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Thomas Sankara, father of the revolution in Burkina Faso

Thomas Sankara, born on December 21, 1949 in Yako in Upper Volta (today Burkina Faso)  and assassinated on October 15, 1987 in Ouagadougou ( Burkina Faso), is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary, socialist, pan-Africanist and Third Worldist, then Burkinabe statesman. He was Head of State of the Republic of Upper Volta renamed Burkina Faso, from 1983 to 1987.

Sankara was the president of the country during the period of the first Burkinabè revolution from August 4, 1983 to October 15, 1987. During these four years, he created and promoted a national emancipation policy. Sankara changed the name of Upper Volta (inherited from colonization) to Burkina Faso, which is a mixture of moré and dioula and means country or homeland of upright men). He planned the development of the country, fought against corruption  and promoted women rights.

Concerned about the environment, he denounces human responsibilities in the advance of the desert. In April 1985, the National Revolutionary Council launched the “three struggles”: an end to excessive logging and an awareness campaign concerning the use of gas, an end to bush fires and to wandering animals. The government carries out dam projects while farmers sometimes build water reservoirs themselves.

Symbolically, a market day for men is established to raise awareness of the sharing of household chores. Sankara also puts forward the idea of ​​a “living wage”, deducted at source from part of the husband’s salary and paid to the wife. He puts an end to the dowry and the levirate (the Levirate is a special type of marriage where the brother of a deceased marries his brother’s widow, in order to continue his brother’s line.), which he sees as a commodification of women. He also puts an end to forced marriages by establishing a legal age, prohibits excision, and attempts to oppose prostitution and polygamy.

At the international level, he criticizes the injustices of globalization, the financial system, the importance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the weight of the debt of third world countries. Burkina Faso thus does not contract loans with the IMF, the conditions of which it rejects. Thomas Sankara indeed considers this system as a means of “cleverly organized reconquest of Africa, so that its growth and development obey levels, standards which are totally foreign to us” . Anticipating the reaction of Western countries, he insisted in Addis Ababa in 1987 on the need for a collective refusal of African countries to pay the debt: “If Burkina Faso on its own refuses to pay the debt, I will not be here for the next conference ”. Three months before his assassination, he delivered, during a summit of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa in 1987, a speech passed to posterity in which he challenged the legitimacy of his country’s debt and called for a collective action by African countries.

Thomas Sankara defines his program as anti-imperialist, in particular in his “Political Orientation Discourse”, written in September-October 1983 by Valère Somé  and recorded in the Hall of the Council of the Entente then broadcast on the radio on October 2, 1983. In this regard, France becomes the main target of his revolutionary rhetoric. These attacks culminate with the trip of François Mitterrand (president of France) to Burkina Faso in November 1986, during which Thomas Sankara violently criticizes France’s policy for having received in France Pieter Botha, the Prime Minister of South Africa, and Jonas Savimbi, head of UNITA, both “covered with blood from head to toe”. French economic aid was reduced by 80% between 1983 and 1985.

A cooperation program with Cuba is set up. After meeting Fidel Castro, Thomas Sankara sent on September 1986 young Burkinabés to Cuba so that they underwent professional training and, upon their return, participate in the development of the country. The latter must be volunteers and are recruited on the basis of a competitive examination with priority given to orphans and children from rural and disadvantaged areas. Some 600 adolescents thus flew to Cuba to complete their schooling and undergo vocational training in order to become doctors, engineers, agronomists or even gynecologists.

Denouncing US support to Israel and South Africa, he calls on African countries to boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Before the United Nations General Assembly, he also denounces the invasion of Grenada by the United States, which retaliates by implementing trade sanctions against Burkina. Still at the UN, he calls for the end of the veto right granted to the great powers. In the name of the “peoples’ right to sovereignty”, he supports the national claims of Western Sahara, Palestine, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and even the South African ANC. If he maintains good relations with the Ghanaian leaders Jerry Rawlings and Libyan Muammar Gaddafi, he is relatively isolated in West Africa. The leaders close to France like Houphouët-Boigny in Ivory Coast or Hassan II in Morocco are particularly hostile to him.

Many people dislike Thomas Sankara’s rigor and integrity (for example, he drives  an old Renault 5 and is reluctant to acquire a new vehicle for fear that he is thought to be stealing state money) . In addition, faced with the drifts of the revolution, enthusiasm subsides, certain members of the population feel frustrated, in particular the traditional chiefs whose powers are weakened by the policy of Sankara.

In this context, relations between Blaise Compaoré and Thomas Sankara deteriorated from 1985, to such a point that the two men no longer spoke to each other; two rival clans are formed. The day before Sankara’s assassination, the Council of Ministers adopted a bill creating an “anti-coup” police brigade (FIMATS), which the Compaoré camp saw as a threat against it.

In December 1985, the Malian regime of Moussa Traoré went to war for a few weeks with Burkina Faso because of a border dispute.

At the end of the afternoon of October 15, 1987, Thomas Sankara and six members of his cabinet gathered in a room of the Council of the Entente in Ouagadougou. The purpose of the meeting concerns the creation of a single left-wing political party in order to counter the emergence of protests.

As soon as the meeting begins, a military commando bursts into the building, eliminating Sankara’s close guard, then arrives at the meeting room where he orders the occupants to leave. According to the testimony of the only survivor, the presidential adviser Alouna Traoré, Thomas Sankara comes out first, hands in the air, telling the members of the cabinet “do not move, they came for me only ”; then he was shot by the attackers. The other members suffer the same fate, except Traoré who is taken to another room where he finds other colleagues.

Thomas Sankara was shot during that coup d’état which brought Blaise Compaoré to power on October 15, 1987. His memory remains vivid in Burkinabé youth but also more generally in Africa, which has made him an icon, an “African Che Guevara. », Alongside Patrice Lumumba in particular.

His brother in arms, Blaise Compaoré, who succeeded him as head of Burkina Faso, is suspected of being primarily responsible for his assassination.


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