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.
- 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.
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!