Profile of an Honest Man: Thomas Sankara (Dec 21, 1949 – Oct 15, 1987)
Captain Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was born on December 21, 1949.
He was the son of Marguerite Sankara (died March 6, 2000) and Sambo Joseph Sankara (1919 – August 4, 2006), a Gendarme. Born into a Roman Catholic family, “Thom’Sank” was a Silmi-Mossi, an ethnic group that originated with marriage between Mossi men and women of the pastoralist Fulani people. The Silmi-Mossi are among the least advantaged in the Mossi caste system. He attended primary school in Gaoua and high school in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second city.
His father fought in the French army during World War II and was detained by the Nazis. Sankara’s family wanted him to become a Catholic priest. Fittingly for a country with a large Muslim population, he was also familiar with the Qur’an.
Thomas led Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta) from 1983 to 1987. While noted for his personal charisma and praised for promoting health and women’s rights, he also antagonised many vested interests in the country. He was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état on October 15, 1987. Thomas Sankara is the leader of the Burkina Faso revolution movement, and is a most worthy heir of all the progressive revolutions of the world.
Where corruption is rife, there is much talk about policy and less manifestation of policy. Thomas Sankara’s name will inscribed in the pages of history as a how-to guide for leaders to mean what they say about policy-formation meant to develop the people. In just four years, he completely transformed the face of Burkina society with relevant practical policies that addressed the realities of Burkinabes. When he spoke to them about improving women’s statuses, he meant it and proved it. When he spoke about self-pride, self-reliance, economic independence, resource-nationalism, investing power in the peasant class; he meant all these things and proved it. Thomas inspired Burkinabes not only with his charismatic speeches and political poems, but by his exemplary and pragmatic leadership. A number of his policies were a first, by any African government.
Sankara’s leadership was hugely successful, largely due to the sheer honesty, practicality, and relevance of his leadership. His policies were policies were hugely welcomed because they addressed the people’s economic and social needs – men and women folk alike. He stressed equality and harmony between gender, and inspired a people to repudiate neo-liberal development strategies imposed by colonial powers, in a post-colonial ‘land of upright people’. Policies that gave an illusion of ‘aid’, while leaving the poor devastatingly indebted.
Below, are outlined examples of Sankara’s honesty…
He opened up his government to include a large number of women – an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. He was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to recruit them actively for the military. He spoke a lot and wrote frequently, on how important improving women’s status was to him, and should be for the triumph of Burkina society.
He banned 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.
He promoted contraception and encouraged husbands to go to market and prepare meals, to experience for themselves the deplorable conditions faced by women, who not only struggled against the racial nature of oppression, but the gender nature of oppression.
He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers. He reduced the salaries of all public servants, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets. As President, he lowered his salary to only $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. He forced civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects, and 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.
He redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it directly to the peasants. Wheat production rose in just three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, preventing famine and making the country food self-sufficient. He suspended rural rural poll taxes and domestic rents; and established an ambitious road and rail construction program, to “tie the nation together”. He achieved this without foreign assistance, but by relying on the resourcefulness, commitment and labour of Burkinabes.
In Ouagadougou, he converted the army’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country). He called on every village to build their own dispensary, and inspired over 350 communities to build schools with their own labour, encouraging values of self-reliance, and a working class ideal. His government suppressed many of the powers held by tribal chiefs such as their right to receive tribute payment and obligatory labour.
He prioritized education with a nation-wide literacy campaign, and promoted public health by vaccinating over 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, in a week – a world record. His, was also the first government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidermic as a major threat to Africa. He planted over ten million trees to retain soil and halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, making him one of Africa’s first environmentalists. He promoted local textile industry and cotton production, by required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen.
He nationalised all land and mineral wealth and averted the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. He opposed foreign aid, saying that “he who feeds you, controls you.” He spoke eloquently in forums like the Organization of African Unity against continued neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. He called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.
He was known for jogging unaccompanied through Ouagadougou in his track suit. A motorcyclist himself, he formed an active all-women motorcycle personal guard. When asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.” An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself, and changed the name of the country in honour of its two major native languages - Moore and Dioula, from Republic of Upper Volta, to Burkina Faso.
Thomas identified with all global liberation movements, especially those of the Third World.
“Our revolution in Burkina Faso draws on the totality of man’s experiences since the first breath of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all the revolutions of the world, of all the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World. We draw the lessons of the American revolution. The French revolution taught us the rights of man. The great October revolution brought victory to the proletariat and made possible the realization of the Paris Commune’s dreams of justice.”
He also identified with Che Guevara not only in style, but substance. He referred to Che as a partner in building a “free world”.
“Che Guevara taught us we could dare to have confidence in ourselves, confidence in our abilities. He instilled in us the conviction that struggle is our only recourse. He, was a citizen of the free world that together we are in the process of building. That is why we say that Che Guevara is also African and Burkinabè”
“Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through will power, courage, honesty and work. What remains above all of my husband is his integrity.”
— Mariam Sankara, Thomas’ widow
Thomas passed away on Oct 15, 1987. He was nearly 38.
With love, for the memory of Thomas. Xx