Thomas Sankara’s shattered dream


I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organisation we deserve victory… You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.” ‑ THOMAS SANKARA, 1985

These are the words of former Burkina Faso president Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara who seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power.

When Sankara was killed after four years as President of Burkina Faso, it was at the orders – if not at the hands – of one of his oldest friends, now President Blaise Compaoré, backed by Major Jean-Baptiste Lingani and Captain Henri Zongo.

A lot has been said about this coup and it leaves one wondering; why he should care about this particular African tragedy?

The answer is plain simple, Sankara led one of the most creative and radical revolutions that has been staged on the African continent between 1983 and 1987 and, therefore, deserves recognition.

He started to blaze a trail that other African countries might follow, a genuine alternative to Western-style modernisation – but unfortunately he met the same fate of other radical African leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and Amilcar Cabral, who were shot down as a result of their thinking.

A selfless leader, Sankara got to the helm of Burkina Faso with a clearly laid out vision and road map to carry his motherland to the Promised Land.

He immediately launched the most ambitious programme for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent.

To symbolise this new autonomy and rebirth, he even renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso “Land of Upright Men”.

Nicknamed Africa’s Che Guevara, Sankara’s foreign policies were centred on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalising all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

Back home, his policies centred on famine prevention with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritising education with a nationwide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.

His other major achievements locally included asking top civil servants and military officers to give one month’s pay and other civil servants to give half a month’s pay to help fund social development projects; all domestic rents were suspended for 1985 and a massive public housing construction programme began.

Other components of his national agenda included planting over 10 million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction programme to “tie the nation together”.

On the localised level, Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour.

Sankara had a soft spot and massive commitment towards women's rights, which led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing females to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.

Thomas Sankara lived “his” revolution to the fullest extent possible.

When the new regime tried to implicate him in embezzlement of government funds to justify the coup in 1987, it was disappointed: He was a unique leader earning a paltry salary of US$450 a month and had a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer as his most valuable possessions.

Sankara was undoubtedly the world’s poorest president.

He shocked all and sundry when he refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabes.

Between February 1984 and December 1986, Sankara had achieved what might take his murderer a lifetime to achieve.

Just when everyone thought that things were on the right track, when civilians thought their lives were now changing for the better, tragedy struck.

The dream carried by Sankara was shattered. His hope and desire to see his country and its people moving towards a purple patch was stolen from him, squashed and thrown down the abyss.

October 15, 1987, will remain a black day in the history of Burkina Faso; Sankara is assassinated in a coup d’état along with 12 aides.

His body is unceremoniously dumped in a makeshift grave, which quickly becomes a shrine as for days thousands of people file past it to pay their respects.

Popular feeling forces the new regime to give Sankara a decent grave.

One Burkina Faso villager had this to say about Captain Thomas Sankara:

“I wasn’t surprised when he was killed – the revolution took me by surprise but that didn’t. He had bad men around him, people who just wanted to get fat and drive around in big cars.

“Many things changed in the revolution. It taught us to work by ourselves for ourselves. Sankara’s very best idea was to teach us that it wasn’t enough to live with what we get in wages each month – we should get by with the minimum and give the rest to the development of the country instead of always asking for aid from overseas.”

President Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s erstwhile best friend and mastermind of his assassination, is head of state since October 15, 1987. It was under his leadership that the current system of corruption, cronyism and impunity was introduced that keeps Burkina Faso from developing despite being a relatively stable and peaceful society.

Compaoré is the complete opposite of Sankara. With him at the helm of Burkina Faso, the West African country has struggled to keep up with its neighbours in all spheres of life.

He has accumulated a lot of filthy wealth for himself over the years amid allegations of rampant corruption and pathetic nepotism.

Despite the period of peace that Burkina experienced during this time, and a comparatively generous US$13 billion in international development assistance, the country still ranks only 181 out of 187 countries in terms of human development.

All of the other bottom 10 countries in the HDI ranking experienced devastating civil wars during this time – except Guinea, which instead had to put up with a brutal military dictatorship. To put it bluntly: Blaise Compaoré is the only African head of state who managed to dramatically limit the development of his country without declaring outright war on it.

Not to be misunderstood, of course, most indicators of economic and human development improved during the 25-year term of Blaise Compaoré – but so much slower than in most other African nations that his lack of interest in lifting his population out of poverty can hardly be denied. Instead, Compaoré is obviously more concerned with developing his own personal fortune and that of his entourage.  

This can be observed clearly by visiting Ouaga2000, a newly built, extravagant part of the capital, where one can indeed find the ‘wide and well maintained’ roads that Keating and Nadoun mention in their article ‘Burkina Faso: Compaoré’s Continuing Will to Power’. While the rest of the city (not to speak of the rest of the country) has only a handful of surfaced roads, in Ouaga2000 new SUVs glide over a pristine tarmac in front of lavish villas and luxury hotels.

The tiny upper class, which ostentatiously shows off its wealth in this district, is the only real beneficiary of Compaoré’s rule. While Burkina hasn’t got the riches of some of its neighbours, the ruling elite has managed to find significant profits from gold mining, cotton production and development assistance.

For example, one company among the many owned by the mother in law of Blaise’s brother, François, was contracted to build a new road between the regional hubs Koudougou and Dédougou. While the road should have been finished long ago it constantly requires further public investment, while the ‘belle mère de la nation’ has become the richest women in the country.

The road which Sankara made and wanted Burkina Faso to travel was almost immediately abandoned as Compaoré took over the reins to drive the nation down to the abyss. Prices for the most important household goods – basic food stuffs and natural gas for cooking and petrol – are rising constantly. Burkina Faso relies on imports for practically all goods consumed in the country, which makes it highly vulnerable to changes in world market prices. The little money generated through the export of gold, cotton and sesame benefits mostly external investors and the corrupt

President of the largest human rights organisation of Burkina Faso and chair of the Alliance Against the High Cost of Living Chrysogone Zougmoré says the rising costs of living over the last years have driven many people into poverty.

“The regime depends on corruption,” explains Zougmoré.

“Important offices in the government are given to supporters of the president. Ministers and members of parliament use programmes for ‘agricultural development’ to chase subsistence farmers off their land and to develop it into private estates for sugarcane and cotton production. 

Gold mining – one of the country’s biggest foreign exchange earners – is a deeply criminal business and regularly development aid in the millions is siphoned off through corrupt practices,” he added.

Under Sankara, excesses like this were unthinkable.

“Things like corruption, embezzlement, cronyism, all that didn’t exist,” remembers Zougmoré. “You could talk of an era of integrity. And that was the pride of the Burkinabé.

“Between 1983 and 1987, [before] the death of Sankara, we were proud when we were abroad and said ‘we are Burkinabé’.”

The dream Sankara had of seeing a progressive Burkina Faso was shattered by one he called his own, President Blaise Compaoré!

November 2013
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