If there is a revolutionary that the continent mustn’t forget but also, always emulate. It is the pan-Africanist, Burkinabe revolutionary and President from 1983 to 1987. One may wonder what is worthy of emulation in Thomas Sankara. Well, in times like this when African is in dire need of exceptional leaders to turn her states around. Thomas Sankara is an ideal model to look up to in terms of governance, reformation and revolution.
The country called Burkina Faso is the name he gave his country formally referred to as the ‘Upper Volta’. Burkina Faso means ‘Land of Upright Men’ in Mossi and Dyula, the country’s two most widely spoken indigenous languages. Even though Thomas Sankara was the military leader of Burkina Faso which was a common feature among African nations as at the ’80s where coup d’état and counter-coups were the order of the day. He is a leader that history will always adore.
Some leaders in their khaki were impeccable even in their autocratic dispensation. Thomas Sankara born and raised in a Catholic family, his parent wanted that he attended a seminary school and become a priest. The young lad then opted for a military career from which his life turned around. During his officer training in Madagascar, he witnessed a popular uprising of students and workers that succeeded in toppling the government. Before returning to Upper Volta in 1972, Sankara attended a parachute academy in France, where he was further exposed to left-wing political ideologies. In 1974 he earned much public attention for his heroic performance in the border war with Mali, but years later he would renounce the war as useless and unjust.
As a ruler of the country, there were some notable reforms he embarked upon that unveils the deeds of a true leader. One that had good extreme chemistry with the masses. He was, without a doubt, a Marxist. After witnessing so many revolutionary struggles and being taught by Adama Touré, the academic director who taught history and geography and was known for having progressive ideas, even though he did not publicly share them. Thomas Sankara alongside his colleagues had informal discourse about imperialism, neocolonialism, socialism and communism, the Soviet and Chinese revolutions, the liberation movements in Africa and similar topics outside of the classroom. This was the first time Sankara was systematically exposed to a revolutionary perspective on Upper Volta and the world.
One might begin to ask what is it make Thomas Sankara an unforgettable leader. Without further ado, let get into it.
He introduced fairness and equality in the distribution of wealth by stripping off the right of payment tribute to feudal lords and land distributed among the peasantry. This in effect, raised the standard of living for the average Burkinabe and led to food sufficiency through agriculture coupled with a series of irrigation and fertilization programs instituted by the government. During this time, production of cotton and wheat increased dramatically. While the average wheat production for the Sahel region was 1,700 kilograms per hectare (1,500 lb/acre) in 1986, Burkina Faso was producing 3,900 kilograms per hectare (3,500 lb/acre) of wheat the same year. This success meant Sankara had not only shifted his country into food self-sufficiency but had, in turn, created a food surplus. Sankara also emphasized the production of cotton and the need to transform the cotton produced in Burkina Faso into clothing for the people.
He declined foreign aid and loans from the international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank in view that “he who feeds you, controls you”. At the Organisation of African Union council meeting, he spoke against neo-colonialism through western trade and finance and obliged other African states to repudiate foreign debt. 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. As Head of State, 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. And also, 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.
Thoma Sankara’s administration embarked radically on women emancipation and empowerment. He outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy in support of Women’s rights and appointed women to high governmental positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education. He also formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard.
In the sphere of healthcare, he miraculously vaccinated 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles in a matter of weeks.He initiated a nation-wide literacy campaign, increasing the literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987. He also created the first supermarket in the country which used to be an army provisioning store in Ouagadougou which he converted to a state-owned store open to all. Large-scale housing and infrastructure projects were also undertaken. Brick factories were created to help build houses in an effort to end urban slums.
He was also an environmentalist who cares about the nature of the earth. In an attempt to fight deforestation, The People’s Harvest of Forest Nurseries was created to supply 7,000 village nurseries, as well as organizing the planting of several million trees. All regions of the country were soon connected by a vast road- and rail-building program. Over 700 km (430 mi) of rail was laid by Burkinabé people to facilitate manganese extraction in “The Battle of the Rails” without any foreign aid or outside money.
In this light, he impacted in every Burkinabe a sense of social development whereby he called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour. He also forced well-off civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects.
However, every leader has their flaws and Thomas Sankara wouldn’t be exempted of hindering democratic practices. As Head of State of Burkina Faso, he was accused of violations of human rights, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and torture of political opponents.
Sankara exerted authoritarian control over the nation. He eventually banned unions and a free press. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also prosecuted alleged corrupt officials, counter-revolutionaries and “lazy workers” in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro‘s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). Some members of the CDR abused their power in settling grudges and personal scores, an abuse of power even Sankara admitted was a big problem.
Nevertheless, it can’t be disregarded that Burkina Faso witnessed a radical economic and social growth and development during Thomas Sankara’s regime. One might begin to wonder why many African nations are degrading these times. Even democracy hasn’t liberated the people of the continent. It is a fact that leaders play a vital role in the advancement of nation and nations that are progressing owes partly to sincere and worthy leadership.
Africa is in dire need of visionary leaders that can lift her out of oppression and make it an impetus for the development of the nation at all cost. Most of African nations in their democratic dispensation provides a 4-5 years mandate for an elected president and yet, don’t make meaningful change even after a second mandate. Here is proof that one mandate is enough to witness a reasonable measure of impactful transformation in any African natio