Born In: Yako, Burkina Faso
Thomas Sankara was a Burkinabé revolutionary who served as the president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. A communist and a pan-Africanist, he was also known as "Africa's Che Guevara.” Sankara had learned about left-leaning politics at his military academy. He became the prime minister of his country in January 1983 but was imprisoned due to differences with the government. His men, led by Blaise Compaoré, seized power through a coup and made Sankara the president in August 1983. Sankara introduced significant reforms in just 4 years of his reign. He strengthened women’s rights, planted millions of trees, built roads and railways, reduced the salaries of government officials, and himself led a simple life. He was killed by armed men in a meeting in 1987, following which Compaoré became a dictator.
Also Known As: Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara
Died At Age: 37
Spouse/Ex-: Mariam Sankara (m. ?–1987)
father: Sambo Joseph Sankara
mother: Marguerite Sankara
siblings: Odile Sankara, Paul Sankara
children: Auguste Sankara, Philippe Sankara
Born Country: Burkina Faso
place of death: Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Cause of Death: Assassination
Thomas Sankara was born Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, on December 21, 1949, in Yako, French Upper Volta, into a Roman Catholic family.
He was the third of the 10 children born to Joseph and Marguerite Sankara. His father was a gendarme and of mixed Mossi–Fulani (Silmi–Moaga) descent. Sankara’s mother was of pure Mossi origins.
He mostly grew up in Gaoua, where his father was posted as an auxiliary gendarme. Sankara had a comfortable childhood as the son of one of the rare few African employees of the colonial state
He and his family lived in a brick house, with other gendarmes and their families, perched on a hill.
Sankara studied at the Bobo-Dioulasso primary school. He was especially good at math and French. He was a frequent church-goer.
He was encouraged to join a seminary school after finishing primary school. Though Sankara agreed to do so initially, he later cleared the exam for entering the sixth grade in the secular school system.
Thomas thus joined the lycée Ouezzin Coulibaly. He left his home to live in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's commercial hub, where the school was located.
His Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but Sankara eventually plunged into a military career, after finishing his education.
In 1966, at the tender age of 17, Sankara joined the military academy of Kadiogo in Ouagadougou. There, he was witness to the first military coup d'état in Upper Volta, presided over by Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana.
In 1970, when Sankara was 20, he went for an officers’ training at Antsirabe in Madagascar. There, he saw a revolt of students and workers that managed to oust Madagascar’s government. He later graduated from the institute as a junior officer. At the academy, he studied subjects such as agriculture, apart from the usual military subjects.
Before going back to Upper Volta, Sankara had also joined a parachute academy in France, where he learned a lot about left-wing politics. In 1974, he became famous for his contribution toward the border war with Mali.
In 1976, Sankara became the commander of the Commando Training Centre located in Pô. He also met Blaise Compaoré in Morocco that year. When Colonel Saye Zerbo served as the president, Sankara and a group of fellow budding officers created a secret organization named the Communist Officers' Group.
In September 1981, Sankara was made the minister of information in Saye Zerbo's military government. Sankara was quite different from the other government employees, as he rode his bike to work daily. He also allowed complete freedom of press.
A coup on November 7, 1982, brought Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo to power, and Sankara became the prime minister in January 1983.
However, Sankara was dismissed on May 17 that year, due to differences with the government, and arrested soon. The young officers protested his arrest, and his friend Blaise Compaoré led another coup.
Compaoré’s coup ended in Sankara being made the president on August 4, 1983, at the tender age of 33. Immediately after this, Sankara introduced a host of reforms.
In 1984, marking the first anniversary of his presidency, Sankara renamed the country “Burkina Faso,” which meant "the land of upright people" in Dyula and Moré, the two main languages of the country. He also wrote the country’s new national anthem, Une Seule Nuit, and gave it a new flag.
He ruled as the president for 4 years and transformed the country significantly. He slowly came to be known as “Africa's Che Guevara.”
Sankara established a judicial system called the Popular Revolutionary Tribunal, to fight against corruption, tax frauds, and "counter-revolutionary" activities. However, the courts soon became too dictatorial.
His reign also saw the inception of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Comités de Défense de la Révolution or CDRs). The CDRs were armed groups created to encourage political and social revolution, following the ideals of Fidel Castro.
Sankara also became strict toward the Mossi people, who were considered a threat to national integration. Their tribal chiefs had to give away their executive powers.
In 1985, there was a general population census in the country. During the census, a few Fula camps in Mali were mistakenly visited by Burkinabé agents. The government of Mali was offended and claimed this was an attack on the Agacher strip. As a result, on Christmas Day 1985, a war ensued, which continued for 5 days and caused about 100 deaths.
Most of Sankara’s policies, however, were progressive. He vaccinated about 2.5 million children, strengthening the fight against yellow fever, meningitis, and measles.
He established a national literacy campaign, thus increasing the literacy rate from 13% to 73% in just 4 years.
He formed the People's Harvest of Forest Nurseries, which established 7,000 village nurseries and planted more than 10 million trees to counter desertification. Sankara also built roads and a railway to connect the nation, without any foreign help.
To boost women’s empowerment, he promoted women to top governmental positions, allowed them to work in the military, and allowed pregnancy leaves during education. He also made female genital mutilation, polygamy, and forced marriages illegal.
He sold the government fleet of Mercedes cars and declared the much-cheaper Renault 5 the official car for ministers. He introduced salary cuts for all public servants, including himself. He also made all civil servants pay a month’s salary to various public projects and made it mandatory for public servants to wear a traditional tunic (made from Burkinabé cotton and created by local craftsmen).
He took land away from feudal landlords and distributed it among peasants. Sankara also spoke in forums such as the Organization of African Unity, against Western trade in Africa.
*In Ouagadougou, Sankara turned the army’s provision store into a government supermarket for all.
Amnesty International criticized Sankara’s policies for violations of human rights. He was accused of random detentions of political rivals. In 1984, seven people associated with the previous government were executed for treason. A teachers' strike that year resulted in 2,500 teachers being dismissed.
Sankara renounced basic facilities such as the air conditioning in his office. He worked on a reduced salary of $450 a month, and his possessions included a car, three guitars, four bikes, and a fridge. He created an all-woman motorcycle personal security team. He was against showcasing his portrait in public places.
On October 15, 1987, Sankara and 12 others were assassinated by an armed group, in a coup organized by Blaise Compaoré. Sankara was in the midst of a meeting with the Conseil de l'Entente when he was shot in the back.
Sankara's body was dismembered by multiple bullets. He was soon buried in an unmarked grave. His wife, Mariam, and his two children left the country.
Compaoré took over and overturned all of Sankara’s policies. He joined the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to bring in international aid. Compaoré reigned for 27 years until he was overthrown in 2014. Sankara’s remains were exhumed in 2015.
On October 15, 2007, Sankara was commemorated through ceremonies in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burundi, Tanzania, Canada, France, and the United States.
Sankara’s speeches were collated and published as Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, We Are the Heirs of the World's Revolutions: Speeches from the Burkina Faso Revolution, and Women's Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle, posthumously.
How To Cite
People Also Viewed