The void that exists in Africa with regards to leaders who are capable and genuine to the cause continues to deepen. Instead of improving the living conditions of their people, todays leaders float on the waves made by revolutionary leaders who came before them. We no longer have leaders of integrity and vision.
This Monday we tell the story of a young and radical leader who was among the first to recognize that the key to the development of Burkina Faso and the African continent was to improve the status of women. This man was the first African leader who appointed women in key positions in his cabinet, also recruiting them to form part of the military. He outlawed forced marriages also doing away with that vile tradition of female genital mutilation, he encouraged women to take on jobs outside home and to not drop out of school when pregnant. Not only that but this man was also among the first group of African environmentalists, planting over 10 million trees so they retain soil and halt the growing desertification of the Sahel. This leader actually promoted the idea of supporting local and buying local, instead of using a term to prey on the vulnerability of people. He actually came with an assignment and began to implement without hesitating. Thomas Sankara, is a hero we deserve to be taught about not that racist Indian who even has a whole square named after him in South Africa.
Who Was Thomas Sankara?
He was the president of the West African state of Burkina Faso, he was a leader and the driver of a bold initiative meant to transform a country trapped in a dependent relationship with the rest of the world, particularly France.
His Early Life
In a northern town of Burkina Faso called Yako, Thomas Isidore Noell Sankara was born on the 21st of December in 1949. He was the son of a Peul father who was also a military veteran and Mossi mother. He was the perfect example of an individual who personified the Burkinabe peoples’ diversity. He was only 12 years old when he witnessed the country transition into a state of independence from the French in 1960. He got to witness the volatile nature of the regimes that ruled throughout the 1960s and the 1970s.
After completing his secondary schooling in Ouagadougou he underwent military training abroad. During the 1972 insurrection that resulted in overthrowing then president Philibert Tsiranana he was in Madagascar, he only returned to his homeland in 1973 and was then assigned to train young recruits. Thomas stood out from the rest while fighting in a border war with Mali in 1974-1975. He was later appointed as the secretary of state information by Colonel Saye Zerbo who became the new leader after another military assisted transition in 1980, he did not last long in the post because his views were too radical for the government which was an enemy to the idea of radical economic transformation.
In January of 1983, Thomas Sankara was appointed as the new prime minister. This was after another military assisted transition which led to a silent power struggle at the heart of the army, they quickly put him on house arrest after this sometime in May but was made president in August after yet another military assisted transition which was led by one of his close allies at the time.
He was only 34 years old when he became the president, he was the perfect example of a young African leader with integrity. Not long after his term in office did he begin to implement the changes he wanted to see, to mark the rebirth of his people the country’s name was changed from the colonialist’s ‘Upper Volta’ to Burkina Faso which means ‘Land of upright men’ Part of his mission to uproot corruption consisted of the following which he did:
– He reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own.
– He moved into a rundown presidential palace with his wife and two sons, bringing his second-hand Renault 5 and guitar with him.
– He forbade the use of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets.
– He banned free press, unions and anything that posed as a blockage to securing radical transformation.
– He launched a nationwide healthcare campaign for public health vaccinating over two and a half million people in a week, a world record.
– He promoted the production of local cotton and even required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen.
– He redistributed land from feudal landlords, giving it directly to peasants.
– The production of wheat rose in just three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800kg per hectare, ensuring the country was self-sufficient on food.
– He also started a road and rail building program with the hopes of connecting the nation, doing away with any foreign aid by relying on his country’s greatest resource, which was the energy and commitment of his people.
When it came to women
– He banned female genital mutilation and forced marriages.
It is no secret that he believed in the fight for the emancipation of women, according to him the fight for the emancipation of women formed part of our fight for racial equality. I have attached a few of his quotes derived from a speech he delivered on international women’s day during a rally he organised:
“Paternal rights replaced maternal right. Property was now handed down from father to son, rather than as before from the woman to her clan. The patriarchal family made its appearance, founded on the sole and personal property of the father, who had become head of the family. Within this family the woman was oppressed.”
“I can hear the roar of women’s silence.”
“Comrades! There is no true social revolution without the liberation of women.”
“The condition of women is therefore at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here, there and everywhere.”
“The revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women.”
– Sankara was also very vocal about the unity of Africa and the goal to achieve this unity.
– He urged African countries to refuse to pay their debts to western countries.
– He spoke up during the United Nation’s conference denouncing imperialist wars, apartheid and poverty.
– He was also very vocal in defending the rights of the people of Palestine to self-determination.
His radicalness strained his relations with France and a few neighbouring countries which included the Ivory Coast and Togo. But was also said to be closely linked to other revolutionary radical leaders of the mother continent like, President Gadaffi from Libya and Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings. Like every other leader, Thomas Sankara had his own flaws.
When Things Turned Sour
By 1986 his authoritarian changes begun to alienate larger sectors of The Burkinabe population, which isolated him even further making him vulnerable even from elements within his circle. Like many other revolutionaries, Sankara’s commitment to achieving his ideals, stripped him of time to allow his people to digest the changes that were coming and being made. According to an observation made by a close friend he was an impatient man who was driven by the desperation of his people. And every time opposition mounted, attempts were made by him to repress it. By introducing alternative means to deal with corruption in the workspace etc., this also led to the formation of Revolutionary Defence Committees, which was misinterpreted by the youth gangs who terrorised ordinary citizens. When the school teachers also went on a strike, he dismissed all of them which left the education system which was his country’s greatest hope for progress in shambles. By 197 his position was compromised and despite the warnings he had received which prompted him to take action he refused on the grounds that he remains true to the ideals of his revolution. Sankara noted that Che Guevara was 39 when he had been executed, only for things to take a similar route for him when elements from his own Burkinabe leadership forged relations with Cote d’ivoire president Felix Boigny who was a very close ally to France and an outspoken opponent of Sankara’s influential attacks on neo-colonialism which increased.
On the 15th of October 1987 during a staff meeting, a gang of armed military which were led by Blaise Compaore, Sankara’s close friend and most trusted comrade throughout the revolution assassinated him and 12 other officials. His body was dismembered, buried in a makeshift grave and any mention of him was erased from the view of the public. Blaise remained the dictator ever since even accumulating wealth due to his proximity to the French until 2014 where he was forced to flee for Cote d’ivoire during a mass uprising, however like every dog his end has come and last month a court in Burkina Faso’s capital indicted former President Blaise for his role in the murder of his comrade, Thomas Sankara.