Sankara: The Upright Leader of Burkina Faso

 After Upper Volta gained independence from France in 1960, its citizens suffered under a series of incompetent and corrupt leaders. Although "independent," these presidents still served their former colonial overlords in order to personally benefit at the expense of their people, who continued to suffer from poverty, the world's highest infant mortality rate, and a literacy rate of less than 10%. To these presidents like Jean-Baptiste Oudraogo, the people of Upper Volta were merely seen as a source of cheap labor for The Ivory Coast, a resourceful region below Upper Volta widely exploited by the French. 

This was the state of affairs of Upper Volta when Thomas Sankara returned home from his military training in Madagascar, where he was strongly influenced by the grassroots, student and worker-led uprisings that toppled the corrupt government. His eloquence and straightforward anti-imperialist agenda put him at odds with the ruling elites of Upper Volta and was imprisoned shortly after his return in 1983. People all over the country protested in defense of Sankara, who they looked up to as an inspirational leader. Blaise Compaore and a group of soldiers freed Sankara and peacefully transferred the country's leadership to Sankara in a bloodless coup. 

Thomas Sankara took this opportunity to form the National Council of Revolution (NCR) and enact a series of unprecedented reforms that would utterly transform the economic, social, and political landscape of his country. To emphasize this fresh start, he changed the name of the country from Upper Volta, which denoted the colonialism era, to Burkina Faso, which in the indigenous language of Mossi, means "The Land of Upright People."

He made it a point to start new policies and reforms with himself and his fellow government officials before expecting his people to put them to practice. To show his sincere dedication to the revolutionary cause, he immediately reduced the salaries of all ministers and chief public servants including himself. He also got rid of all the luxury vehicles that the ruling class was accustomed to driving. Actually, according to Ernest Ouedraogo, Sankara's security minister, "At first he wanted to provide one vehicle for every two ministers. We said that would be really difficult to manage. So he understood and assigned us each a Renault 5- the cheapest vehicle available in Burkina at the time." 

According to Journalist Paula Akugizbwe, "The president of Burkina Faso rode a bike to work before he upgraded at his cabinet's insistence, to a Renault 5." Paula goes on to say, "He lived in a small brick house and wore only cotton that was produced, weaved, and sewn in Burkina Faso." Sankara also made his ministers travel economy rather than first class. As he is famously known for saying, "Whether you are in first-class or economy, when the plane takes off, you all take off together. When the plane lands, you all land together." 

The actions Sankara immediately took after becoming president sharply contrasted those of his predecessors who exploited the country's resources and lived luxuriously. It is recorded that his monthly salary was just $450 at the time of his death, and all he had in his possession was a modest car, a refrigerator, and a couple of guitars and bicycles. In his biography of Sankara, Ernest Harsch states, "He was the first among top leadership to voluntarily declare his modest assets and hand over to the treasury cash and gifts received during trips."

His first major reform was agrarian. The country as a whole was suffering from food insecurity, malnutrition, and heavily depended on imported food aid from outside. Sankara brought to everyone's attention why this dependency was detrimental to the country.

"Our country produces enough food to feed us all. We can even produce more than we need. Out of a lack of organization, we still need to beg for food aid. This type of assistance is counterproductive. It has kept us thinking that we can only be beggars who need aid. We must put aside this type of aid and succeed in producing more. We must produce more! Because the one who feeds you usually imposes his will upon you. Let's consume what we can control!"

Sankara mobilized his people to participate in mass irrigation and fertilization projects. He also shook the foundations of the feudal power traditional chiefs had over farmers. Through raising awareness of the importance of self-sufficiency, mobilizing the Burkinabe people in mass irrigation and fertilization projects, as well as stripping away feudal control over farmers, Sankara succeeded in achieving food self-sufficiency for Burkina Faso in an incredibly short amount of time.

Jean Ziegler, the UN reporter for feeding rights summarizes Sankara's success in the following message:

"1700 kg of wheat per hectare (2.5 acres) is the average for the Sahel region in Africa. In 1986, just a few years into Sankara's presidency, Burkina Faso was already producing over 3900 kg of wheat per hectare. Consequently one can say that in Africa, with an agrarian reform that meant a transfer of property, with traditional land-owners losing their powers and not receiving taxes anymore, further with an irrigation and fertilization program, you can succeed. Hunger was a thing of the past. Sankara made Burkina Faso reach self-sufficiency in less than 4 years. So it is quite exceptional and remarkable."

Furthermore, in his biography of Sankara, Ernest Harsh states, "Total cereal production rose by 75% between 1983 and 1986." Now that his people could adequately produce their own food, he sought to empower the women of his nation. He understood the fundamental role they played in building the country and brought this matter to the center of the revolution.

He addressed this concern in many speeches, one of which he was recorded to have said, "There is something crucial missing: women. They have been excluded from the joyful procession..the revolution's promises are already a reality for men. But for women, they are still merely a rumor. And yet the authenticity and the future of our revolution depends on women."

According to Journalist Marie Orger Biloa, "Sankara was the first African head of state to appoint women to government positions other than minister for women's affairs."  Sankara questioned the validity of patriarchal practices and actively promoted women's rights. This is why many have referred to his reforms as a cultural revolution.

He said, "We must find a job for every woman in this country. We must give women the means to earn an honest and decent living." It became the new normal to see women in the government, the military, and in other official positions equal to their male counterparts. 

His advocacy for women did not end with job promotions, he called for policy change in long-standing cultural practices as well. One of the students of the revolution Gervais Oudraogo mentioned, "There really was a policy that raised the rights and status of women in Burkina Faso's traditional society in order to break away from practices like forced marriages, general mutilation, and the fact that men were all-powerful over their family. Sankara fought against all of these backward practices."

On the first Women's day- March 8th of his campaign, Sankara switched things up. A primary school teacher Lydia Traore explains, "Sankara said things had to work the other way around. Rather than women, men had to go to the market. We saw them buying all the foods necessary for the day's cooking. It was great! We were laughing and even the men enjoyed it too."

Making his country self-sufficient and raising the social and economic status of women in Burkina Faso were in themselves, major accomplishments. But Sankara refused to stop leading his people towards progress. At a time when many diseases like polio, measles, and meningitis were affecting Africans in the region, Sankara launched a huge vaccination campaign. In a record time of one week, he got 2.5 million Burkinabes vaccinated!  Impressed by this accomplishment, the World Health Organization officially congratulated him for this remarkable success. 

Sankara is known for saying "A healthy mind in a healthy body." According to Sankara, the revolution not only depended on the intellectual awakening of his people, but their physical well-being as well. He launched a nationwide campaign to promote sports activities in every sector of society. Once a week, people all over the country took part in a collective sporting activity whether it was soccer, cycling, or another activity. He actively participated in these collective sporting activities with the army, government officials or casually jumping in a game in the villages. This new policy not only kept Burkinabes healthy, it also brought people together and kept revolutionary spirits high. 

To our astonishment, Sankara's journey of reforms kept moving forward. In the 1980's, Africa experienced one of its most severe droughts in history. That combined with the rapid encroachment of the Sahara desert in the Sahel region made Burkina Faso vulnerable to desertification. As a result, Sankara became the first president in history to launch a campaign against desertification, known as the One Village One Grove operation. Starting with the capital of Ouagadougou, he encouraged every village to mark social occasions by planting trees with the goal of creating forests in the outskirts of the city. 

The One Village One Grove operation developed nationwide awareness of environmental conservation. Sankara underlined the direct link between the struggle against desertification to the struggle against imperialism. In fact, when Sankara attended the First International Tree and Forest Conference in Paris in 1986, he made his message very clear to the international community.

"Colonialism has pillaged our forests without the least thought of replenishing them for our tomorrows. Our struggle to defend the trees and the forest is first and foremost a democratic struggle that must be waged by the people. The sterile and expensive excitement of a handful of engineers and forestry experts will accomplish nothing! Nor can the tender consciences of a multitude of forums and institutions, sincere and praiseworthy though they may be, make the Sahel free again, when we lack the funds to drill wells for drinking water just a 100 meters deep, and money abounds to drill oil wells 3 thousand meters deep!"

As journalist Ama Biney states, "Little credit and appreciation has been given to Sankara's foresight in his understanding of climate change issues that have now gained greater global understanding and awareness. He was at the forefront of this understanding." In total, approximately 10 million trees were planted during this operation. The success of this operation illustrates the commitment of the Burkinabe to their leader who told them, "Defending trees and the forest is above all a struggle against imperialism." 

Sankara did not dedicate himself solely to the well-being of Burkina Faso, but to all of Africa, the African Diaspora, and the entire international community that shared his values and interests. At the conference of the Organization of African Unity in 1987, Sankara urged his fellow African leaders to unite against the debt unjustly imposed by neo-colonial powers. He said, "Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa. It is a reconquest that turns each one of us into a financial slave." He clarified the fact that the debt was the result of colonialism. "Those who led us into debt were gambling, as if they were in a casino..there is talk of a crisis. NO. They gambled. They lost..we cannot repay the debt because we have nothing to pay it with. We cannot repay the debt because it is not our responsibility." 

Few in number are leaders who passionately articulate truth to power as Sankara did during his entire political career. He never compromised the integrity of his message even in the face of powerful leaders, nations and institutions. He even challenged the structures of the United Nations, criticising the inherent unfairness of the Security Council and their exclusive right to veto in a speech he delivered at the General Assembly in 1984.

"We propose that the structure of the UN be changed to put an end to the scandal surrounding the right to veto. It is true that the most diabolical effects of its abuse have been offset by the vigilance of certain of those who hold this right. Nothing, however, can justify such a right neither the size of the country that has it nor the wealth that country might possess. Let there be an end to the arrogance of big powers who miss no opportunity to put the rights of people in question. Africa's absence from the club of those who have the right to veto is unjust and should end." 

Only some of Sankara's reforms and achievements have been mentioned here. In reality, there is so much more that he accomplished in just the four years he had in power. I am not claiming that he was a perfect leader. Inevitably all leaders have their share of flaws. But as author Ernest Harsch mentions in his book, "His style of leadership was in a league of his own." What leader do you know of was a military commander, environmentalist, feminist, socialist, anti-imperialist, Pan-African, intellectual, orator, cyclist, guittarist, and revolutionary all in one? 

Sankara was assassinated on October 15th, 1987 by a coup led by the man who would become Burkina Faso's dictator for the next 27 years. Blaize Compaore with the help of the French government, aggressively destroyed everything that Sankara and the Burkinabe people had built together from scratch, and reestablished the country’s subservient and cooperative role under its former colonizer. However, as Sankara is known for saying, "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."

On the morning of Octuber 30th, 2014, 27 years after his assassination, Sankara's revolutionary spirit was rekindled in the hearts and minds of the Burkinabe people who flooded the streets of Oagadougou in a mass uprising that ended Campaore's rule. The uprising was led by young people who grew up on stories about Sankara. Despite not being alive during his revolution, Sankara embodied their highest aspirations. On that victorious day for Burkina Faso, Sankara's name was on the banner and lips of everyone who stormed the parliament buildings. Revive the revolutionary spirit of Sankara through the Sankara A-rag! 

I hope that you learned something new from this feature. As I wrote earlier, this is just a teaser, because there really is a lot more to learn about this leader and his contributions to the world. He cared little about recognition except when praising the efforts of his people. That is why he went to the extent of banning presidential portraits in public buildings and discouraged crowds from chanting his name. Despite being relatively unknown in the West, as we saw in 2014, his legacy continues to inspire people all over the world. Unfortunately, most resources including books, articles, and video recordings of his speeches are in French. However, there is still a significant variety of resources available in English which are listed below. 



- Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987 2nd Edition

by Thomas Sankara

- Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary by Ernest Harsch

- A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics, and Legacies of Thomas Sankara by Amber Murrey

- Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest, and Revolution by Ernest Harsch

Articles and Transcripts of his Speeches:
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