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Who is Thomas Sankara?

By Posted on 4 m read



We have seen his name on buildings and roads across the African continent, but who was Thomas Sankara and more importantly why should we remember him? Why should we, the African youth, know his story and how can we use his example to shape our political and social realities for the better?

Thomas Sankara was a pan-African revolutionary, a staunch idealist who lived and ultimately died for his belief in the African continent. A solider who shunned violence, but was prepared to fight the neocolonial establishment, to build a strong, self-sufficient and independent Africa.

Sankara became the president of Burkina Faso in 1983, coming to power through a bloodless coup with massive support from the people. At the time Burkina Faso was one of the poorest countries in the world, dependent on aid to feed, house and clothe the population.


Unafraid of radical change, Sankara embarked on an ambitious reformation of the country’s political and social institutions. He cut the special privileges of government officials, including himself, forcing the leadership to recognize their role as servants of the people. He put an end to colonial taxes, which many African nations are still paying, and encouraged his people to examine their history and rediscover African pride.

Sankara argued fiercely for a self-sufficient Africa and within the four years of his presidency empowered the agricultural sector to make Burkina Faso food and clothing independent. He provided housing, education and healthcare for the people, successfully immunizing 2.5million people in one week alone.


He challenged traditional misogyny by making his government one of the first in the world to promote women’s rights: he outlawed female genital mutilation and forced marriages, while simultaneously appointing women to high level positions in government. He mobilized and inspired the Burkinabe to actively take part in the construction of roads and railways to connect the remotest areas of the country. He was the first African president to launch a campaign against desertification, and during his tenure he planted millions of trees in drought-prone areas.

A visionary and the true embodiment of a leader, the list of Sankara’s achievements goes on; but, the real question is why should it matter and what happened to his legacy?

In 1987 Sankara was brutally murdered. Despite an extensive cover up, it is believed that his murder was orchestrated by the ex-colonial power France that collaborated with Sanakara long time friend Blaise Compaoré . Compaoré then proceeded to claim the presidency and undo Sankara’s reforms, returning the country to its dependance on France. 27 years of Compaoré’s presidency and Burkina Faso is back to being one of the world’s poorest nations.

The sad reality is what happened to Sankara was not unique but followed a similar trend of assassinations against African revolutionaries. People like Patrice Lumumba of Congo who were murdered because their ideas and policies threatened the interests of foreign powers and greedy officials. African leaders who have been profoundly under represented in our history books and are therefore tragically unknown to many African youth today.


So what can we learn from Sankara’s leadership?

He was neither a perfect president, nor the solution to all of Africa’s problems, but he understood that leadership is fundamentally a service to the people. It seems like too many  have forgotten that the mandate of a civil servant is to serve: to meet the needs of the people who have bestowed on you the honor and a great responsibility.

Additionally, a leader ought to be a visionary: someone with a strong political ideology based on concrete ideas about what the society ought to strive for. We have so many different political parties on the continent, but what do they really stand for; besides ethnic grouping and regional prejudice? Africa needs leaders with a plan and not just a party.

It has been said that “2there is no morality in politics, people serve their own interests and that is just the way it is”. Such an attitude only serves to reproduce injustice and hypocrisy. As Africans, we can, and we must be better. We must envision more for ourselves, think differently, and push the boundaries to demand more from our governments. We must elect people with ethically driven idea’s that we can invest in. People who uphold political systems that protect the vulnerable, empower the youth, and provide nurturing environments for investment. Political systems that are cognizant of our numerous natural resources and that safeguard these resources for future generations.

There is currently a fascinating global trend in which the most marginalized social groups are pushing back hardest to outperform and defy the odds. As of 2015, black women in America are the most educated social group in the country. Similarly, African immigrants are outperforming all other immigrant groups in the US. I truly believe that the African continent has the potential to follow this trend and to lead the world with an evolved social, political and economic consciousness.

I believe that as an African collective, we already hold the answers to our problems. Ignorance will kill, and has killed us, but the days of childish division are over. We must not allow ourselves to be drawn into the rhetoric of hate, propagated by people who take advantage of the most desperate. We need people with strong principles to stand against the small-minded tribalism, sexism, corruption, hate and anger. People who understand that our future is as one nation and one continent. We have the resources, the people and the tools. The time for pan-African revolution is now. There are so many great African minds, we must connect these visionaries, spread their ideas and build ourselves with their knowledge. People like Sankara. We must learn form our history in order to build a future we believe in.



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