|1st President of Burkina Faso|
4 August 1983 – 15 October 1987
|Preceded by||Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo|
|Succeeded by||Blaise Compaoré (coup d'état)|
|5th Prime Minister of Upper Volta|
10 January 1983 – 17 May 1983
|Preceded by||Saye Zerbo|
|Succeeded by||Post abolished|
|Secretary of State for Information|
9 September 1981 – 21 April 1982
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara
21 December 1949
Yako, Upper Volta
|Died||15 October 1987 (aged 37)|
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
|Cause of death||Assassination|
|Political party||African Independence Party (Burkina Faso)|
|Allegiance|| Upper Volta|
|Years of service||1966–1987|
|Battles/wars||Agacher Strip War|
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (French pronunciation: [tɔma sɑ̃kaʁa]; 21 December 1949 – 15 October 1987) was a Burkinabé military officer, Marxist revolutionary, and pan-Africanist President of Burkina Faso from his coup in 1983 to his deposition and murder in 1987. Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly 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, prioritizing education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating more than 2 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, which saved the lives of 18,000 to 50,000 children annually. His government focused on building schools, health centres, 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 to 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.
As an admirer of the Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. As such, he encouraged the prosecution of officials accused of corruption, counter-revolutionaries and "lazy workers" in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. Such programmes led to criticism by Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations for violations of human rights, who alleged that there were extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions of political opponents. Opposition parties and unions were also banned and media freedoms curtailed, as striking teachers were fired and replaced by young people with no experience. Although his revolutionary programmes for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa's poor, and Sankara remained popular with most of his country's citizens, his policies alienated and antagonized 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. On 15 October 1987, Sankara was assassinated by troops led by Blaise Compaoré, who assumed leadership of the state shortly thereafter.
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 pre-independence 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 performance in the conflict, but years later would renounce the fighting 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 organization 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 organized 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 and promoting reforestation.
On 4 August 1984, the first anniversary of his accession, 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 (Ditanyè).
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 programme 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 programme. 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 programmes were an attempt to prove that African countries could be prosperous without foreign help or aid.
Sankara also launched education programmes to help combat the country's 90% illiteracy rate. These programmes had some success in the first few years. However, wide-scale teachers' 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' programme. Volunteers merely received a 10-day training course before beginning to teach.
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.[better source needed]
The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (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 Defence Committees was taken from Fidel Castro, whose Committees for the Defence 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 behaviour. 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.[better source needed] The failure of the CDRs, coupled with the failure of the Revolutionary Teachers programme, mounting labour and middle class disdain as well as Sankara's steadfastness, led to the regime partially weakening within Burkina Faso.[better source needed]
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.
Main article: Agacher Strip War
Following the 1974 clashes between Burkina Faso and Mali over the disputed territory of the Agacher Strip, the Organization of African Unity created a mediation commission to resolve the disagreement and provide for an independent, neutral demarcation of the border. Both governments declared that they would not use armed force to end the dispute. Nevertheless, by 1983 the two countries were in disagreement about the work of the commission. Sankara also personally disliked Malian President Moussa Traoré, who had taken power by deposing Modibo Keïta's left-leaning regime. On 17 September Sankara visited Mali and met with Traoré. With Algerian mediation, the two agreed to have the border dispute settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and subsequently petitioned the body to resolve the issue.
In July 1985 Burkina Faso declared the Malian secretary general of the Economic Community of West Africa, Drissa Keita, a persona non grata after he criticized Sankara's regime. In September Sankara delivered a speech in which he called for a revolution in Mali. Malian leaders were particularly sensitive to the inflammatory rhetoric, as their country was experiencing social unrest. Around the same time Sankara and other key figures in the CNR became convinced that Traoré was harbouring opposition to the Burkinabé regime in Bamako and plotting to provoke a border war which would be used to support a counterrevolution.
Tensions at the border first began to rise on 24 November when one Burkinabé national killed another near the border in Soum Province. Malian police crossed the boundary to arrest the murderer and also detained several members of a local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution who were preparing a tribunal. Three days later Malian police entered Kounia to "restore order". Burkina Faso made diplomatic representations on the incidents to Mali, but was given no formal response. At the beginning of December Burkina Faso informed Mali and other surrounding countries that it was conducting its decennial national census from 10 to 20 December. On 14 December military personnel entered the Agacher to assist with the census. Mali accused the military authorities of pressuring Malian citizens in border villages to register with the census, a charge which Burkina Faso disputed. In an attempt to reduce tensions, ANAD (a West African treaty organization) dispatched a delegation to Bamako and Ouagadougou to mediate. President of Algeria Chadli Bendjedid also contacted Sankara and Traoré to encourage a peaceful resolution. At the request of ANAD members, Burkina Faso announced the withdrawal of all military personnel from the disputed region.
Despite the declared withdrawal, a "war of the communiques" ensued as Burkinabé and Malian authorities exchanged hostile messages with one another. Feeling threatened by Sankara, Traoré began preparing Mali for hostilities with Burkina Faso. Three groupements were formed and planned to invade Burkina Faso and converge on the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. Once there, they would rally Burkinabé opposition forces to take Ouagadougou and overthrow Sankara. Former Sankara aide Paul Michaud wrote that the Burkinabé president had actually intended to provoke Mali into conflict with the aim of mobilizing popular support for his regime. According to him "an official—and reliable—Malian source" had reported that mobilization documents dating to 19 December were found on the bodies of fallen Burkinabé soldiers during the ensuing war.
At dawn on 25 December 1985, about 150 Malian Army tanks crossed the frontier and attacked several locations. Malian troops also attempted to envelope Bobo-Dioulasso in a pincer attack. The Burkina Faso Army struggled to repel the offensive in the face of superior Malian firepower and were overwhelmed on the northern front; Malian forces quickly secured the towns of Dionouga, Selba, Kouna, and Douna in the Agacher. The Burkinabé Government in Ougadougou received word of hostilities at about 13:00 and immediately issued mobilization orders. Various security measures were also imposed across the country, including nighttime blackouts. Burkinabé forces regrouped in the Dionouga area to counter-attack. Captain Compaoré took command of this western front. Under his leadership soldiers split into small groups and employed guerrilla tactics against Malian tanks.
Immediately after hostilities began other African leaders attempted to institute a truce. On the morning of 30 December Burkina Faso and Mali agreed to an ANAD-brokered ceasefire. By then Mali had occupied most of the Agacher Strip. Over 100 Burkinabé and approximately 40 Malian soldiers and civilians were killed during the war. The Burkinabé towns of Ouahigouya, Djibo, and Nassambou were left badly damaged by the fighting. At an ANAD summit in Yamoussoukro on 17 January Traoré and Sankara met and formalized an agreement to end hostilities. The ICJ later split the Agacher; Mali received the more-densely populated western portion and Burkina Faso the eastern section centred on the Béli River. Both countries indicated their satisfaction with the judgement.
Burkina Faso declared that the war was part of an "international plot" to bring down Sankara's government. It also rejected speculation that it was fought over rumoured mineral wealth in the Agacher. The country's relatively poor performance in the conflict damaged the domestic credibility of the CNR. Some Burkinabé soldiers were angered by Sankara's failure to prosecute the war more aggressively and rally a counteroffensive against Mali. It also demonstrated the country's weak international position and forced the CNR to craft a more moderate image of its policies and goals abroad. The Burkinabé Government made little reference to supporting revolution in other countries in the conflict's aftermath, while its relations with France modestly improved. At a rally held after the war, Sankara conceded that his country's military was not adequately armed and announced the commutation of sentences for numerous political prisoners.
The British development organization 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 organizations 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".
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.
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.
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.
In 2021, 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'. On 11 October 2021, the trial against Compaoré and 13 others began in Ouagadougou, with Compaoré being tried in absentia. Ex-presidential security chief Hyacinthe Kafondo, was also tried in absentia. A week before the trial, Compaoré’s lawyers stated that he wouldn’t be attending the trial which they characterized as having defects, and also emphasized his privilege for immunity, being the former head of state. After requests made by the defence attorneys for more time to prepare their defence, the hearing was postponed until 25 October.
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.
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