Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (French pronunciation: [tɔma sɑ̃kaʁa]; 21 December 1949 – 15 October 1987) was a Burkinabé military officer and socialist revolutionary who served as the President of Burkina Faso from his coup in 1983 to his deposition and killing in 1987. A Marxist–Leninist and pan-Africanist, he was viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution and is sometimes referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara".
After being appointed Prime Minister in 1983, disputes with the sitting government led to Sankara's eventual imprisonment. While he was under house arrest, a group of revolutionaries seized power on his behalf in a popularly-supported coup later that year.
Aged 33, Sankara became the President of the Republic of Upper Volta. He immediately launched programmes for social, ecological and economic change and renamed the country from the French colonial name Upper Volta to Burkina Faso ("Land of Incorruptible People"), with its people being called Burkinabé ("upright people"). His foreign policies were centred on anti-imperialism, while he rejected aid from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund. Sankara welcomed foreign aid from other sources but tried to reduce reliance on aid by boosting domestic revenues and diversifying the sources of assistance.
His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritising education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating more than 2 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. Between 18,000 and 50,000 children who died annually of measles and meningitis lived. Burkinabe built for the first time scores of schools, health centers, water reservoirs, and nearly 100 km of rail, with little or no external assistance. Total cereal production rose by 75% between 1983 and 1986.
Other components of his national agenda included planting over 10 million trees to combat the growing desertification of the Sahel, redistributing land from private landowners, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents and establishing a road and railway construction programme. On the local level, Sankara called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had pharmacies built in 5,384 out of 7,500 villages. From 1982-1984 the infant mortality rate dropped from 208 per 1,000 births to 145. School attendance under Sankara increased from 6% to 22%.
Moreover, he outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy. He appointed women to high governmental positions and encouraged them to work outside the home and stay in school, even if pregnant. Sankara encouraged the prosecution of officials accused of corruption, counter-revolutionaries and "lazy workers" in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. As an admirer of the Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Such programs led to criticism by Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations for violations of human rights, including extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions of political opponents.
His revolutionary programmes for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa's poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country's citizens. However, his policies alienated and antagonised several groups, which included the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders who were stripped of their long-held traditional privileges of forced labour and tribute payments, and the governments of France and its ally the Ivory Coast. Opposition parties and unions were banned and media freedoms curtailed. Striking teachers were fired and replaced by young people with no experience. On 15 October 1987, Sankara was assassinated by troops led by Blaise Compaoré, who assumed leadership of the state shortly after having Sankara killed.
A map showing the major cities of Burkina Faso
Thomas Sankara was born Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara on 21 December 1949 in Yako, French Upper Volta as the third of ten children to Joseph and Marguerite Sankara. His father, Joseph Sankara, a gendarme, was of mixed Mossi–Fulani (Silmi–Moaga) heritage while his mother, Marguerite Kinda, was of direct Mossi descent. He spent his early years in Gaoua, a town in the humid southwest to which his father was transferred as an auxiliary gendarme. As the son of one of the few African functionaries then employed by the colonial state, he enjoyed a relatively privileged position. The family lived in a brick house with the families of other gendarmes at the top of a hill overlooking the rest of Gaoua.
Sankara attended primary school at Bobo-Dioulasso. He applied himself seriously to his schoolwork and excelled in mathematics and French. He went to church often, and impressed with his energy and eagerness to learn, some of the priests encouraged Thomas to go on to seminary school once he finished primary school. Despite initially agreeing, he took the exam required for entry to the sixth grade in the secular educational system and passed. Thomas's decision to continue his education at the nearest lycée Ouezzin Coulibaly (named after a preindependence nationalist) proved to be a turning point. This step got him out of his father's household since the lycée was in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's commercial centre. At the lycée, Sankara made close friends, including Fidèle Too, whom he later named a minister in his government; and Soumane Touré, who was in a more advanced class.
His Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he chose to enter the military. The military was popular at the time, having just ousted a despised president. It was also seen by young intellectuals as a national institution that might potentially help to discipline the inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy, counterbalance the inordinate influence of traditional chiefs and generally help modernize the country. Besides, acceptance into the military academy would come with a scholarship; Sankara could not easily afford the costs of further education otherwise. He took the entrance exam and passed.
He entered the military academy of Kadiogo in Ouagadougou with the academy's first intake of 1966 at the age of 17. While there he witnessed the first military coup d'état in Upper Volta led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana (3 January 1966). The trainee officers were taught by civilian professors in the social sciences. Adama Touré, who taught history and geography and was known for having progressive ideas, even though he did not publicly share them, was the academic director at the time. He invited a few of his brightest and more political students, among them Sankara, to join informal discussions 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. Aside from his academic and extracurricular political activities, Sankara also pursued his passion for music and played the guitar.
In 1970, 20 year old Sankara went on for further military studies at the military academy of Antsirabe (Madagascar), from which he graduated as a junior officer in 1973. At the Antsirabe academy, the range of instruction went beyond standard military subjects, which allowed Sankara to study agriculture, including how to raise crop yields and better the lives of farmers—themes he later took up in his own administration and country. During that period, he read profusely on history and military strategy, thus acquiring the concepts and analytical tools that he would later use in his reinterpretation of Burkinabe political history.
After basic military training in secondary school in 1966, Sankara began his military career at the age of 19 and a year later was sent to Madagascar for officer training at Antsirabe where he witnessed popular uprisings in 1971 and 1972 against the government of Philibert Tsiranana and first read the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, profoundly influencing his political views for the rest of his life.
Returning to Upper Volta in 1972, he fought in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali by 1974. He earned fame for his heroic performance in the border war with Mali, but years later would renounce the war as "useless and unjust", a reflection of his growing political consciousness. He also became a popular figure in the capital of Ouagadougou. Sankara was a decent guitarist. He played in a band named "Tout-à-Coup Jazz" and rode a bicycle.
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 called the "Communist Officers' Group" (Regroupement des officiers communistes, or ROC), the best-known members being Henri Zongo, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Blaise Compaoré and Sankara.
Sankara was appointed Minister of Information in Saye Zerbo's military government in September 1981. Sankara differentiated himself from other government officials in many ways such as biking to work everyday, instead of driving in a car. While his predecessors would censor journalists and newspapers, Sankara encouraged investigative journalism and allowed the media to print whatever it found. This led to publications of government scandals by both privately-owned and state-owned newspapers. He resigned on 12 April 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 bâillonnent le peuple!).
After another coup (7 November 1982) brought to power Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, Sankara became Prime Minister in January 1983 but he was dismissed (17 May). In between those four months, Sankara pushed Ouédraogo's regime for more progressive reforms. Sankara was then arrested after the French President's African affairs adviser, Guy Penne, met with Col. Yorian Somé. Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani were also placed under arrest. The decision to arrest Sankara proved to be very unpopular with the younger officers in the military regime and his imprisonment created enough momentum for his friend Blaise Compaoré to lead another coup.
A coup d'état organised by Blaise Compaoré made Sankara President on 4 August 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's Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and Ghana's military leader 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 on 2 October 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.
On the first anniversary of his accession in 1984, he renamed the country Burkina Faso, meaning "the land of upright people" in Moré and Dyula, the two major languages of the country. He also gave it a new flag and wrote a new national anthem (Une Seule Nuit).
Health care and public works
Sankara's first priorities after taking office were feeding, housing and giving medical care to his people who desperately needed it. Sankara launched a mass vaccination program in an attempt to eradicate polio, meningitis and measles. From 1983 to 1985, 2 million Burkinabé were vaccinated.
Prior to Sankara’s presidency infant mortality in Burkina Faso was about 20.8%, during his presidency it fell to 14.5%. Sankara's administration was also the first African government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to Africa.
Large-scale housing and infrastructure projects were also undertaken. Brick factories were created to help build houses in effort to end urban slums. 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. These programs were an attempt to prove that African countries could be prosperous without foreign help or aid.
Sankara also launched education programs to help combat the country's 90% illiteracy rate. These programs had some success in the first few years. However, wide-scale teacher strikes, coupled with Sankara's unwillingness to negotiate, led to the creation of "Revolutionary Teachers". In an attempt to replace the nearly 2,500 teachers fired over a strike in 1987, anyone with a college degree was invited to teach through the revolutionary teachers program. Volunteers merely received a 10-day training course before beginning to teach.
People's Revolutionary Tribunals
Shortly after attaining power, Sankara constructed a system of courts known as the Popular Revolutionary Tribunal. The courts were created originally to try former government officials in a straightforward way so the average Burkinabé could participate in or oversee trials of enemies of the revolution. They placed defendants on trial for corruption, tax evasion or "counter-revolutionary" activity. Sentences for former government officials were light and often suspended. The tribunals have been alleged to have been only show trials, held very openly with oversight from the public.
According to the US State Department, procedures in these trials, especially legal protections for the accused, did not conform to international standards. Defendants had to prove themselves innocent of the crimes they were charged with committing and were not allowed to be represented by counsel. The courts were originally met with adoration from the Burkinabé people but over time became corrupt and oppressive. So called "lazy workers" were tried and sentenced to work for free or expelled from their jobs and discriminated against. Some even created their own courts to settle scores and humiliate their enemies.
Revolutionary Defense Committees
The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Burkina Faso) (Comités de Défense de la Révolution) were formed as mass armed organizations. The CDRs were created as a counterweight to the power of the army as well as to promote political and social revolution. The idea for the Revolutionary Defense Committees was taken from Fidel Castro, whose Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were created as a form of "revolutionary vigilance".
Sankara's CDRs overstepped their power, and were accused by some of thuggery and gang-like behavior. CDR groups would meddle in the everyday life of the Burkinabé. Individuals would use their power to settle scores or punish enemies. Sankara himself noted the failure publicly. The public placed blame for actions of individual CDRs squarely on Sankara. The failure of the CDRs, coupled with the failure of the Revolutionary Teachers program, mounting labour and middle class disdain as well as Sankara's steadfastness, led to the regime partially weakening within Burkina Faso.
Relations with the Mossi People
A point of contention regarding Sankara's rule is the way he handled the Mossi ethnic group. The Mossi are the most populous ethnic group in Burkina Faso, and they adhere to strict traditional hierarchical social systems. At the top of the hierarchy is the Morho Naba, the chief or king of the Mossi people. Sankara viewed the institution as an obstacle to national unity, and proceeded to demote the Mossi elites. The Morho Naba was not allowed to hold courts, and local village chiefs were stripped of their executive powers and given to the CDR.
Improving women's status in Burkinabé society was one of Sankara's explicit goals, and his government included a large number of women, an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. His government banned female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant. Sankara also promoted contraception and encouraged husbands to go to market and prepare meals to experience for themselves the conditions faced by women. Sankara recognized the challenges faced by African women when he gave his famous address to mark International Women's Day on 8 March 1987 in Ouagadougou. Sankara spoke to thousands of women in a highly political speech in which he stated that the Burkinabé Revolution was "establishing new social relations" which would be "upsetting the relations of authority between men and women and forcing each to rethink the nature of both. This task is formidable but necessary". Furthermore, Sankara was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to recruit them actively for the military.
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 the act was a violation of its sovereignty on the Agacher strip. Following efforts by Mali asking African leaders to pressure Sankara, tensions erupted on Christmas Day 1985 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.
The British development organisation Oxfam recorded the arrest of trade union leaders in 1987. In 1984, seven individuals associated with the previous régime were accused of treason and executed after a summary trial. A teachers' strike the same year resulted in the dismissal of 2,500 teachers; thereafter, non-governmental organisations and unions were harassed or placed under the authority of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, branches of which were established in each workplace and which functioned as "organs of political and social control".
Popular Revolutionary Tribunals, set up by the government throughout the country, placed defendants on trial for corruption, tax evasion or "counter-revolutionary" activity. Procedures in these trials, especially legal protections for the accused, did not conform to international standards. According to Christian Morrisson and Jean-Paul Azam of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the "climate of urgency and drastic action in which many punishments were carried out immediately against those who had the misfortune to be found guilty of unrevolutionary behaviour, bore some resemblance to what occurred in the worst days of the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror. Although few people were killed, violence was widespread".
Personal image and popularity
Accompanying his personal charisma, Sankara had an array of original initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some international media attention to his government:
Cuba rewarded Sankara with the highest honour of the state, the Order of Jose Marti.
- 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 first class airline tickets.
- He opposed foreign aid, saying that "He who feeds you, controls you".
- He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity against what he described as 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.
Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through will power, courage, honesty and work. What remains above all of my husband is his integrity.
— Mariam Sankara, Thomas' widow
- 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 Burkinabés.
- As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a refrigerator, and a broken freezer.
- He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabé cotton and sewn by Burkinabé 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 did not 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.
Africa's Che Guevara
Sankara is often referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara". Sankara gave a speech marking and honouring the 20th anniversary of Che Guevara's 9 October 1967 execution, one week before his own assassination on 15 October 1987.
On 15 October 1987, Sankara was killed by an armed group with twelve other officials in a coup d'état organized by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. When accounting for his overthrow, Compaoré stated that Sankara jeopardized foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast, and accused his former comrade of plotting to assassinate opponents.
Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord allied to Charles Taylor and killer of the Liberian president Samuel Doe, told Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission 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.
According to Halouna Traoré, the sole survivor of Sankara's assassination, Sankara was attending a meeting with the Conseil de l'Entente. His assassins singled out Sankara and executed him. The assassins then shot at those attending the meeting, killing 12 other people. Sankara's body was riddled with bullets to the back and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation. Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalizations, overturned nearly all of Sankara's policies, rejoined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to bring in "desperately needed" funds to restore the "shattered" economy and ultimately spurned most of Sankara's legacy. Compaoré's dictatorship remained in power for 27 years until it was overthrown by popular protests in 2014.
In 2016, the Burkina Faso government officially asked the French government to release military documents on the killing of Sankara after his widow accused France of masterminding his assassination.
34 years after Sankara's assassination, former president Compaoré and 13 others have been indicted and will be tried for complicity in the murder of Sankara as well as other crimes in the coup.  This development has come as part of the current President of Burkina Faso, Roch Kaboré's framework of 'national reconciliation'. 
The exhumation of what are believed to be the remains of Sankara was started on African Liberation Day, 25 May 2015. Once exhumed, the family would formally identify the remains, a long-standing demand of his family and supporters. Permission for an exhumation was denied during the rule of his successor, Blaise Compaoré. In October 2015, one of the lawyers for Sankara's widow Mariam reported that the autopsy had revealed that Sankara's body was "riddled" with "more than a dozen" bullets.
20 years after his assassination, Sankara was commemorated on 15 October 2007 in ceremonies that took place in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Tanzania, Burundi, France, Canada and the United States.
A statue of Sankara was unveiled in 2019, however due to complaints that it did not match his facial features a new statue was unveiled a year later.
List of works
- Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983–87, Pathfinder Press: 1988. ISBN 0-87348-527-0.
- We Are the Heirs of the World's Revolutions: Speeches from the Burkina Faso Revolution 1983–87, Pathfinder Press: 2007. ISBN 0-87348-989-6.
- Women's Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle, Pathfinder Press: 1990. ISBN 0-87348-585-8.