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Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara (December 21, 1949 - October 15, 1987), born in Yako, Upper Volta now Burkina Faso, was a charismatic left-leaning leader in West Africa. As head of Upper Volta's government and later President, he changed the name of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso and undertook major reforms to eliminate poverty. Sometimes nicknamed "Tom Sank", he was considered by some to be an "African Che Guevara".

Born into a Catholic family, Sankara was a Silmi-Mossi, belonging to 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.

His family wanted him to become a Catholic priest. According to some sources, Sankara never lost his Catholic faith despite his Marxist convictions.

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 was 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 Ouedraogo, 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(1), 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(2) (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). His policy was oriented toward fighting corruption, promoting reforestation, averting famine, and making education and health real priorities.

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 governement 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 Dyula, 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 circumcision, condemned polygamy, and promoted contraception. The Burkinabé government was also the first African government to claim that AIDS was a major threat for Africa.

Sankara had a high sense of advertising he had some spectacular initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some attention from the international press on the Burkinabé revolution :

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. 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 by a Malian plane in Ouahigouya). 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 Blaise Compaoré. Deterioration in relations with neighbouring countries was one of the reasons given by Compaoré for his action. 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."

Notes :

  1. The date may have been chosen for a symbolic purpose as the 194th anniversary of the Abolition of Feudal Privileges in France, but there is no evidence.
  2. Chad was at war with Libya. France was providing air support to Chad. According to some witnesses some French troops were involved in ground operations.


Preceded by:
Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo
President of Burkina Faso Succeeded by:
Blaise Compaoré

See also: History of Burkina Faso

External links: