Knowledge Session: Who Was Thomas Sankara?

“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” — Thomas Sankara 

Thomas Sank­ara (born 1947) was Burk­ina Faso’s pres­id­ent from  August 1983 until his assas­sin­a­tion on Octo­ber 15, 1987. Per­haps, more than any oth­er Afric­an pres­id­ent in liv­ing memory, Thomas Sank­ara, in four years, trans­formed Burk­ina Faso from a poor coun­try, depend­ent on aid, to an eco­nom­ic­ally inde­pend­ent and socially pro­gress­ive nation.

Thomas Sank­ara began by pur­ging the deeply entrenched bur­eau­crat­ic and insti­tu­tion­al cor­rup­tion in Burk­ina Faso. He slashed the salar­ies of min­is­ters and sold off the fleet of exot­ic cars in the president’s con­voy, opt­ing instead for the cheapest brand of car avail­able in Burk­ina Faso, Renault 5. His salary was $450 per month and he refused to use the air con­di­tion­ing units in his office, say­ing that he felt guilty doing so, since very few of his coun­try people could afford it. Thomas Sank­ara would not let his por­trait be hung in offices and gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions in Burk­ina Faso, because every Burk­in­abe is a Thomas Sank­ara, he declared. Sank­ara changed the name of the coun­try from the colo­ni­ally imposed Upper Volta to Burk­ina Faso, which means land of upright men.

Thomas Sankara’s achieve­ments are numer­ous and can only be sum­mar­ized briefly; with­in the first year of his lead­er­ship, Sank­ara embarked on an unpre­ced­en­ted mass vac­cin­a­tion pro­gram that saw 2.5 mil­lion Burk­in­abe chil­dren vac­cin­ated. From an alarm­ing 280 deaths for every 1,000 births, infant mor­tal­ity was imme­di­ately slashed to below 145 deaths per 1,000 live births. Sank­ara preached self reli­ance, he banned the import­a­tion of sev­er­al items into Burk­ina Faso, and encour­aged the growth of the loc­al industry. It was not long before Burk­in­abes were wear­ing 100% cot­ton sourced, woven and tailored in Burk­ina Faso. From being a net import­er of food, Thomas Sank­ara began to aggress­ively pro­mote agri­cul­ture in Burk­ina Faso, telling his coun­try people to quit eat­ing impor­ted rice and grain from Europe, “let us con­sume only what we ourselves con­trol,” he emphas­ized.  In less than 4 years, Burk­ina Faso became self suf­fi­cient in food pro­duc­tion through the redis­tri­bu­tion of lands from the hands of cor­rupt chiefs and land own­ers to loc­al farm­ers, and through massive irrig­a­tion and fer­til­izer dis­tri­bu­tion pro­grams. Thomas Sank­ara util­ized vari­ous policies and gov­ern­ment assist­ance to encour­age Burk­in­abes to get edu­ca­tion. In less than two years as pres­id­ent, school attend­ance jumped from about 10% to a little below 25%, thus over­turn­ing the 90% illit­er­acy rate he met upon assump­tion of office.

Liv­ing way ahead of his time, with­in 12 months of his lead­er­ship,  Sank­ara vig­or­ously pur­sued a refor­est­a­tion pro­gram that saw over 10 mil­lion trees planted around the coun­try in order  to push back the encroach­ment of the Saha­ra Desert. Uncom­mon at the time he lived, Sank­ara stressed women empower­ment and cam­paigned for the dig­nity of women in a tra­di­tion­al pat­ri­arch­al soci­ety. He employed women in sev­er­al gov­ern­ment pos­i­tions and declared a day of solid­ar­ity with house­wives by man­dat­ing their hus­bands to take on their roles for 24 hours.  A per­son­al fit­ness enthu­si­ast, Sank­ara encour­aged Burk­in­abes to be fit and was reg­u­larly seen jog­ging unac­com­pan­ied on the streets of Ouagadougou; his waist­line remained the same through­out his ten­ure as president.

In 1987, dur­ing a meet­ing of Afric­an lead­ers under the aus­pices of the Organ­iz­a­tion of Afric­an Unity, Thomas Sank­ara tried to con­vince his peers to turn their backs on the debt owed west­ern nations. Accord­ing to him, “debt is a clev­erly man­aged recon­quest of Africa. It is a recon­quest that turns each one of us into a fin­an­cial slave.”  He would not request for, nor accept aid from the west, not­ing that “…wel­fare and aid policies have only ended up dis­or­gan­iz­ing us, sub­jug­at­ing us, and rob­bing us of a sense of respons­ib­il­ity for our own eco­nom­ic, polit­ic­al, and cul­tur­al affairs. We chose to risk new paths to achieve great­er well-being.”

Thomas Sank­ara was a pan-Afric­an­ist who spoke out against apartheid, telling French Pres­id­ent Jacques Chir­ac, dur­ing his vis­it to Burk­ina Faso, that it was wrong for him to sup­port the apartheid gov­ern­ment and that he must be ready to bear the con­sequences of his actions. Sankara’s policies and his unapo­lo­get­ic anti-imper­i­al­ist stand made him an enemy of France, Burk­ina Faso’s former colo­ni­al mas­ter. He spoke truth to power fear­lessly and paid with his life. Upon his assas­sin­a­tion, his most valu­able pos­ses­sions were a car, a refri­ger­at­or, three gui­tars, motor­cycles, a broken down freez­er and about $400 in cash.

In death, Thomas Sankara’s buri­al place is unkempt and filled with weeds. Few young Afric­ans have ever heard of Thomas Sank­ara. In real­ity, it is not the assas­sin­a­tion of Thomas Sank­ara that has dealt a leth­al blow to Africa and Afric­ans;  it is the assas­sin­a­tion of his memory, as  mani­fes­ted in the indif­fer­ence to his leg­acy, in the lack of con­stant ref­er­ence to his ideals and ideas by Afric­ans, by those who know and those who should know. Among phys­ic­al and men­tal dirt and debris lie Africa’s her­oes while the young­er gen­er­a­tions search in vain for role mod­els from among their kind. Afric­ans have there­fore, intern­al­ized self-abhor­rence and the con­vic­tions of innate incap­ab­il­ity to bring about trans­form­a­tion. Trans­form­a­tion must run con­trary to the African’s DNA, many Afric­ans sub­con­sciously believe.

Afric­ans are not giv­en to cel­eb­rat­ing their own her­oes, but this must change. It is a colo­ni­al leg­acy that was insti­tuted to estab­lish the inferi­or­ity of the col­on­ized and jus­ti­fy colo­ni­al­ism.  It was a stra­tegic policy that ensured that Afric­ans cel­eb­rated the her­oes of their colo­ni­al mas­ters, but not that of Africa. Fifty years and count­ing after colo­ni­al­ism ended, Africa’s cur­riculum must now be redraf­ted to reflect the numer­ous achieve­ments of Afric­ans. The present gen­er­a­tion of Afric­ans is thirsty, search­ing for where to draw the mor­al, intel­lec­tu­al and spir­itu­al cour­age to effect change. The waters to quench the thirst, as oth­er con­tin­ents have already estab­lished, lies fun­da­ment­ally in his­tory –  in Africa’s for­bears, men, women and chil­dren who exper­i­enced much of what most Afric­ans cur­rently exper­i­ence, but who chose to toe a dif­fer­ent path. The media, enter­tain­ment industry, civil soci­ety groups, writers, insti­tu­tions and organ­iz­a­tions must begin to search out and include Afric­an role mod­els, case stud­ies and examples in their contents.

For Afric­ans, the strength des­per­ately needed for the trans­form­a­tion of the con­tin­ent can­not be drawn from World Bank and IMF policies, from aid and assist­ance obtained from China, India, the United States or Europe. The strength to trans­form Africa lies in the found­a­tions laid by uncom­mon her­oes like Thomas Sank­ara; a man who showed Africa and the world that with a single minded pur­suit of pur­pose,  the worst can be made the best, and in record time, too.

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Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rishma Dhali­w­al has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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