African Leaders could Learn from this man

Jax Hudur
Thomas Sankarathe

Thomas Noel Isidore Sankara was born on the 21st of December 1949 in Yako, French Upper Volta, later renamed Burkina Faso. His father worked for the local colonial government. Sankara’s family enjoyed a life of privilege, thanks to his father’s employment. However, he was one of ten siblings, making it was too expensive for the family to support him through higher education. The military, with an attached scholarship, was an attractive offer and nineteen-year-old Sankara. Like many other contemporary African leaders, such as J.J. Rawlings from Ghana, Gaddafi from Libya, and Mengistu from Ethiopia, he joined the military ranks to escape poverty and seize the alternatives it provided.

For Sankara, it worked out in the end, and his rise to the top was fast. At the age of twenty, he was sent to Madagascar for officer training, after which, on his return, he found fame in a border war between his country and Mali. This catapulted him to the top, though he later realized that the war was useless and unjust.

Africa in the 1980s was a playground for the competing superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Military coups were rife, and the Cold War offered prime conditions for revolutions. Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Libya, Sudan, and the other African States had gone through multiple regime changes. Thomas Sankara’s Uppervolta has suffered a series of government ousting that plagued the continent. Sankara became the prime minister in 1983, but his advocacy for reforms resulted in his subsequent arrest. This enraged young officers led by Blaise Compaore, a close friend at the time, which led to the overthrow of the government. The military then decided to put Sankara in the highest office.

Sankara became president on the 4th of August, 1983, at thirty-three, and ruled for four years. His achievements in that short period put current serving African heads of States to shame. Those achievements include:

  • Sankara walked the talk; he lived modestly and often cycled to his work. This was unheard of in Africa. At the time of his death, all he left behind was a house with a mortgage, a broken fridge, and a couple of guitars.
  • He renamed the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of the Upright People”) and wrote its national anthem.
  • He started to eradicate corruption while fighting social injustice.
  • Government officials were forced to swap their luxury Mercedes cars for the cheapest available car in the market at the time, a Renault. No first-class flights, officials had to fly economy.
  • Agrarian reforms put an end to the power structures of traditional chiefs’ feudal powers over the farmers. This reform eradicated hunger from Burkina Faso and led the country to achieve food sufficiency.
  • 2.5 million people were vaccinated in one week.
  • Sankara refused praise and pomposity. No pictures of his were hung on Government buildings, and he scoffed at personal praise and songs about him — unlike his peers.
  • He encouraged local produce. In an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa (his last session), Sankara proudly praised his compatriots to the delegates “I am not here for a fashion show. But I and my delegation are clothed by our tailors and cotton produced by our farmers”, he told them.
  • Starting with himself, ministers and leading civil servants had to take a pay cut.
  • When women were invisible in the political scene, he encouraged them to participate and join in high civil service posts and the army.
  • Ahead of his peers at the time, he put an end to female genital mutilation (FGM), polygamy, and forced marriages. Women were also allowed for the first time to divorce. Men also had to give half of their paychecks to their wives.

France’s firm grip and the threat Sankara posed

Like its European counterparts, Colonial France knew that colonialism couldn’t be sustained for long, so they had to get ahead of it. France came up with a strategy of colonial continuation by other means, the creation of economic ties. African colonies were free but only in appearance.

The plan was simple in its implementation. All the African States had to do was sign two secret cooperation agreements to get their independence. However, France got privileged access to raw materials and offered military protection to the newly independent States. This gave France control.

The former colonies had no say in their monetary affairs, military, and education. These remained in the goodwill of whatever policy France decided on. It was this control that Sankara’s free-thinking and unrestrained rhetoric threatened. He posed a real threat to the status quo. France and its African allies simply could not let Sankara’s thinking spread to the rest of the region.


On a typical Thursday afternoon, on the 15th of October 1987, shots rung in the central parliament of the Land of the Upright People, Burkina Faso. “Stay here, it’s me they want,” he said to his colleagues, and with raised hands, walked towards the door. With no words exchanged, he was shot multiple times. By the end of this murder spree, thirteen people and the head of State, Captain Thomas Sankara, were murdered in cold blood.

This was, by all means, a textbook assassination, a bloody takeover. The alleged mastermind of this twisted plot was none other than Sankara’s best friend, Blaise Compaore, who would go on to rule Burkina Faso for twenty-seven years. No crime, no perpetrators, there was no case.

It was nothing short of Caesar’s moment with Brutus, but unlike Caesar, Sankara very well knew that his end was coming. He said in an interview, “I find myself like a cyclist going up a steep slope with precipices on either side, who will fall if he stops pedaling. There is no choice but to keep on pedaling. If he stops, he will fall. So, to remain true to myself, I have to stay on the same track”, the journalist then asks him if he feels isolated in African. Sankara, looking straight into his eyes, replies, “Not understood, not liked.”

This was a man who knew his fate was sealed.

Several people confirm this epiphany. Captain Boukari Kabore, an army commander and a loyal ally, asked Sankara to arrest Blaise Compaore. He had intelligence that Blaise was in the final stages of an assassination plot. His stern reply was, “No. Friendship cannot be betrayed, we won’t betray them even if they want to betray us”.

Jean Ziggler’s interview offers another insight into Sankara’s knowledge of the coming end. Ziggler was a United Nations rapporteur, and he states that

“Sankara and I talked all night, and I vividly remember this. I told him that the 8th of October is the 20th anniversary of Che Guevara’s assassination and we talked all night long about Che and the assassination. He looked at me and said, ‘Che died at the age of 39. Am I going to last till I reach 39?’ He had a premonition.”

On the day of his murder, Sankara was thirty-seven years old.

After having been in power for twenty-seven years, his alleged murderer, Blaise Compaore, stepped down due to protests. An international arrest warrant was issued for his role in the Sankara assassination, but he has since become an Ivorian citizen to beat the extradition efforts.

Thomas Sankara’s riveting story and its tragic end have endeared him to Africans and revolutionaries worldwide. Will Blaise Compaore ever face justice? No one knows what the future holds; however, Sankara’s ghost will forever haunt him.

Comments / 0

Published by

I write about history, politics and true crime. Not to mention anything else that takes my fancy or newsworthy. "No special talents. Only passionately curious." Albert Einstein


More from Jax Hudur

Comments / 0