Our dear Brother Sankara
Thomas Sankara Former Leader of Burkina Faso
by Désiré-Joseph Katihabwa
Sunday, 3 May 2009
Captain Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (December 21, 1949 – October 15, 1987) was the leader of 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 led by Blaise Compaoré on October 15, 1987, sometimes believed to have been at the instruction of France.
Thomas Sankara 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. According to some sources, he never lost his Catholic faith despite his Marxist tendencies. Fittingly for a country with a large Muslim population, he was also familiar with the Qur’an.
After basic military training in secondary school in 1966, Sankara began his military career at the age of 19, and a year later he was sent to Madagascar for officer training at Antsirabe where he witnessed popular uprisings in 1971 and 1972. Returning to Upper Volta in 1972, in 1974 he fought in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali.
He became a popular figure in the capital of Ouagadougou. The fact that he was a decent guitarist (he played in a band named “Tout-à-Coup Jazz”) and liked motorbikes may have contributed to his charisma.
In 1976 he became commander of the Commando Training Centre in Pô. In the same year he met Blaise Compaoré in Morocco. During the presidency of Colonel Saye Zerbo a group of young officers formed a secret organisation “Communist Officers’ Group” (Regroupement des officiers communistes, or ROC) the best-known members being Henri Zongo, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Compaoré and Sankara.
Sankara was appointed Secretary of State for Information in the 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!” (“Malheur à ceux qui baillonnent le peuple!”)
After another coup (November 7, 1982) brought to power Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, Sankara became prime minister in January 1983, but he was dismissed (May 17) and placed under house arrest after a visit by the French president’s son and African affairs adviser Jean-Christophe Mitterrand. Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani were also placed under arrest; this caused a popular uprising.
A coup d’état organised by Blaise Compaoré made Sankara President on August 4, 1983, at the age of 33. The coup d’état was supported by Libya which was, at the time, on the verge of war with France in Chad (see History of Chad).
Sankara saw himself as a revolutionary and was inspired by the examples of Cuba and Ghana’s military leader, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings. As President, he promoted the “Democratic and Popular Revolution” (Révolution démocratique et populaire, or RDP).
The ideology of the Revolution was defined by Sankara as anti-imperialist in a speech of October 2, 1983, the Discours d’orientation politique (DOP), written by his close associate Valère Somé. His policy was oriented toward fighting corruption, promoting reforestation, averting famine, and making education and health real priorities.
Abolition of chiefs’ privileges
The government suppressed many of the powers held by tribal chiefs such as their right to receive tribute payment and obligatory labour. The CDRs (Comités de Défense de la Révolution) were formed as popular mass organizations and armed. In some areas they deteriorated into gangs of armed thugs. Sankara’s government also initiated a form of military conscription with the SERNAPO (Service National et Populaire). Both were a counterweight to the power of the army.
In 1984, on the first anniversary of his accession, he renamed the country Burkina Faso, meaning “the land of upright people” in Mossi and Djula, the two major languages of the country. He also gave it a new flag and wrote a new national anthem (Une Seule Nuit).
Sankara’s government included a large number of women. Improving women’s status was one of Sankara’s explicit goals, an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. His government banned female genital cutting, condemned polygamy, and promoted contraception. The Burkinabé government was also the first African government to publicly recognize AIDS as a major threat to Africa.
Sankara had some original initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some international media attention to the Burkinabé revolution:
* He sold most of 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 formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard. * In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country).
Second Agacher strip war
In 1985 Burkina Faso organised a general population census. During the census some Fula camps in Mali were visited by mistake by Burkinabé census agents. The Malian government claimed that it was an act of sovereignty on the Agacher strip and on Christmas Day 1985, tensions with Mali erupted in a war that lasted five days and killed about 100 people (most victims were civilians killed by a bomb dropped on the marketplace in Ouahigouya by a Malian MiG plane). The conflict is known as the “Christmas war” in Burkina Faso.
On October 15, 1987 Sankara was killed with twelve other officials in a coup d’état organised by his former colleague, Compaoré. Deterioration in relations with neighbouring countries was one of the reasons given by Compaoré for his action. Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord allied to Charles Taylor, told Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that it was engineered by Charles Taylor. After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days.
Sankara was quickly buried in an unmarked grave. A week prior to his death Sankara addressed people and said that “while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
Désiré-Joseph Katihabwa - Sunday, 3 May 2009
Writings by Thomas Sankara
L’émancipation des femmes et la lutte de libération de l’Afrique (Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle),
We Are Heirs of the World’s Revolutions
Thomas Sankara Speaks, the Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983-87, a 448-page collection of Sankara’s speeches
Quotes “We hope and believe that the best way of limiting the usurpation of power by individuals, military or otherwise, is to put the people in charge. Between fractions, between clans, plots and coups d’etats can be perpetrated. Against the people, a durable coup d’état cannot be perpetrated. Therefore, the best way of preventing the army from confiscating power for itself and for itself alone is to make this power shared by the voltaic people from the outset. That’s what we are aiming for..”
August 21, 1983 press conference.
“It’s really a pity that there are observers who view political events like comic strips. There has to be a Zorro, there has to be a star. No, the problem of Upper Volta is more serious than that. It was a grave mistake to have looked for a man, a star, at all costs, to the point of creating one, that is, to the point of attributing the ownership of the event to captain Sankara, who must have been the brains, etc.”
August 21, 1983 press conference.
“That is the hidden side of November 7 revealed. Mysteries still remain under the cover. History will perhaps be able to speak about it at greater length and to assign responsibilities more clearly.”
August 21, 1983 press conference.
“As for our relationship with the political class, what relations would you have liked us to weave? We explained face to face, directly with the leaders, the former leaders of the former political parties because, for us, these parties do not exist any more, they have been dissolved. And that is very clear. The relationship that we have with them is simply the relationship we have with voltaic citizens, or, if they so wish, the relationship between revolutionaries, if they wish to become revolutionaries. Beyond that, nothing remains but the relationship between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries.”
August 21, 1983 press conference.
“I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory[....] You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. [...] We must dare to invent the future.”
Source: (Excerpt from interviews with Swiss Journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp, translated from Sankara: Un nouveau pouvoir africain by Jean Ziegler. Lausanne, Switzerland: Editions Pierre-Marcel Favre, 1986. Used by permission in following source Sankara, Thomas. Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87. trans. Samantha Anderson. New York: Pathfinder, 1988. pp. 141-144.
“A military without political training is a potential criminal.”
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