Thomas Sankara was Burkina Faso’s
president from August 1983 until his
assassination on October 15, 1987.
Perhaps, more than any other African
president in living memory, Thomas
Sankara, in four years, transformed
Burkina Faso from a poor country,
dependent on aid, to an economically
independent and socially progressive
Thomas Sankara began by purging the
deeply entrenched bureaucratic and
institutional corruption in Burkina
Faso. He slashed the salaries of
ministers and sold off the fleet of
exotic cars in the president’s convoy,
opting instead for the cheapest brand
of car available in Burkina Faso,
Renault 5. His salary was $450 per
month and he refused to use the air
conditioning units in his office, saying
that he felt guilty doing so, since very
few of his country people could
afford it. Thomas Sankara would not
let his portrait be hung in offices and
government institutions in Burkina
Faso, because every Burkinabe is a
Thomas Sankara, he declared.
Sankara changed the name of the
country from the colonially imposed
Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which
means land of upright men.
Thomas Sankara’s achievements are
numerous and can only be summarized
briefly; within the first year of his
leadership, Sankara embarked on an
unprecedented mass vaccination
program that saw 2.5 million
Burkinabe children vaccinated. From
an alarming 280 deaths for every
1,000 births, infant mortality was
immediately slashed to below 145
deaths per 1,000 live births. Sankara
preached self reliance, he banned the
importation of several items into
Burkina Faso, and encouraged the
growth of the local industry. It was
not long before Burkinabes were
wearing 100% cotton sourced, woven
and tailored in Burkina Faso. From
being a net importer of food, Thomas
Sankara began to aggressively
promote agriculture in Burkina Faso,
telling his country people to quit
eating imported rice and grain from
Europe, “let us consume only what we
ourselves control,” he emphasized. In
less than 4 years, Burkina Faso
became self sufficient in food
production through the redistribution
of lands from the hands of corrupt
chiefs and land owners to local
farmers, and through massive
irrigation and fertilizer distribution
programs. Thomas Sankara utilized
various policies and government
assistance to encourage Burkinabes to
get education. In less than two years
as president, school attendance
jumped from about 10% to a little
below 25%, thus overturning the 90%
illiteracy rate he met upon assumption
of office.
Living way ahead of his time, within
12 months of his leadership, Sankara
vigorously pursued a reforestation
program that saw over 10 million trees
planted around the country in order
to push back the encroachment of the
Sahara Desert. Uncommon at the time
he lived, Sankara stressed women
empowerment and campaigned for the
dignity of women in a traditional
patriarchal society. He employed
women in several government positions
and declared a day of solidarity with
housewives by mandating their
husbands to take on their roles for 24
hours. A personal fitness enthusiast,
Sankara encouraged Burkinabes to be
fit and was regularly seen jogging
unaccompanied on the streets of
Ouagadougou; his waistline remained
the same throughout his tenure as
In 1987, during a meeting of African
leaders under the auspices of the
Organization of African Unity, Thomas
Sankara tried to convince his peers to
turn their backs on the debt owed
western nations. According to him,
“debt is a cleverly managed
reconquest of Africa. It is a
reconquest that turns each one of us
into a financial slave.” He would not
request for, nor accept aid from the
west, noting that “…welfare and aid
policies have only ended up
disorganizing us, subjugating us, and
robbing us of a sense of responsibility
for our own economic, political, and
cultural affairs. We chose to risk new
paths to achieve greater well-being.”
Thomas Sankara was a pan-Africanist
who spoke out against apartheid,
telling French President Jacques
Chirac, during his visit to Burkina
Faso, that it was wrong for him to
support the apartheid government and
that he must be ready to bear the
consequences of his actions. Sankara’s
policies and his unapologetic anti-
imperialist stand made him an enemy
of France, Burkina Faso’s former
colonial master. He spoke truth to
power fearlessly and paid with his
life. Upon his assassination, his most
valuable possessions were a car, a
refrigerator, three guitars,
motorcycles, a broken down freezer
and about $400 in cash.
In death, Thomas Sankara’s burial
place is unkempt and filled with weeds
(click to see Thomas Sankara’s
bY2UpSxXPlw ). Few young Africans
have ever heard of Thomas Sankara.
In reality, it is not the assassination
of Thomas Sankara that has dealt a
lethal blow to Africa and Africans; it
is the assassination of his memory, as
manifested in the indifference to his
legacy, in the lack of constant
reference to his ideals and ideas by
Africans, by those who know and
those who should know. Among
physical and mental dirt and debris lie
Africa’s heroes while the younger
generations search in vain for role
models from among their kind.
Africans have therefore, internalized
self-abhorrence and the convictions
of innate incapability to bring about
transformation. Transformation must
run contrary to the African’s DNA,
many Africans subconsciously believe.
Africans are not given to celebrating
their own heroes, but this must
change. It is a colonial legacy that
was instituted to establish the
inferiority of the colonized and
justify colonialism. It was a strategic
policy that ensured that Africans
celebrated the heroes of their colonial
masters, but not that of Africa. Fifty
years and counting after colonialism
ended, Africa’s curriculum must now
be redrafted to reflect the numerous
achievements of Africans. The present
generation of Africans is thirsty,
searching for where to draw the
moral, intellectual and spiritual
courage to effect change. The waters
to quench the thirst, as other
continents have already established,
lies fundamentally in history –
in Africa’s forbears, men, women and
children who experienced much of
what most Africans currently
experience, but who chose to toe a
different path. The media,
entertainment industry, civil society
groups, writers, institutions and
organizations must begin to search
out and include African role models,
case studies and examples in their
For Africans, the strength
desperately needed for the
transformation of the continent
cannot be drawn from World Bank and
IMF policies, from aid and assistance
obtained from China, India, the
United States or Europe. The strength
to transform Africa lies in the
foundations laid by uncommon heroes
like Thomas Sankara; a man who
showed Africa and the world that with
a single minded pursuit of purpose,
the worst can be made the best, and
in record time, too.

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