Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary

There has never been a leader in West Africa who has made the kind of positive impact, on his people and country, as Sankara did in a few short years in power. His leadership style was modest and he did away with the pomp and ceremony that normally accompanies sitting heads of state. He played football once a week with staff and advisers, banned official portraits and ensured that his family did not once benefit materially from his leadership position.

Did you know that in 1986, at an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit, he symbolically offered ten rifles to ANC and SWAPO freedom fighters? According to the biography Thomas Sankara, An African Revolutionary, the assembled leaders at the summit began to chuckle and Sankara famously said, “Ten rifles represent something really big to a poor country like Burkina Faso. If every one of the fifty OAU states did the same, it would mean 500 African National Congress or South West Africa People’s Organisation would be armed.”Sankara

That was Thomas Sankara, big on political theatre and backed by action. His life starts as a child born in 1949 in the then Upper Volta. By the time he turned 11, his country was getting its independence from France and the young Sankara and his friends “organised their own mock ceremony to lower the French flag and raise the colours of the new nation.” It was not long before Sankara was enrolling in a military academy. In a country just freed from colonial rule, it was inevitable that a period of post conflict turmoil would follow. Coups were the norm in the region and the military was popular for getting rid of despised rulers but also as a place where one could find discipline. Like the young Mandela leaving the security of his village, it was here that Sankara was exposed, “in a systematic way, to a revolutionary perspective on Upper Volta and the world.” Whether it is the motor cycle diaries of Che Guevara or Mugabe in Ghana, it would appear every revolutionary needs to leave his comfort zone for the beginning of the refinement of ideas. After three years in the military academy, Sankara was selected for more advanced officer training in Madagascar. Again like another icon, Amilcar Cabral, Sankara was drawn to courses on agriculture and how to better practise sustainable farming. It was not all guns and shooting for Sankara. A hallmark of most revolutionaries is their abhorrence of a system and their search for how best, not only to replace it but also to better the lives of the liberated. Cabral used his agronomist skills to help power the revolution. An army cannot march on an empty stomach! http://www.blackdiamondsmag.co.za/amilcar-cabral-time-for-new-icons/ Sankara, too, thinking of how best to help develop his under developed country requested an extension of his stay in Madagascar so that he could learn more. On his return home and putting his skills in to practice, Sankara’s eyes were opened to the excesses of his fellow soldiers and the politicians who ran the country. He shared his concerns with a small circle of trusted junior officers and friends but it was not long before both his leadership and ideas were not to higher authorities. Here was a soldier who was obsessed with creating “citizen soldiers” organising book collections for them, initiating development programmes for local communities and having his soldiers participate in them. He was clearly not your everyday post conflict soldier in a newly independent country in West Africa.

The more he travelled, however, the more he saw the dire conditions of poverty in which his countrymen lived and he began to seek out more junior officers who shared his frustrations. Inevitably, as was the trend at that time, another coup took place overthrowing the incumbent but Sankara did not take part in it. As mentioned earlier, though, he had not gone unnoticed and was offered a job in the new government. He politely declined before reluctantly accepting the position on condition that it was for a limited period. He assumed the post of Minister of Information which allowed him to promote hitherto unprecedented media freedom and, in the process, alienate him from the predatory elite that ran the country. He had no choice but to dramatically resign seven months after being appointed. He was swiftly arrested and deported to a remote military base. Another coup followed in 1982 and still Sankara did not participate in it. He nevertheless took advantage of the leadership vacuum in the country to further demand more reform. Once again, he was appointed to a leadership position in government and this time he accepted to become Prime Minister at the beginning of 1983. In his first foray at an international summit, the Non Aligned Movement conference of that year, he “actively courted” revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro, Samora Machel and Maurice Bishop of Grenada. His actions and new friends alarmed powerful people beyond the narrow borders of his small country and by May of the same year his house was surrounded by soldiers again and he was ousted. Civil unrested followed the ouster of the popular Prime Minister and following several months of negotiation, Sankara finally took over as leader of the country in August.

The revolution begins.

There has never been a leader in West Africa who has made the kind of positive impact, on his people and country, as Sankara did in a few short years in power. His leadership style was modest and he did away with the pomp and ceremony that normally accompanies sitting heads of state. He played football once a week with staff and advisers, banned official portraits and ensured that his family did not once benefit materially from his leadership position. Before you knew it, masses were participating in public programmes building new schools, clinics and digging wells. Using his Madagascar experience, Sankara ordered army bases to start farms to “grow food and raise livestock, engaged in tree planting to combat deforestation, cleaned up trash from towns and villages, dug wells and built schools, health clinics, roads and other facilities.” During an era when most leaders, including former revolutionaries, were using the military to instil fear and oppress their people, Sankara was driving a powerful message “to prevent soldiers from developing superior attitudes and to convince civilians that the army, alongside its useful functions, could also contribute to the country’s economic advancement.”

Thomas Sankara, African revolutionary, 1949 - 1987

Thomas Sankara, African revolutionary, 1949 – 1987

It was evident that some of his fellow soldiers had not seen the revolution in this light and were yearning for the low hanging fruit of power and Sankara was killed by his colleagues and friends in October 1987.

Since the latest coup in Burkina Faso, women clutching their spatulas have been vocally denouncing a return to power of the cabal that killed their beloved Sankara. http://www.womeninandbeyond.org/?p=19288 They found their voice because some 30 years ago because a young career officer gave it to them when he “chastised corrupt and feudal husbands for treating their wives and daughters as beasts of burden and pledged to act against the many customary practices judged to be oppressive to women.”

His was a short reign, tragically interrupted by greed but his iconic status is assured in the African memory. He was clearly not power hungry despite his fierce determination to change his country for goo. Read more about this remarkable young revolutionary leader to more fully grasp the impact of his leadership in the book by Ernest Harsch published by Jacana Media.

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