Thomas Sankara – Burkina Faso’s president of the poor


While discussing the greatest and most successful revolutionaries in history, Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro are names that spring to mind for most people. In fact, they are household names. Many people however, even those who share his revolutionary views, are not as familiar with Thomas Sankara. Sankara was an African revolutionary who led Burkina Faso until a coup in 1987 which resulted in his assassination, alongside 12 comrades of his.

Before and during Sankara’s spell, Burkina Faso was in a grave situation. Lamizana, a previous unpopular president, ran a country in which the average life expectancy was 44 years and the majority of the population lived in poverty, while government ministers drove around in state owned cars and lived in luxury. Sankara was more modest in the way he lived – cycling to work, ordering his ministers to always stay in cheap accommodation while travelling and spending a lot of time with farmers and ordinary people.

Despite his clear intolerance for injustice and his solid anti-imperialism stance, Sankara rarely used labels like communist and socialist. He owned writings of Marx, Lenin and Engels, and also expressed his support of Soviet Union and Cuban revolutions. However he understood that Burkina Faso, formally of Upper Volta while a french colony, was a poor country. His revolutionary ideas encouraged pride, hard work and equality, striving towards a society without imperialism, where the people of Burkina Faso would provide whatever they need for themselves.

During his presidency, Sankara became close to fellow revolutionary Fidel Castro, and visited him in Cuba several times. The two shared similarities in their politics, including an overwhelming hatred for lazy, greedy bourgeoisie who created societies where so many people remained poor.

One fascinating and complex quote from Sankara shows a conflict of ideas which must be considered in any revolution.

The revolution of Africa faces a big danger, since it is initiated every time by the petty bourgeoisie. The petty bourgeoisie is generally made up of intellectuals. At the beginning of the revolution the big bourgeoisie is attacked. Thats easy… but after one, two or three years its necessary to take on the petty bourgeoisie. And when we take on the petty bourgeoisie we take on the leaders of the revolution…. to take on the petty bourgeoisie means keeping the revolution radical, and there you will face many difficulties. Or you can go easy on the petty bourgeoisie. You won’t have any difficulties. But then it won’t be a revolution – it will be a psuedorevolution.

Thomas Sankara

This quote essentially describes how for a revolution to be successful and liberating, any form of oppression must be removed, including even that of the intellectuals who started the revolution in this case. If this is not the case then the so called revolution is purely reformative.

The people of Burkina Faso mourned for Sankara after his assassination. He changed the nation for the better, creating a proud and hard working society. He encouraged those in higher positions to lead modest lives and he did also. The people of Burkina Faso became increasingly independent, building schools, hospitals and wells to provide for themselves. Women’s rights were of great importance to Sankara and he implanted many policies to help women of the country.

The fact that Sankara’s killer was a former friend and fellow revolutionary shows the divide of opinions in the far left, even between those who share similar ideologies. Under the new leader Blaise Compaore, despite his revolutionary ideas, sadly living standards deteriorated for Burkina Faso and it remains in a difficult situation. However, Thomas Sankara left a legacy which will stay with the workers of Burkina Faso and all across the world. He fought endlessly for an end to injustice, greed and poverty, revolutionised African politics and his message will fuel change and hope in time to come.


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