By Maidei Jenny Magirosa
“FATHERLAND or death, we will prevail!” — Captain Thomas Sankara, proclaiming the revolution on August 4, 1983 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
THOMAS Sankara was a charismatic army captain who came to power during a military coup in Burkina Faso in 1983.
He launched an outstanding and successful social and economic change ever attempted in the Africa.
In order to shake off the colonial name of Upper Volta, he changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso, meaning the ‘Land of Upright Men.’
Sankara was known as an eloquent spokesperson at the Organisation of African Unity.
He had a passion to change the plight of the poor and called for African states to repudiate their foreign debt.
This was long before there was talk of cancellation of Africa’s debt.
He argued that the poor should not pay money to the rich countries.
Sankara strongly criticised neo-colonialism and Western trade and finance.
He was also opposed to foreign aid and often said that “he, who feeds you, controls you.”
He did not believe in development aid because of its potential to lead to dependence and external domination.
Sankara also started an ambitious road and rail building programme to tie the nation together, refusing to accept any foreign aid by relying mostly on the enthusiasm, energy and commitment the people.
Sankara supported women’s fight for justice and appointed them to major cabinet positions as well as in the military.
He put a ban on forced marriages and encouraged women to work outside the home.
He also allowed teenagers who got pregnant to stay in school and banned genital mutilation in traditional culture because it was an oppressive system for women.
Sankara abolished also several of the privileges of the government bureaucratic departments.
Civil servants were forced to donate a month’s wage every year into a state fund.
He launched a nation-wide public health campaign and 2,5 million people were vaccinated in one week.
This was a world record.
As an environmentalist, Sankara was ahead of the times.
He planted over 10 million trees and halted the growing desertification of the Sahel.
His literacy and vaccination campaigns were also innovative and successful.
In agriculture, he promoted local cotton production and took land from the elite who owned most of the arable land and real estate at that time. Then he redistributed land from the feudal landlord, giving it directly to the poor peasants.
He divided the fields into subsistence farmers.
In just three years, wheat production rose from 1 700 kilogramme (kg) per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the food self-sufficient in food production.
In the cities, he encouraged more housing construction for the poor.
In 1985, he declared a whole year of rent free privileges to everyone.
According to Chrysogone Zougmoré, a citizen of Burkina Faso, “Things like corruption, embezzlement and cronyism, all that didn’t exist… You could talk of an era of integrity.
“And that was the pride of the Burkinabé.
“Between 1983 and 1987, the death of Sankara, we were proud when we were abroad and said ‘we are Burkinabé’.”
However, it must be noted that there were some tragic aspects to Sankara’s reign of success.
Sankara’s reign was based on military style dictatorship.
By 1986 Sankara’s authoritarian changes were alienating many people in the country.
There was growing opposition to his rule.
In response, Sankara attempted to crush opposition by establishing the People’s Revolutionary Tribunals in towns and workplaces.
Then he introduced Revolutionary Defense Committees consisting of gangs of armed youth.
The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were forced and imposed on everything.
There was a CDR for the youth, for women, for farmers and for unions. When unions staged a general strike in March 1985, Sankara fired 1 300 striking civil servants and students and replaced them with cadres loyal to the revolution.
With the school teachers fired, the education system was in disarray.
Despite some of his shortcomings, Sankara’s revolutionary changes must be remembered because they focused on self development of the people of Burkina Faso.
These changes were not welcomed by France, the former colonial power.
There were growing threats to Sankara’s rule by 1987.
Opposition members in his leadership formed secret relationships with Côte d’Ivoire president Felix Houphouet-Boigny, France’s staunchest ally.
On October 15 during a staff meeting, a gang of armed military, led by Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s closest friend and most trusted comrade, assassinated him.
Sankara was only 39.
After this tragic and merciless killing, Sankara’s body was dismembered and buried in a make-shift grave.
There was an order that his name gets erased from any media.
Up to this day, 26 years later, Blaise Compaoré remains the ruler of Burkina Faso.
Under his leadership, the country continues to be heavily influenced by France.
After his death, all the reforms Sankara had made came to nothing. France reestablished control over Burkina Faso and much of Western Africa.
Sankara must be turning in his grave.
Today, the illiteracy rate over 70 percent and the infrastructure is dismal. Sankara died too early, before he could implement the revolutionary changes that would have brought a country with successful education, health, social and economic systems.
Burkina Faso remains one of the 10 least developed countries in the world.
We remember Sankara as a legendary martyr like Patrice Lumumba or Amilcar Cabral.
Thomas Sankara believed in his socialist revolution to the fullest extent possible.
He did not own property nor was he implicated in material wealth acquisition.
One reporter noted that, “Sankara’s assets at the time of his death consisted of an average house on which he was still paying off the mortgage, $350 in the bank and some bikes.”
In just four years, Sankara made remarkable changes that make him one of the most important African political figures of his time.
He was a sharp critic of imperialism and celebrated leader of the non-aligned movement.
Sankara’s drive, integrity, clear and innovative revolutionary ideas presented an example of African leadership.
Today, Sankara’s legacy lives on as a most exceptional figure in the history of African leadership.
Twenty six years since his death, Thomas Sankara remains a charismatic and visionary leader who tried to free Burkina Fasso from neo-colonial rule and western dependency.
He was the ‘Ché of Africa’.
His legacy will one day inspire political change from French neo- colonialism in Burkina Faso.