Upper Volta was a very poor country in West Africa and hardly merited any mention outside that region until Thomas Sankara overthrew the country’s corrupt military leadership in 1984 and renamed the country Burkina Faso, translated which means “Land of Upright People.” Sankara then embarked an a political course that amounted to a “third way” which did not necessarily correspond to big power interests (France, the United States and the Soviet Union in that order).
However, like Patrice Lumumba—an earlier principled political leader who was a violent casualty of the Cold War—Sankara’s penchant for creativity and unconventional politics, resulted in a complex legacy where those who praise his social and economic reforms during his short tenure have a hard time squaring it with his often undemocratic politics. It may also have led to his downfall and violent dead.
As British filmmaker Robin Shuffield’s recently released documentary film, Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man, distributed by California Newsreel in the United States, show, Sankara openly challenged both French hegemony in West Africa as well as his fellow military leaders (Sankara labeled them “criminals in power.”
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The film shows how Sankara called for the scrapping of Africa’s debt to international banks and to their former colonial masters. He also preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. (There’s a classic scene in the documentary where he had the whole Burkina delegation to an OAU meeting decked out in local textiles and designs).
Domestically, women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labor to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, and promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy. He often made his point through media stunts. Like the time, he told women to stay at home and let the men do the shopping. His administration instituted a massive immunization program, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programs, tackled river blindness, and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.
He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged his colleagues to do the same. Sankara earned a small salary, refused his picture to be displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.
It was today twenty-one years ago on October 15, 1987 that armed men burst into his office and murdered him and twelve of his aides in a violent coup d’état. In events that eerily paralleled those in the Congo 27 years earlier when Lumumba was executed, the attackers cut up Sankara’s body and buried his remains in a hastily prepared grave. The next day Sankara’s deputy, Blaise Compaoré, declared himself President. Compaoré has ruled that country ever since and has both attempted to co-op and distort Sankara’s memory.
Shuffield’s film details how Sankara made tactical blunders and underestimated the strength of his opponents. This might be why unlike Lumumba among third world nationals or Nelson Mandela among Western elites, Sankara is not much talked about today, whether in Africa or in the West. One West African historian suggested to me that he was a 1960s figure trapped in the politics of the 1980s.
But Sankara was also undemocratic. He banned trade unions and political parties, put down protests (most significantly one by teachers in 1986). Many people were the victims of summary judgments by Peoples Revolutionary Tribunals, which sentenced “lazy workers,” “counter-revolutionaries” and corrupt officials. Sankara himself would later admit on camera that the Tribunals were often used as occasions to settle private scores.
By 1987, he was politically isolated. His enemies—a mix of the French political establishment (he had humiliated President Francois Mitterand in public on a few occasions), regional leaders (like Ivorian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny)—began to tire of him.
Compaoré is widely suspected to have ordered Sankara’s murder and do the French and regional dictators a favor. Though Compaoré publicly grieved for Sankara and promised to preserve his legacy, he quickly set about purging the government of Sankara supporters.
In contrast to the cool reception given Sankara earlier, Compaoré was welcomed by Western governments and funding agencies. Within three years Compaoré had accepted a massive IMF loan and instituted a Structural Adjustment Program (largely seen as one of the major causes for the ongoing economic crises in Africa). Compaoré also reversed most of Sankara’s reforms. (Not surprisingly this included the insistence that his portrait hang in all public places as well as buying himself a presidential jet.)
For the last twenty years Burkina Faso’s government have proved reluctant to investigate Sankara’s death fully. It wants to “move on.” And Compaoré is in a hurry to do so. Compaoré —whose regime has been implicated by researchers in the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia—is having a make-over as a “democrat” and is now a staunch ally of the United States. In November 2005 he was re-elected. That means Compaoré will have been in power uninterrupted from 1987 to 2012.
This year, according to the UN Human Development Report, life expectancy in Burkina Faso stood at 51 years, 23% of adults can read, three in every ten children are under weight for their age, and more than two-thirds of its 13,5 million people live on less than US$2 a day. Many of the gains under Sankara has been reversed.
Sankara’s short four-year reign—for all its faults—as Shuffield’s film show, pointed briefly to the potential of different political futures for Africans.