I realised the other day that this week (yesterday in fact), marks 27 years since former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, was murdered because of European and African interests in a coup d’état led by French-backed current president Blaise Compaoré. Having spent time in Burkina Faso and spoken to many people who adore him, I really couldn’t let this anniversary pass by without commemorating it in some way. Many of you reading this in the West may not have heard of Sankara, so this is for you.
One of the very first things I ever heard about Sankara when I was in Burkina was that he would often dress himself up in casual clothing and quietly take to the streets to talk to people and play football with children with little recognition or fanfare. He wanted it that way. He wanted to talk to people and know what was really going on, so that he could be a better leader.
Commonly referred to as Africa’s Che Guevara, Sankara is widely considered in the continent to be one of the great leaders of the Twentieth Century. His Pan-Africanism, sweeping social and economic reforms, commitment to women and challenging of the elite (both Burkinabé and international) and the West has labelled him a hero in the eyes of many.
I must hastily add that (in my opinion) Sankara is not without fault and he has been criticised by many for his often undemocratic policies. He was an authoritarian leader accused of human rights violations against his political enemies, he established Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and banned unions and free press. However, he championed Burkina Faso and the whole African continent, stood up to Western hegemony and “undertook one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the continent.” In the words of Sean Jacobs (more below): “Sankara’s short four-year reign – for all its faults… pointed briefly to the potential of different political futures for Africans.” You really should know about him.
There is so much I could say about Sankara, but happily, there are two brilliant articles already written about him that will put it much better than I can.
The first; Sankara: Daring to invent Africa’s future was written in 2008 in the Guardian by Sean Jacobs, who wrote:
Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production… Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy), instituted a massive immunisation programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.
You can read the full (and balanced) article here.
The second article appeared more recently on the Africa is a Country website (they are amazing, check them out).
It is the 27th anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara, and once again we mark the passing of one of the great leaders of the Twentieth Century. Sankara was a Marxist revolutionary in the last years of the Cold War, a Pan-Africanist when the Pan-African project was at its lowest ebb, a committed feminist long before so-called “global civil society” started to preach about “empowerment” of women, a leader who sought to organize the uplift of a whole society long before elites began to boast about “Africa Rising”.
You can read the full article here and they’ve got some brilliant videos in their feature that are worth watching.
There’s still a lot more research I’d like to do on Sankara, but I’d be really interested to hear about what you know of him, or your thoughts on his leadership. Is he your hero? Can a great leader really be great and undemocratic? How can France and it’s co-conspirators justify his death? Thoughts welcome as always!
p.s I’d really like to know of any good books/websites/resources on Sankara so please do feel free to recommend.