Who is Actually Responsible for the Killing of Africa’s Visionary Leader Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara?
For African leaders who boldly stood up to the unending imperialist tendencies of the former colonial powers has generally been met with death. And France has never been hesitant to eliminate presidents who posed a threat to their imperialist plans. France has consistently connived and been in collaboration with other Western powers to assassinate African presidents they deem a threat to their interests.
These three French intelligent services, The External Documentation and Anti-Espionage Service (SDECE), DGSE, and DST have been very active in doing the dirty work that encompasses coups and assassinations. French crimes in Africa have been made up of misinformation campaigns, “controlling black-skinned governors” (puppet presidents), and military propaganda.
Disgrace and Ex-President of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaoré and Françafrique killed Thomas Sankara in the belief that they could extinguish the example he set for African youth and progressive forces across the continent. They could not have been more wrong. One week before his assassination, in a speech marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Thomas Sankara declared: ‘Ideas cannot be killed, ideas never die.’ Indeed, the history of humanity is replete with martyrs and heroes whose ideas and actions have survived the passage of time to inspire future generations.
Their ideas, courage, and sacrifice for the freedom and dignity of their people have made these martyrs larger than life. Thomas Isidore Sankara is one in a long lineage of African sons and daughters whose ideas and actions have left an indelible mark on the history of their continent. That is why 34 years after his death, Sankara continues to guide those who are struggling to end the domination of their continent and the enslavement of its peoples.
France has always ensured that former colonies remain under its tight hand. This explains the existence of the CFA Franc, a colonial currency that keeps former colonies from fully attaining economic independence. Presidents like Thomas Sankara who denied being under France’s influence were eliminated from the planet, with France playing a big role in that grisly assassination.
Who was Thomas Sankara?
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was born on 21 December 1949 in Yako, French Upper Volta as the third of ten children to Joseph and Marguerite Sankara. 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 was 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. His Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he chose to enter the military.
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 on the 3rd of January 1966. 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 his first read was the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, who 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 in 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. 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“, the best-known members being Henri Zongo, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Blaise Compaoré, and Sankara himself.
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 every day, rather than driving 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-labor drift, declaring “Misfortune to those who gag the people!”
A coup d’état organized by Sankara and Blaise Compaoré made him the President on the 4th of 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. Sankara had an ambitious agenda to eliminate corruption and encourage economic and social progress, but this resulted in an increasingly authoritarian approach to power. To begin the country’s new era, he renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning “Land of Upright Man.” The pan Africanist’s political agenda was clear to see, but so was his vision in other sectors including health, environmental conservation, education, women empowerment, and much more. In one of his speeches, Sankara said:
“The enemies of the people are those who keep them in ignorance.”
Sankara ruled for only four years but left a lasting legacy, one that is celebrated not only in Africa but the world at large. The military captain turned pan-Africanist, Sankara’s main vision for the landlocked West African country was simple; eliminate corruption and end the French dominance. Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, one of Africa’s most celebrated leaders, was killed in a military coup on 15 October 1987. The popular leader commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara” is credited with laying the foundation for Burkina Faso’s ambitious drive for democratic, social, and economic change.
Sankara led by example and expected other servants in the revolutionary government to do so as well. Stressing the need for creativity in building the revolutionary state and overcoming the degradations of neocolonialism, Sankara’s practice was not based on dogmatism or predetermination. Making this point in 1984 at the United Nations as the general orientation the people of Burkina Faso and the National Council of Revolution of Burkina Faso empowered him to represent Sankara explains:
“I do not intend to enunciate dogmas here. I am neither a messiah nor a prophet. I possess no truths. My only ambition is a twofold aspiration: first, to be able to speak in simple language, the language of facts and clarity, on behalf of my people, the people of Burkina Faso, and, secondly, to be able to express in my own way the feelings or that mass of people who are disinherited–those who belong to that world maliciously dubbed “the third world”–and to state, even if I cannot make them understood, the reasons that have led us to rise up, all of which explains our interest in the United Nations, the demands of our rights drawing strength in the clear awareness of our duties”
Sankara’s Anti-imperialism Movement
Anti-colonial revolutionary Thomas Sankara struggled to free his country, Burkina Faso, from the domination of foreign corporations and neoliberal economic institutions. Sankara’s foreign policies were centered on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These movements were geared to achieve economic and political independence for their countries as the majority of Global South nations oriented their political institutions according to the prescriptions of North American and European patrons and the detrimental economic models of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
The greatest difficulty we have faced is the neocolonial way of thinking that exists in this country. We were colonized by a country, France, that left us with certain habits. For us, being successful in life, being happy, meant trying to live as they do in France, like the richest of the French.
The Transformational Leader
Sankara’s visionary leadership turned his country from a sleepy West African nation with the colonial designation of Upper Volta to a dynamo of progress under the proud name of Burkina Faso (“Land of the Honorable People”). He led one of the most ambitious programs of sweeping reforms ever seen in Africa. It sought to fundamentally reverse the structural social inequities inherited from the French colonial order.
Sankara focused the state’s limited resources on the marginalized majority in the countryside. When most African countries depended on imported food and external assistance for development, Sankara championed local production and the consumption of locally-made goods. He firmly believed that it was possible for the Burkinabè, with hard work and collective social mobilization, to solve their problems: chiefly scarce food and drinking water.
In Sankara’s Burkina, no one was above farm work, or graveling roads–not even the president, government ministers, or army officers. Intellectual and civic education was systematically integrated with military training and soldiers were required to work on local community development projects.
Sankara disdained formal pomp and banned any cult of his personality. He could be seen casually walking the streets, jogging, or conspicuously slipping into the crowd at a public event. He was a rousing orator who spoke with uncommon candor and clarity and did not hesitate to publicly admit mistakes, chastise comrades or express moral objections to heads of powerful nations, even if it imperiled him. For example, he famously criticized French president François Mitterand during a state dinner for hosting the leader of Apartheid South Africa.
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 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles. Other components of his national agenda included planting over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together”. On the localized level Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labor. 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.
African Che Guevara
Thomas Sankara an icon for many young Africans in the 1980s remains a heroic figure in the content, even after 34 years of his assassination at the age of 37. Praised by supporters for his integrity and selflessness, the military captain and anti-imperialist revolutionary was a staunch defender of all things home-grown – such as cotton, and the African textile industry make him a T-shirt icon.
Above all, however, Sankara’s ongoing popularity is due to the ideas and values he embodied during his brief time on the African and international stage. Indeed, if Sankara arouses as much fervor today as he did 34 years ago, it is because he embodied and defended causes that still resonate today among the thousands of oppressed in Africa and around the world. Sankara was a genuine revolutionary and a great visionary who had the courage to take on the most difficult challenges and who held great ambitions for his country and Africa.
Most of the ideas or causes he defended three decades ago are still at the heart of the struggle for the economic, social, and political emancipation of people around the world. He was an environmentalist ahead of his time in a so-called ‘poor’ country that was supposed to have other more pressing priorities than the environment. Sankara was one of the first heads of state, perhaps the only one in his time, to condemn female excision, a position that reflected his unwavering commitment to the emancipation of women and the struggle against all forms of discrimination against women.
While Burkina Faso’s former leader may not be the poster boy of revolution, like Argentine-born Che Guevara for the world, many taxis across West Africa have a round sticker of him in his beret on their windscreens. And his influence is still felt as far afield as South Africa. Here are a few reasons why 34 years on, the charismatic and iconic figure of revolution the great Sankara’s name ring on every African’s mind, and is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.
- He vaccinated 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles in a matter of weeks.
- He initiated a nationwide literacy campaign, increasing the literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987.
- He planted over 10 million trees to prevent desertification
- He built roads and a railway to tie the nation together, without foreign aid
- He appointed females to high governmental positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education.
- He outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy in support of Women’s rights
- He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers.
- He reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets.
- He redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it directly to the peasants. Wheat production rose in three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the country’s food self-sufficient.
- He opposed foreign aid, saying that “he who feeds you, controls you.”
- He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity against continued neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance.
- He called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting
- In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country).
- He forced civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects.
- He refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabes.
- As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge, and a broken freezer.
- A motorcyclist himself, he formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard.
- He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen. (The reason being to rely upon local industry and identity rather than foreign industry and identity)
- When asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied “There are seven million Thomas Sankara’s.”
- An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.
Sankara rejected the inevitability of ‘poverty,’ and was one of the first proponents of food security. He achieved the spectacular feat of making his country’s food self-sufficient within four years, through sensible agricultural policy and, above all, the mobilization of the Burkinabé peasantry. He understood that a country that could not feed itself ran the risk of losing its independence and sovereignty.
In July 1987, Sankara, close on the heels of Fidel Castro two years earlier, called on African countries to form a powerful front against their continent’s illegitimate and immoral debt and to collectively refuse to pay it. Once again, he understood before others that the debt was a form of modern enslavement for Africa; a major cause of poverty and deep suffering for African populations. Sankara famously stated:
“If we do not pay the debt, our lenders will not die. However, if we do pay it, we will die…“
On the international stage, Sankara was the first African head of state, indeed the first in the world, to denounce the UN Security Council’s right of veto and to condemn the lack of democracy within the United Nations system as well as the hypocrisy that characterized international relations. Today, all of these ideas have become self-evident truths and are at the heart of popular resistance movements, including the World Social Forum which has become one of the most powerful major rallying points.
In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation, eventually banning unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, “counter-revolutionaries” 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).
Supporting popular revolutionary struggles against oppression
Among the great causes passionately championed by Thomas Sankara was his unwavering support for all popular revolutionary struggles and resistance movements against imperialist domination and colonial oppression. In his memorable speech before the UN General Assembly, on October 4, 1984, Sankara stated:
“Our revolution in Burkina Faso is open to the suffering of all peoples. It also draws its inspiration from the experiences of people since the dawn of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all of the revolutions of the world, of all of the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World.”
These revolutions and struggles inspired Sankara in his vision and desire to profoundly transform the economic and social structures in his country as well as the mentalities forged over centuries of foreign domination and oppression by dominant and exploitative classes internally and externally. This was the wellspring of his profound solidarity with the struggles of all oppressed peoples against the forces of domination.
Sankara’s commitment to solidarity was exercised with determination in every international body, from the UN to the former Organization of African Unity (OAU), and the Non-Aligned Movement. Sankara was one of the first heads of State to support the struggle of the Sahrawi people against Morocco’s expansionist ambitions. He expressed the solidarity of the Burkinabés with the struggle of the Kanak people against French colonialism. During a trip to New York, he went to Harlem to express his support for the struggle of African-Americans against racism and discrimination.
Above all, the Burkinabé Revolution under Sankara showed its unwavering support and solidarity for all peoples resisting US policies of imperialist aggression. Before the UN General Assembly—in the very belly of the beast—Sankara forcefully condemned the United States’ illegal blockade and permanent aggression against the Cuban people. In this same forum, he condemned their unconditional support for the Zionist Israel’s state policies of territorial annexation and extermination of the Palestinian people.
Who Killed Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara?
Burkina Faso’s new president embraced the new world order he wanted to build. Sankara reduced his salary to $450 a month. He replaced the governmental Mercedes with cheaper Renaults. The president even refused air conditioning in his office, as it was a luxury few could afford. And on the world stage, he was forceful about Africa’s independence. Sankara thundered to the U.N. in 1984:
“We adopt as our own the affirmation of the Doctrine whereby Europeans must not intervene in American affairs. Just as Monroe proclaimed ‘America to the Americans’ in 1823, we echo this today by saying ‘Africa to the Africans,’ ‘Burkina to the Burkinabè.’”
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, not everyone admired the ambitious young president. His policies alienated and antagonized the vested interests of an array of groups, which included the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labor and tribute payments, and Françafrique. Feudal lords resented that he’d redistributed their lands. Whispers spread that Sankara’s opponents were tortured. As a result, he was overthrown and assassinated led by the French-backed Blaise Compaoré in a coup d’état on October 15, 1987. Though his life and his presidency were cut short, Thomas Sankara’s legacy remains compelling to many living in Africa today. Sankara himself understood that, noting a week before he died:
“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
Plus, world powers like the United States and France watched with displeasure as Sankara strengthened ties with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Sankara even wore a mother-of-pearl pistol at his hip gifted to him by North Korea’s Kim Il Sung. Once the French president François Mitterrand even said:
“[Sankara] goes further than necessary in my opinion.”
By 1987, Thomas Sankara had made plenty of enemies. And one of them was his old friend, Blaise Compaoré. As Compaoré tells it, a group of men loyal to him heard that Sankara planned to kill him. So, they struck first. On Oct. 15, 1987, they ambushed Sankara on his way to a government meeting. A western diplomat who spoke to one of Sankara’s surviving bodyguards described the assassination:
“Sankara raised his hands and said: ‘Take me. I’m the one you want.’ Compaoré’s men sprayed him with Kalashnikov fire and then finished him off with a grenade.”
According to Union College Professor Brian Peterson’s Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa, published in February 2021 by Indiana University Press, Sankara had a complicated, even ambivalent, relationship with France. At different points in this history, France did try to work with Sankara and even tolerated quite a bit of revolutionary rhetoric targeting France. But Sankara expected to be treated as an equal, a peer head of state of a fully sovereign country. He refused to accept his country being a vassal in a neocolonial relationship of domination. He said:
There were risks involved on this path — opposing debt repayment, criticizing foreign aid, publicly attacking France, and so forth. As I see it, Sankara knew that he couldn’t break with France completely, and the CNR [the National Council for the Revolution] was still depending on foreign aid, especially from France. A transition to greater autarky would take time, and in four short years, this wasn’t possible.
Soon after, Sankara’s body was found dismembered and 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 supposedly “shattered” economy, and ultimately spurned most of Sankara’s legacy. Professor Brian Peterson writes on his book:
My research shows that it was Sankara’s reluctance to accept an IMF agreement in 1987 that led to many economic problems and loss of political support within the CNR. Moreover, from the moment Sankara emerged as a political force in 1983, France had been trying to remove him from power. France finally succeeded in October 1987, when an array of French economic pressures, intelligence operations, diplomatic maneuvers, and disinformation campaigns in the French press paved the way for his overthrow.
Although the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso was assassinated, his successor prevented an inquest into his death. After burying Sankara and his men in an unmarked grave, Blaise Compaoré assumed the presidency. Compaoré’s dictatorship remained in power for 27 years until overthrown by popular protests in 2014. Following the assassination in 1987, the new administration led by Compaore sought to strengthen economic and security ties to Paris. Despite Burkina Faso seeking Compaore’s extradition, Ivory Coast has rebuffed attempts to repatriate the former president, who is now a citizen of the country.
Sankara’s supporters have long argued that the former colonial power, France, masterminded the assassination in cahoots with Compaore. But the story of Thomas Sankara doesn’t quite end there. Though Compaoré always denied explicitly ordering Sankara’s assassination, he and 13 other men are convicted for Sankara’s murder last Monday. (Compaoré, still living in exile in the Ivory Coast). Guy Herve Kam, a lawyer for the Sankara family, speaking to AFP, said:
“The time for justice has finally come. A trial can begin. It will be up to the military prosecutor to determine a date for the hearing.”
For years Sankara’s family and supporters had asked for an investigation into the assassination and his body to be exhumed, requests denied by Compaore, who has long denied accusations of involvement in the murder. The trial ended a watershed moment after the 34-year search for justice by Sankara’s supporters. The trial wasn’t proceeding until the country’s transitional government was in place in 2015, and an investigation was reopened.
“We have been waiting for this moment,” said Mariam Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s widow. Though she’s convinced that Compaoré orchestrated her husband’s death, Mariam thinks he had help from France. Indeed, France has long faced such allegations. And the French president, Emmanuel Macron, even agreed to send a number of declassified files to Burkina Faso for review in 2017. However, he did not send any form to François Mitterand, whose presidency overlapped with Sankara’s. A 2013 research paper published by Chatham House, a UK-based security think tank, concluded that:
“France wields a level of influence in sub-Saharan Africa that it cannot command anywhere else in the world. In crisis situations, it is still seen as a key source of diplomatic, military or even financial pressure on – or support for – the countries in the region.”
Sankara’s short tenure as leader of Burkina Faso antagonized the country’s vested interests, which had long benefited by keeping political and economic power in the hands of the few. He famously criticized the then French president Francois Mitterand in a state dinner in Burkina Faso for his anti-African policies, which inevitably frayed relations between them.
Lessons from the Burkinabé Revolution
The Burkinabé revolution was the last major effort toward popular and democratic emancipation on the African continent. Neither the end of apartheid in South Africa nor SWAPO’s victory in Namibia brought the same kind of profound and significant economic and social transformation. The Burkinabé Revolution was an unprecedented experiment in profound economic, social and political change. The revolution was a bold experiment in endogenous development with the construction of infrastructure (dams, railways, schools, roads, etc.) through the intense mobilization of the masses powered by the principle of self-reliance.
Indeed, the principle of self-reliance was the basis of Sankara’s denunciation of so-called foreign ‘aid’ which he argued ‘produced nothing more than disorganization and enslavement…’ He refused to listen to the ‘charlatans trying to sell development models that have all failed.’ Of course, he was alluding to the so-called experts from the World Bank and the IMF who took control of economic policy in many African countries to disastrous effect. Sankara’s position was in stark contrast to that of several African leaders who literally became beggars who no longer dared raise their voices against the injunctions and interference of their so called ‘development partners.’ Sankara showed that ‘poverty’ did not have to translate into a loss of dignity and an abdication of sovereignty.
The Burkinabé Revolution can also teach us some negative lessons that merit reflection. One of the lessons is the difficulty of building a sustainable and victorious relationship between the army and progressive intellectuals. Another lesson relates to the destiny of military coups: can a coup d’état truly serve as the basis for sustainable revolutionary change or is it condemned to be a flash in the pan? This question surely begs others. The point is that African revolutionary forces must study the lessons that can be learned from this experience in order to better pursue current and future struggles.
The ideas and principles that guided the Burkinabé revolution did not vanish in vain with Sankara’s assassination. They will continue to guide African popular struggles and resistance movements until foreign domination has been vanquished and Africans have recovered their sovereignty. The best way to honor the memory of Thomas Sankara is to continue his fight and promote the values he embodied.
In truth, African revolutionaries have a duty not only to remember the Burkinabé revolution but all the African revolutions that inspired it. We forget that Sankara was an ardent pan-Africanist who did not hide his ideological and political debt to Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, and Amílcar Cabral, among others. It is our duty to study the thinking and works of Sankara and other African revolutionary leaders and thinkers in order to be able to teach the younger generations. By preserving and developing the fundamental values and ideals of the Sankarist revolution and other African revolutions, we will forge the ideological and political tools we need to deconstruct the values and concepts of the dominant system and build anew from our own concepts based on our vision of the world and our realities.
Just as Che’s blood has fed the sacred ground of the Americas where worthy successors of the legendary Argentinean revolutionary are now taking root and pursuing the dreams of Simón Bolívar and other South American heroes, the sacrifice of Sankara and his illustrious predecessors will produce other Sankara’s who will one day realize the dreams of Nkrumah and the other heroes and martyrs of the African revolution: to build an independent, united and prosperous Africa that is the master of its own destiny.