Thomas Sankara (1949-1987)

Today Africa is ruled by capitalist leaders, corrupt to the core and mostly undemocratic in nature. Many African nations remain poor, although Africa is one the richest continent of the planet. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest African nations. A landlocked nation, it is surrounded by six countries: Mali to the north; Niger to the east; Benin to the south east; Togo and Ghana to the south; and Ivory Coast to the south west. The name Burkina Faso was giving by a revolutionary leader, the African Che Guevara: Thomas Sankara! 

Sankara was born in 1949, in a Roman Catholic family. He attended primary school in Gaoua and high school in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second city. Thomas father had fought for the French during world war two and was captured by the Germans. When Thomas was born, his father and mother wanted him to become a Catholic priest. Fittingly for a country with a large Muslim population, he was also familiar with the Islamic Koran! 

After basic military training at his secondary school, Thomas Sankara joined the Army of Upper Volta in 1966. The Republic of Upper Volta became independent of France in 1960. Between 1960 and 1983, Upper Volta had a mixture of military and civilian governments. All claimed to be African nationalist and populist, but in reality they did nothing to help the poor and the working class. Thomas Sankara became a revolutionary when he began to read the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. For Sankara its was Marxist socialism in which he saw his future!

Most African nations became ''socialist'' after their independence. Nations like Tanzania tried to build an African style socialism. But like Russian stalinism, this African-socialism was plagued with the same bureaucratic inefficiency. Workers were not giving a voice and were told what to do. The African-socialists believed in a top down socialism, which proofed not to work. Unfortunate Thomas Sankara would make the same mistakes as other African revolutionaries! 

Sankara was appointed Secretary of State for Information in a military government in September 1981, journeying to his first cabinet meeting on a bicycle, but he resigned on April 21, 1982 in opposition to what he saw as the regime's anti-labour drift, declaring "Misfortune to those who gag the people!". In 1983 a group of soldiers around Blaise Compaoré, organized a second military coup and made Thomas Sankara, president of the Republic of Upper Volta!

At the age of 33, Thomas Sankara was among the youngest head of states in Africa. He saw his presidency as a change to bring social justice to his poor nation. As president he changed the name of the nation to Burkina Faso and the ideology of his revolution was defined by Sankara as anti-imperialist in a speech on 2 October 1983. His policy was oriented toward fighting corruption, promoting reforestation, averting famine, and making education and health real priorities!

Accompanying his personal charisma, Sankara had an array of original initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some international media attention to the Burkinabé revolution:

  • 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 well-off public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets.
  • He redistributed land from the feudal landlords to the peasants. Wheat production increased from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the country food self-sufficient.
  • He opposed foreign aid, saying that "he who feeds you, controls you''
  • He spoke 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.
  • In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army's provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country).
  • He forced well-off civil servants to pay one month's salary to public projects.
  • He 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.
  • As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.
Unlike many other African ''socialist'' leaders. Sankara was very moderate and his life style was not that of a typical military president. His life style was far more closer to that of a genuine socialist leader.
  • A motorcyclist himself, he formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard.
  • He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen.
  • He was known for jogging unaccompanied through Ouagadougou in his track suit and posing in his tailored military fatigues, with his mother-of-pearl pistol.
  • 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.
Western imperialism was not happy with this revolutionary leader. Soon the imperialists would use the mistakes of Thomas Sankara against him. But Sankara was not to be stopped. Burkina Faso left the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Sankara said that these organisations were capitalist in nature and not helping Africa. As a internationalist, he also supported other Africans who struggled against capitalism and imperialism!

A close ally of Burkina Faso  was the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Muammar Gaddafi supported the young Sankara. Also Gaddafi claimed that Burkina Faso could become the second Jamahiriyan nation after Libya!

But Thomas Sankara made one big mistake. Like many revolutionaries he did not trusted independent working class action. He did not believed in workers self-management and socialism from below. Like Fidel Castro, Thomas Sankara created committees to defend his revolution. He wanted these committees to be the voice of the people and his revolution. But soon the committees became a police force of the government. Just like the committees of the Cuban revolution, the committees of Sankara became authoritarian and started to arrest people who were critical of the military ''revolutionary'' government!

Soon the left-wing of Burkina Faso no longer supported the military government of Sankara. Many trade unionists believed that Burkina Faso was turning into a dictatorship like Cuba. Blaise Compaoré and the old guard saw that the nation was turning against Thomas Sankara. Compaoré and France made a deal to dispose Sankara and to end his ''socialist'' revolution. On October 15, 1987 the counter revolution began!

Twelve armed officers under Blaise Compaoré leadership entered the presidential palace. They murdered Thomas Sankara and claimed it was an accident. Deterioration in relations with neighbouring countries was one of the reasons given for the counter-revolutionary coup. Blaise Compaoré said that Sankara jeopardised foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast. Like Ernesto Che Guevara, Thomas Sankara was executed by supporters of western imperialism. Blaise Compaoré became the new president of Burkina Faso. He made peace with capitalism and rejoined the IMF and the World Bank. Soon all revolutionary principals of Thomas Sankara were reversed! 

By 1991 most socialist principals of Sankara were gone, replaced by the law of greed and exploitation. Blaise Compaoré created a multi-party state, but made sure he would win every election. Today in the year 2013, Blaise Compaoré is still president of Burkina Faso. The socialist emblem of the nation ( created by Thomas Sankara ) was replaced by the old emblem of Upper Volta in 1997. Only the flag and name of the nation are a reminder of Thomas Sankara, the African Che Guevara, murdered for his socialist believes! 

France and capitalism knew how to play on the mistakes of Sankara. We revolutionary socialists know that you cannot build socialism top down. Like Fidel Castro, Thomas Sankara tried to do just that. In the end his revolution turned dictatorial, the mighty trade unions turned against him and so did the left-wing. Thomas Sankara was then murdered by his own officers. His revolution lasted only four years. Today Burkina Faso is a typical African nation, corrupt and poor. Mercedes are again government cars, the capitalists exploit workers and income inequality is high!

A week before he was murdered, Sankara said ''While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas''. We revolutionary socialists agree with him on that. Blaise Compaoré may have murdered him, but his socialist ideals will never die. For genuine socialism to work, you need massive class conscious. Workers of Africa must understand what capitalism is and how socialism can work. This is the task for revolutionary socialists in Africa and around the world!

Thomas Sankara, HERO of Africa!

Struggle, Solidarity, Socialism

Struggle, Solidarity, Socialism