Africa’s Che Guevera: Thomas Sankara

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Even if you hadn’t heard of Che Guevera, you would most certainly recognise his face. One of the most famous revolutionary figures in modern history, he inspired a generation with his fight against imperialism and oppressive regimes such as Batista’s in Cuba. One of those who he inspired would go on to take on a similarly famous iconography in Sub-Saharan Africa, his name was Thomas Sankara (sometimes called ‘Africa’s Che Guevera’).

Born in Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso) in 1949, Thomas Sankara grew up into one of France’s most heavily underdeveloped colonies. Despite gaining its independence in 1960, Upper Volta remained seriously poor as the promises of good democratic governance gave way to corrupt dictatorships. Sankara watched these developments from within the military in which he formed a left-wing cabal that brought him to power in August 1983. He ruled Burkina Faso until 1987 when he was removed in a coup and much like his revolutionary icons in Cuba (the Castros) his legacy has been very controversial.

One of Sankara’s avowed aims was to forge a Burkinabé identity based on the principle of diversity and equality between the over 60 ethnic groups and tribes in Burkina Faso. He did this by changing the French colonial name ‘Upper Volta’ to the distinctly African ‘Burkina Faso’, promoting diversity within his government, celebrating cultural festivals, and making sure that news on the radio and television was multilingual. These policies were broadly successful in fostering a national identity and tolerance as Burkina Faso is less ethnically divided than many of its neighbours. Whilst, this cannot be wholly attributed to Sankara, he played an essential part in changing Upper Volta from a disparate, fractured state to a united nation. 

Women’s Rights were also a priority of Sankara’s who sought to make life better through the banning of FGM, forced marriages, and polygamy. According to Ernst Harsch, he also ‘set a minimum age for marriage, established divorce by mutual consent, recognised the widow’s right to inherit’ and created literacy classes targeted towards women. Furthermore, at a time when few women held political positions in Africa, he promoted women to his cabinet based on their merit something that was greatly symbolic. Unfortunately, whilst some progress was made, it was certainly not enough as progress remained slow and insufficient hence, why Burkinabé women still struggle with serious inequality even today. 

Burkina Faso was not just socially underdeveloped but economically too as the majority of its population worked in subsistence agriculture and were thus, very poor. Sankara envisioned a Burkina Faso that had an independent, self-sufficient economy ‘at the service of democratic and popular society’. To achieve this he used Marxist policies without prioritising the building of a Socialist society over the needs of the Burkinabé people.

His foremost policy was the redistribution of land owned by tribal chiefs (who acted like feudal lords) to the poor to stimulate food production whilst creating a higher standard of living for the poor farmers, coupled with the generous help given to farmers in the form of irrigation and fertilisation schemes which were greatly successful. It was so successful in fact that Burkina Faso had a food surplus on top of its self-sufficiency by 1987. Another successful policy of Sankara’s was his anti-desertification effort in the Sahel in the form of his planting of 10 million trees, an impressive feat for such a poor country.

Sankara was also famous for his generous social programmes and policies. By January 1986, he had established a health post for almost every village and had vaccinated around 2 million people against common diseases causing infant mortality to drop from 20.8% to 14.5% and preventing up to 50,000 child deaths. Moreover, he created basic literary schemes teaching around 36,000 illiterate villagers and school attendance rose from 6% to 22%. Combined with new initiatives on housing, transport, child assistance, job-creation, water, and family planning, it is safe to say that Sankara was making a genuine effort at improving the lives of the Burkinabé people.

Despite these successes, one could easily criticise Sankara for Burkina Faso’s meagre GDP growth during his reign or the marginal increase in GDP per capita when compared to the growth under his successors. However, they are not ideal measures of people’s welfare. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a far better indicator, but the data is not available for the time. Thus, we must make a reasonable assumption about whether life improved for the Burkinabé people under Sankara, something Ernst Harsch, Sankara’s biographer, believes they did.

Nonetheless, Sankara’s greatest hatred was for corruption and corrupt officials. He was a devout Marxist who lived a simple lifestyle with few material possessions, something he encouraged all ministers in his government to do. Furthermore, he established special anti-corruption courts which were open to the public and which tried and convicted many officials for fraud and corruption. They were mostly democratic institutions that did involve many poor people in political and judicial processes, a first for Burkina Faso.

They were initially very popular as they were seen as genuinely tackling the persistent issue of corruption which they did. However, they soon devolved into corrupt courts used to oppress enemies of the regime. They were used to settle personal vendettas, deal with ‘lazy’ workers by firing them or forcing them to do unpaid work, and as show trials to boost the popularity of the regime by supposedly punishing corrupt officials when really they were given light, suspended sentences. Moreover, extrajudicial killings became commonplace. The US state department criticised the courts claiming they didn’t meet the official international standards and two OECD officials compared it to the ‘Reign of Terror’ in the French Revolution. Over time, the novelty wore off and the courts made Sankara increasingly unpopular, but there was little way to express this dissatisfaction as the other major criticism of Sankara was that he was a strict authoritarian.

Sankara indisputably was an authoritarian leader even if he did try to promote genuine democracy in some areas. Upon entering office, he swiftly banned all political parties leading the US-funded Freedom House to designate Burkina Faso as a strict dictatorship. NGOs, namely Amnesty International, criticised the regime for its use of extrajudicial killings, detention of political opponents, and the use of repression in the face of dissent. Ultimately, it is his authoritarianism and his failure to wholly route out the corruption that prevents Sankara from being a truly great leader.

On the 15th of October, 1987, Sankara’s former right-hand man, Blaise Compaoré, who after murdering Sankara, reversed almost all of his policies and ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years. Due to this reversal of his policies, it is impossible to assess the long-term effects of many of Sankara’s policies and so we must look in the short-term. Under Sankara, Burkina Faso experienced tremendous social and economic achievements, genuinely improving the lives of the massively impoverished even if this was done behind the backdrop of authoritarianism. It is this complexity of Sankara’s legacy that makes him so intriguing and an endlessly controversial figure. 

What is undeniable about Sankara, is that he is an icon to Africans everywhere as he showed that ideas ‘that were once considered impossible could be set in motion’ and that they could act against corruption, imperialism, and authoritarianism. As the editor of Le Reporter stated that in spite of all his qualities and flaws, he was a man who “succeeded in getting an entire generation of Africans to dream”.

Oliver Turner

Image source: BBC News