Thomas Sankara: One of the greatest leaders Africa has ever had

Today marks 30 years since his assassination.

Sankara seized power in a popularly-supported coup in 1983, aged just 33 with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former colonial power.
He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent.

To symbolise this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Man”). His foreign policies were centred on anti-imperialism, with his government stopping all foreign aid, pushing for debt reduction, nationalising all land and mineral wealth and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritising education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating 2,500,000 children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.

Other components of his national agenda included planting over 10,000,000 trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from the Otemas, Muhangas and other landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents and establishing an ambitious road and railway construction programme to “tie the nation together”.

On the localised level, Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary, and had over 350 communities build schools with their own labour. Moreover, his commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw 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.

To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials and lazy workers in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals.

Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs).

His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s impoverished citizens.

However, his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of an array of groups, which included the small, but powerful Burkinabé middle-class (elites), the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labour and tribute payments, and France and its ally the Ivory Coast.

He was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré on 15 October 1987.

A week before his assassination, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

Today marks 30 years since his assassination.