Thomas Sankara: Biography, Presidency, Accomplishments, & Assassination

Best remembered for his bravery, assertiveness and austere lifestyle, Thomas Sankara was an outspoken 20th century anti-imperial political leader. Commonly hailed as one of the greatest African leaders of all time, Sankara served as the president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.

Deemed a charismatic and iconic personality by many, he was dubbed “Africa’s Che Guevara”. That title was because of the Marxist-leaning approach he deployed in the development of his country. Basically, Sankara viewed the development of Burkina Faso as an extension of a broader pan-Africanist vision.

Before his assassination and the subsequent overthrow of his government during a  military coup, he contended for his country’s full breakaway from France while working towards his pan-Africanist goal. Sankara was survived by his wife, Mariam, and two children.

Sankara is best known in his country as an African hero who was committed to promoting Pan-Africanism and ending all forms of neo-colonialism. Image: Thomas Sankara – President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987

Early Years

The son of a Peul father and a Mossi, mother Thomas Sankara was born in 1949, in Yako, French colonial Upper Volta. Though his parents encouraged him to be a priest, Sankara chose a career in the military.

From 1970 to 1973, he studied at the military academy of Antsirable in Madagascar. During that period, he witnessed a rebellion of students and workers that resulted in the deposition of the Madagascar government.

He later attended a parachute academy in France, where he was introduced to left-wing political ideologies. In 1974, he fought in a border war with Mali. His valorous performance was heralded by the public, but years later, he described the war as unfair and pointless.

During an academic pursuit in Morocco, Sankara got acquainted with Blaise Compare and some civilian students from Upper Volta. Together, they saw to the establishment of leftist groups in the country.

A commander at the Commando Training Center in Pô in 1976, Sankara’s humaneness won him the hearts of civilians. He encouraged his soldiers to assist civilians, especially farmers, with their work loads. Sankara was known for appearing at social gatherings, playing the guitar with local bands.

A leftist politician by the 1970s, he played a key role in forming the Communist Officers Group in the army and attended meetings that involved different lefties groups.

Secretary of State for Information

Thomas Sankra briefly served as the Secretary of State for Information, a sub-division of the newly established Military Committee for Reform and Military Progress. He resigned from his office in 1982 and condemned the actions of the Committee.

As a result of his charisma and military prowess, Sankara became a popular option for several political positions, but his political uprightness contradicted with the ideologies of successive regimes that came to power. This made a victim of several arrests.

Sankara as Prime Minister

Sankara was appointed Prime Minister of the Council for the Salvation of the People (CSP) in January,  1983. The position launched his international political career. He got acquainted with many left-leaning political  leaders, including Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Grenada’s Maurice Bishop and Mozmabique’s Samora Machel.

Owing to Sankara’s anti-neocolonial ideology, he was constantly at odds with conservatives within  the CSP. Sankara was subsequently dismissed as prime minister and placed under house arrest.

Presidency

On August 4, 1983, Blaise Compaoré led a coup, the August Revolution, that overthrew the Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo regime. Under the new government, the National Council for the Revolution, Sankara became president. He declared that the major focus of his government would be to eliminate corruption, empower women and provide easy access to health care, and quality education.

As part of his Africanization efforts, he changed the name of his country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means “the republic of honorable people.”

A conscientious leader, he reduced his salary to $450 a month, sold off the government’s luxurious cars and named the Renault 5, the least expensive car in the county at the time, the official service car for the ministers of state.

Sankara is revered in Burkina Faso as well as across Africa. As his political inclination was aligned to Marxism, he came to be known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.

Women’s Rights

Thomas Sankara was the first political leader in West Africa to appoint many women in his government. A strong women’s right advocate, he prohibited the practice of female genital mutilation, child marriages, and polygamy. He called a number of women to key leadership roles. For the first time in Burkina Faso, the government had women hold positions in the cabinet and serve in the military.

Other Notable Achievements

He changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means “Land of Upright Man.”

The sheer gains Sankara chalked up for his country in his brief tenure as president have been etched into the annals of African history. The leader is often heralded by the many people across the continent, including scholars and historians.

In just a few years of his presidency, Sankara had successfully launched a very efficient program that was poised to enhance social and economic development. Below are some other notable achievements chalked up by the West African leader:

  • In terms of national agenda, he advocated for the planting of 10 million trees to promote afforestation in order to curb the problem of the desertification of the Sahel.
  • He temporarily suspended poll taxes and house rents and started a road and railway program that would create easy access to and from different parts of the country.
  • In order to increase productivity and decrease abuse of power at the workplace, corrupt officials and workers were tried at Popular Revolutionary Tribunals.
  • Sankara’s foreign policy aimed at ending all forms of neo-colonialism not just in his country but across the African continent. His government avoided foreign aid and fought for the reduction of economy-crippling debts that were taken by his predecessors.
  • In overseeing his domestic policy, he launched a number of  autonomous large-scale and small-scale  agricultural and land initiatives aimed at eradicating famine. Between 1983 and 1986, the total cereal production increased by 75%.
  • He launched a countrywide literacy campaign with the goal of promoting education. His government built schools, hospitals, water reservoirs without foreign aid.
  • He launched mass child vaccination which saw over 2 million children get vaccinated. Infants were given shots against yellow fever and meningitis and polio. He also urged the rural folk to construct a medical dispensary.
  • He led in the building of pharmacies in over 5,300 villages. Between 1982 and 1984, there was a considerable decline in the infant mortality rate from 208 in every 1,000 births to 145.

Sankara’s quest to emancipate women in his country turned him to well-loved figure beyond the shores of Burkina Faso.

Assassination of Thomas Sankara

On October 15, 1987, Sankara was shot seven times in the chest by troops loyal to his former ally, Blaise Compaoré. Blaise seized power shortly after. In explaining his reason for the overthrow, Compaoré asserted that Sankara destroyed foreign relations with France and the neighboring La Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast). He also alleged that Sankara was planning to assassinate his opponents.

On the day of his assassination, Sankara was in a meeting with the Conseil d’Entente. He was singled out and gunned down.

After 27 years in power, Compaoré’s government was deposed in a popular uprising in 2014. In 2022, 35 years after Sankara’s death, Campaoré was convicted along with 2 others and sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia.

Criticisms against Thomas Sankara

Sankara’s quest to emancipate women in his country turned him to well-loved figure beyond the shores of Burkina Faso. He has been praised for having very good intentions for his country. This probably explains why he steered away from the extravagant lifestyles his predecessors lived.

However, Sankara was criticized by his opponents for muzzling the country’s press and civil societies. Sankara responded by pointing out that such actions were necessary in order not to have conflicting views that could retard his plans regarding the economy.

A charismatic Marxist revolutionary, Thomas Sankara worked very hard to improve his country’s health system and education. It was all hands on deck during his presidency, as he sought to lift his citizens from extreme poverty.

Legacy

After more than two decades since his assassination,  Sankara finally got the honor that he deserved. In October, 2007, events were held in a number of countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Tanzania, France and the United States, to honor the slain leader.

In 2019, a statue was erected in his memory at the exact place where he was assassinated in Ouagadougou.

Ernest Harsch, a veteran journalist and research scholar at Columbia University, published a book, “An African Revolutionary”. The 2014 book was based on the life of Thomas Sankara.

Did you know?

In his famous speech delivered to the African Union (formerly Organization of African Unity) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 1987, the Burkina Faso leader took aim at the global economic order. He cited institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for encouraging many African countries to enter into destabilizing debts. He called those institutions vestiges of colonialism. In his efforts to avoid what he termed as an undue influence of the IMF, he nationalized many land and mineral resources in the country.

Fun Facts about Burkina Faso

Sankara was the leader of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. The West African nation of Burkina Faso is landlocked country that shares borders with Ghana, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Benin

  • A former French colony, Burkina Faso gained independence as Upper Volta in 1960.
  • In the mid-1980s, the West African nation adopted the name Burkina Faso, which means “Land of Incorruptible People”.
  • The capital Ouagadougou is situated about about 500 miles (800 km) from the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Maurice Yaméogo was Burkina Faso’s first president, serving from 1960 to 1966, when he was removed from power by the military.
  • Burkina Faso is notoriously known for military coups. Between 1960 and 2022, the West African nation witnessed more than five coup d’états. Those coups and political turmoil haven’t augured well for its citizens as the country remains one of the poorest in the world.

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