Thomas Sankara, often referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara” was the president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. He seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power.
Sankara’s foreign policies were centered around anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid because, as he often said, “he who feeds you, controls you.” He pushed for debt reduction and nationalized all land and mineral wealth, averting the power and influence of the IMF and World Bank.
His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nation-wide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children. And his was the first African government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to Africa.
Thomas Sankara was an extraordinary man.
He outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy and was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and actively recruit them for the military. A motorcyclist himself, he formed an all-woman motorcycle personal guard.
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 lowered his salary, as President, to only $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, and a refrigerator.
He planted over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel and established an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together.”
He was known for jogging unaccompanied through the capital city in his track suit and posing in his tailored military fatigues with his mother-of-pearl pistol. And when asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, he said ”there are seven million Thomas Sankaras.”
Sankara’s revolutionary policies for self-reliance and defiance against the neoliberal development strategies imposed by the West made him an icon to many supporters of African liberation. But his policies alienated and antagonized the vested interests of the small but powerful Burkinabe middle class, the tribal leaders who he stripped of the traditional right to forced labor and tribute payments, and the foreign financial interests in France and their ally Ivory Coast.
Compaore and Sankara On October 15, 1987 Sankara was killed by an armed militia of twelve officials in a coup d’état organized by Compaore. Sankara’s body was dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave. Compaore immediately took power, overturning most of Sankara’s policies. Compaore reportedly ousted Sankara because he believed that his revolutionary policies were jeopardizing Burkina Faso’s relationship with France and Ivory Coast. Sankara and Compaore were not only colleagues, they were childhood friends.