara was alive right now, he would have been 77 years old. This brief introduction to his life and presidency was written in light of the fact that it was his birthday on the 21st of December. We should try not to romanticise historical figures, our first priority should be to learn from them and their mistakes, however, I feel that reading about people like Captain Thomas Sankara can maybe help us develop an interest in learning more about anti-imperialist struggles, pan-Africanism and leftwing political activity in Africa in general, especially those of us who are reading about things like this for the first time.
There is a documentary called ‘Thomas Sankara The Upright Man’ that you can watch for free on YouTube.
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