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Sankara: The authoritarian who liberated a nation

Max Roch gives a lesson on the most famous Marxist dictator you've never heard of.

President Thomas Sankara was assassinated on October 15th 1987 by a coward named Blaise Compaoré. For a continent where death is inextricably woven into the fabric of daily life, this death had a devastating impact not only in Burkina Faso but for Africa as a whole.

Thomas Sankara seized control of the Upper Volta with the help of Blaise Compaoré in a popular coup on August 4th 1983. Few would have thought that Sankara’s right hand man would be the same traitor that usurped his rightly deserved authority four years on. He was a pioneer who embarked on arguably the most effective social economic economic program in African history.

Sankara was a charismatic Marxist revolutionary with no concern for private property or personal wealth. Such qualities seem rare on a continent where, historically, leaders have flown the red flag as a mere front for a centralised economy through which control and embezzlement could be used to amass a fortune behind a closed curtain. This is where Sankara differed. The first thing he did as leader was to lower his presidential wage to a paltry $450 a month and sell the government-owned fleet of Mercedes. When the ministers demanded to know how they would be travelling, Sankara presented them with replacement Renault 5 hatchbacks (the cheapest production car in Africa at the time). It is almost unimaginable to think of a modern dictator or even a modern democratic leader having the humility to arrive in what is essentially a fridge with wheels.

A man of unshakeable principles and a genuine patriot, Sankara rejected his nation’s original name of Upper Volta due to the connotations of colonial oppression. The country was instead renamed Burkina Faso, meaning ‘land of the upright people’ in Moore and Dioula. Sankara rejected colonial influence and the West, demanding that Africa unite and absolve themselves of all debt to Western powers on grounds that the poor should not be giving money to those profiting from exploitation.

His concern for the plight of the poor was genuine. In his first year of power he stripped the tribal chiefs of their feudal rights to serfdom and land tributes. Building on this policy, Sankara redistributed land and within three years wheat crops had doubled.

As a revolutionary leader committed to innovative reform, Sankara’s policies always broke the mould, be they social or economic. He was a pioneer of women’s rights, saying that ‘the revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.’

Women’s rights have historically taken a backseat in most African leaders’ policies, but during Sankara’s brief tenure they were educated and actively recruited into the army, his personal bodyguards and even the cabinet. On top of this, he banned the horrific practices of genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages. His fervent belief in gender equality led him to urge the male Burkinabe to go out to the market and prepare food so as not to reinforce the institutionalised role of women.

Sankara’s innovative healthcare policy led to a nationwide vaccination programme which immunised 2.5 million Burkinabe children from measles, meningitis and yellow fever. Sankara understood the threat of AIDS and was the first African leader to publicly acknowledge the disease. He did not stop there, going on to introduce both an education programme on sexual health and free contraception for the Burkinabe. This may sound rather banal but the reality is that the majority of African leaders have opposed contraception due to the use of religion as a political tool.

Sankara overtly cared for his people and the sentiment was mutual. He was known to jog through the streets of Ouagadougou unarmed and would converse with the populace in person. 25 years have passed and he is still loved in Burkina Faso to an almost canonical extent. A cynic would argue that his unwavering popularity was resultant of a cult personality but this claim is unfounded. When asked why his portrait did not adorn the walls of Burkinabe schools, hospitals and institutions in the manner of most authoritarians, he replied, ‘because there are 7,000,000 Thomas Sankaras’ in Burkina Faso.

So why was Sankara assassinated? His economic morality led to his downfall due to the nationalisation of major industries and his increasing isolationist policy. As such, Western business interests in the Ivory Coast were dramatically affected. He was anti-Western to the core, so much so that he rejected all foreign aid. Some may see this as proud and impetuous but as Sankara explained, ‘he who feeds you, controls you’. This sentiment echoes throughout Africa to this day. He rejected both the structuring of the IMF and World Bank and maintained a steadfast refusal to pay Odious Debt. From a Western perspective his morality was troublesome enough, but when he started to affect profits, it was decided he was unfit to rule.

According to former Liberian warlord Prince Johnson, the former Liberian president Charles Taylor initiated Sankara’s assassination. Taylor financially backed the coup led by Blaise Compaoré in 1987 and – according to Prince Johnson – the CIA was involved with Taylor from the start. This may sound conspiratorial to the ill informed but it is a logical conclusion that is evidentially reinforced and indicative of US foreign policy in Africa. Patrice Lumumba of the Congo was assassinated by the CIA and Belgian government officials. Salvador Allende of Chile was killed by the US backed Pinochet regime that resulted in a myriad of dead Chileans. Both of these deaths have been claimed by the CIA in the declassified files. John Stockwell, a former CIA operative, believes that Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana was ousted by the West. Ulysses Estrada, a theorist involved in the Castro movement, believes Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau and Eduardo Montlane of Mozambique received the same fate.

This is the reality of the world we occupy. Do not be fooled by promises of aid in intervention because the motive is both ulterior and morally abhorrent. Western politics does not account for the welfare of the African continent and Burkina Faso is the epitome of this. The West assisted in the murder of Thomas Sankara and in return they received Blaise Compaoré who reversed every nationalisation, bent over to every demand and subjugation of the IMF and u-turned on every progressive domestic policy. Burkina Faso lost their economic and domestic independence for four rigged elections. Compaoré is now leading a life of wealth and decadence whilst Burkina Faso is one of the least developed countries in the world with a 21% literacy rate. While Campaoré celebrates his 25th years of illegitimate rule, Thomas Sankara lies in an unmarked grave somewhere on the outskirts of Ouagadougou.

While there are strong radical leaders in Africa, and other less developed continents, the pioneers never permitted to last. Stability and progressive reform would undermine the repressive economic and foreign policies of Western powers. Such leaders would be identified as authoritarian, Marxist and radical. However, when you are building a country out of the rubble of decolonisation, full control combined with normative policies can lead to economic, social and political progress. This was demonstrated by Thomas Sankara. Intervention is seldom in the interest of the indigenous; the West rarely gives out democracy in return for nothing.

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