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Thomas Sankara Africa's greatest leader that never was

If the present African system was a bit advanced in reasoning, the name "Thomas Sankara" would have been on every curriculum.

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A portrait of Thomas Sankara play

A portrait of Thomas Sankara


"The enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance."

-- Thomas Sankara

There is something particular about people born with greatness. It is heard in their voices when they speak. It can also be seen in their humble composure. Enlightenment shines forth-- when they open their eyes: Ay, they seem to be guided by the power of awareness.

If the present African system was a bit advanced in reasoning and clear thinking, the Name "Thomas Sankara" would have been on  every curriculum.

And instead of nurturing fanciful memories of men like Columbus and Lugard, the ideas and ethics of  the ‘Upright Captain’ would have been the very core of our education.

Born, Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, on 21 December 1949,  Thomas was the third of Joseph and Marguerite Sankara's ten children.

As a primary school pupil, Thomas Sankara was not only serious with his studies, he was quite outstanding in both mathematics and French.

And with same eagerness, he was always present in church.

This would make both parents and priests to encourage him to further his education in the seminary. Although young Sankara yielded to their counsel, but little did he know that life had a broader purpose for him.

He would later take the exam required for entry into sixth grade in the secular educational system and passed. And it was this decision that marked a turning point in his life.

Thomas Sankara play

Thomas Sankara

(Africa time)

"Without patriotic political education, a soldier is only a potential criminal."

-- Thomas Sankara

Now seventeen, Thomas Sankara was admitted into the military academy of Kadiogo with the academy’s first intake of 1966. Him and other trainee officers would be schooled  by civilian professors in the field of social sciences.

Particularly, one Adama Toure who taught history and geography was distinct for his progressive ideas.

He refused to share them publicly; he would rather invite a handful of his brightest students to join informal  discussions about imperialism, neocolonialism, socialism and communism, the Soviet and Chinese revolutions, the liberation movements in Africa and similar topics outside of the classroom.

Sankara was among the invited, and it was here he got exposed to the revolutionary side of life.

Flamed with passion and enthusiasm, Sankara at the age of twenty went on to further his military studies at the military academy of Antsirabe (Madagascar), from which he graduated as a junior officer in 1973.

He also learned how to raise crop yields and to better the lives of poor farmers as a result of the instructions he received beyond the circle of military subjects.

Further exposed to left-wing political ideologies when he attended a parachute academy in France, coupled with authors like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin influencing his political view, Thomas Sankara became not only a dynamic figure, but also a man with innovative ideas ready to put himself at the service of fellow citizens.

The young officer would fight in a border war between his country, Upper Volta and Mali; and become famous for his heroic performance.

Though he later renounced the war as "useless and unjust," but it was the fame that gave him popularity in the capital city of Ouagadougou.

In 1976, Sankara became the commander of the Commando Training Centre in Pô. And it was that same year he met with Blaise Compaoré in Morocco.

The duo, coupled with other groups of young officers, would form a secret organisation called the "Communist Officers' Group."

Prominent among them were Henri Zongo, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Blaise Compaoré and Thomas Sankara.

"You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness."

-- Thomas Sankara

In September 1981, Sankara was appointed Secretary of State for Information in the military government. Stories have it that he journeyed to his first cabinet meeting on a bicycle.

However, in opposition to what he saw as the regime's anti-labour drift, Thomas Sankara resigned on 21 April 1982: declaring "Misfortune to those who gag the people."

But nine months after his resignation, he became the Prime minister in a new regime; only to be dismissed after five months in office, and placed under house arrest shortly after a visit by the French president's son, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand.

Alongside Sankara, Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani were also placed under arrest; causing a popular uprising.

Blaise Compaoré, Thomas Sankara and Jerry Rawlings (L-R) play

Blaise Compaoré, Thomas Sankara and Jerry Rawlings (L-R)


Taking advantage of the fragile situation, fellow society member-- Blaise Compaoré organised a successful coup and made Thomas Sankara president, and himself as vice, on August 4 1983.

Sankara was only thirty-three years old at the time.

The young president  inspired by the likes of Ghana's Jerry Rawlings, Cuba's Fidel Castro and the everywhere Che Guevara, considered himself a revolutionist.

And in total contrast to other head of states within the continent, Sankara gets to work.

Immediately, he suppressed the powers of feudal landlords-- the tribal chiefs. They were stripped of self-given rights to tribute payments from peasants.

The purpose of this was to create a higher standard of living for the poor citizens as well as inducing the consciousness self-sufficiency through farming.

And with irrigation and fertilization programs instituted by the government, the country reached food sufficiency within four years.

ALSO READ: How former president has influenced Nigeria politics so far

President Sankara's top priorities were feeding, housing and giving medical care to his poor people who desperately needed it.

Fighting corruption, promoting reforestation and education, also ranked high in his policies.

He would sell off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and make the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in the country at that time) the official service car of the ministers.

In addition, he reduced the salaries of well-off public servants, which also included his own.

The upright president forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets; stating that, "when the airplane touches down, it arrives with everyone at the same time, irrespective of class."

He also refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to just anyone but the elite.

Furthermore, he promoted a campaign against desertification with millions of trees planted across the country; making him the first president to engage in such act.

As common across Africa, there were people taking shelter in slums across the city. Sankara would launch a public housing building program for them and rehabilitate the dilapidated ones as well.

Marking his first year as president in 1984, Thomas Sankara renamed the country from the French given "Upper Volta," to what is now known today as "Burkina Faso;" meaning, "the land of upright people."

He adopted a new flag and prided it with a new national anthem which he composed.

Burkina Faso does not have any access to the sea; bordered North with desert, the country was made to believe they could not survive without foreign aids.

But Thomas Sankara's ideology was in total contrast with that. He had said once that, "he who feeds you, controls you."

Sankara and Baba Fela play

Sankara and Baba Fela


He believed that every country, no matter how small, can become self sufficient. He would affirm that lack of organisation that has forced us to imbibed the beggar's mentality, which is counter productive.

Owing to this, foreign financial aids were no longer accepted.

But it did not stop Sankara from connecting rural and city regions  with vast roads and railway project of several hundreds kilometers.

For the people were given an opportunity to show their solidarity; and they gladly did it with rolled sleeves and hands to the ground.

The campaign is remembered till this day as "the battle of rail."

"We must learn to live the African way. It's the only way to live in freedom and with dignity."

-- Thomas Sankara

Representing Burkina Faso in a submit of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity), President Sankara challenged the other head of states by pointing accusing fingers at greedy leaders who will do anything to degrade their people for the enrichment of themselves.

He talked about the-- never redeemed-- foreign debt and the drastic increase of interest rate: calling for a united front of African nations to repudiate it. "Though not in the spirit of rebelliousness, but just to avoid being assassinated individually," he said.

Added to this call was the argument that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiter.

In his rhetoric brilliance, fearless Sankara went on:

"Brothers, with everybody’s (African leaders) support, we will make peace at home.

"We will be able to use Africa’s full potential as well to develop our country, because our land is rich. We have enough manpower and a very large market, from the North to the South and the East to the West.

"We also have enough brain power to create or at least to go and learn science and technology where it can be learnt.

"Mr President, lets present a united front against the debt here in Addis Ababa.

"Let's make sure that this conference will decide to limit the arm race between the poor and weak countries. The clubs and knives that we buy are useless.

"Let's make sure that the African market belongs to Africans. Lets produce in Africa, manufacture in Africa, and consume in Africa. Let’s produce what we need and consume what we produce instead of importing goods.

Sankara speaking at the OAU submit play

Sankara speaking at the OAU submit


"Burkina Faso came here to show you our locally produce cotton, woven in Burkina Faso and tailored in Burkina Faso to clothe our people ( he was talking about what he wore to the submit). I, along with my delegation are dressed by our tailors and our farmers. Not a single thread comes from Europe or America."

Amidst resounding applause, he concluded with a smile particular to him alone.

"I am not presenting a fashion show here, but I simply would like to say that we must learn to live the African way, it’s the only way to live in freedom and with dignity."

It is obvious that the so-called leaders did not listen to him then, for until now, African countries still wallow in debt.

"While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."

-- Thomas Sankara

Despite the fact that little by little the Burkina Faso is taken out of misery as a result of the great strides made in the country, the reception was mixed.

Sankara's policies improved the status of women in the society. A good number of them were appointed in high government positions.

Pregnant girls were also encouraged to stay in schools. And the banning of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy were enforced.

All these policies, coupled with the economic issues the country was struggling through, gave room for dissent to sprout.

And the French, seeing a fertile soil to breed thorns, connived with those benefiting from Africa's under-development: They did not want his ideas to spread.

As at now, Sankara's circle of friends had decreased in size.

Sensing the possibility of insubordination, faithful capt. Boukari advised him to put things to right by ordering the arrest of Blaise Compaoré who was believed to be planning his assassination.

But Sankara would reply him: "there is no friendship that cannot be betrayed."

On October 15, 1987, beloved Sankara was shattered with bullet in a ruthless coup organised by his friend, Blaise Compaoré.

His reputation was dragged through the mud; he was accused of enriching himself while in power and also degrading the relationships between Burkina Faso and foreign allies.

At the same time, there was a disappearance of all official documents and a systematic destruction of traces leading to his presence in power.

Thus, Africa’s "Beacon of Hope" was shadowed with gloom.

A painting of Sankara play

A painting of Sankara

(You tube)

"I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity."

-- Thomas Sankara

The president of the poor ruled over his people for only four years, and in those years he did not only defiled imperialism, he also showed the world what Africa could accomplish by effectively allocating the nations mineral wealth and resources to benefits its people.

Though a commander of a nation, yet his lifestyle was down to earth; it was for this reason he died with a few hundred dollars, a guitar, a bicycle, a car, and a broken down freezer to his name.

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