Thomas Sankara and the Assassination of Africa’s Memory

15 Oct

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 nation.

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.

The One who Feeds youThomas 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 president.

Upright manIn 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. 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.

Sankara's Grave1

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 contents.

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.


Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Essays


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20 responses to “Thomas Sankara and the Assassination of Africa’s Memory

  1. Daniel Turikumwe

    October 16, 2013 at 7:06 am

    I am really happy for reading this amazing story, it shows me that we still have people in Africa who are committed and wish to see a new African era. Thank you Dr Chicka I am glad to have you as my Lecturer, you inspire me much more.
    I have questions, why does this grave of a brave man of Africa look like that? Unclean and it seems like Africa does not recognize its heroes, I am very sad to see this grave, wish I was one of African Union leader, I could set an organization in charge of building memorials for our heroes.

    i had a chance of visiting Washington DC and saw how Smithsonians built different memorials for Americal history heroes and was so amazed, but African presidents and leaders go there to visit too while we have our heroes just forgotten whose graves are like Sankara’s. I personally love this man.

    Dr Chicka hope you become a leader and you can make something.


    • chikaforafrica

      October 29, 2013 at 12:29 pm

      Thanks, Daniel. It is unfortunate that in Africa, we do not recognize our own heroes. We are enthralled by everything western or foreign, but have not been taught to value ourselves. There is a collective sense of low self-esteem among Africans. Unfortunately, the African Union you mentioned is not particularly interested in raising awareness on such issues as that of the celebration of Africa’s heroes. Except the new leadership of Dlamini-Zuma decides to be radically different. Daniel, you can become a leader and change the continent. I think you are on that path already. A leader is made by the virtues which I think you are cultivating. Keep up the good work.

  2. Ernest Adams

    October 29, 2013 at 10:35 am

    I am African, born in the US – State of Georgia. I am fascinated and inspired with what President Thomas Sankara was able to accomplish for his country in such a short time. His assassination was truly a very sad and a painful lost for his people and the world. A “Up Right Man”, a true HERO of his people and AFRICA.. Dr. Chicka I have many questions – due to time and space – I must be brief: Why did the people of Burkin Faso people let the great achievements and programs of President Sankara fade away? Has historians written about his efforts to improve the lives of his people – his legacy? Does the School System teach the children about his time and life? What about his Family, do they speak out about him? THANK YOU!

    • chikaforafrica

      October 29, 2013 at 12:23 pm

      Thanks, Ernest. The Burkinabes love Thomas Sankara, but as a Burkinabe intellectual told me, “you are not allowed to talk about him here.” There appears to be an ever-present fear that extolling the virtues of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso will attract the irk of the present government, led by Blaise Campaore, who is implicated in Sankara’s assassination. Quite a few historians have written about Thomas Sankara, but not an appreciable number. You may look at for books such as The Biography of Thomas Sankara by Bruno Jaffes and other works. You may also wish to purchase a collection of his speeches or a DVD documentary on him. Does the school system teach about Thomas Sankara? Across Africa, the general answer is a no. For the most part, Africa’s curricula is founded along Euro-American lines because westerners are heavily involved in the funding, formulation and implementation of education policy across the continent. There is hope that will soon gradually begin to change, however. Yes, Thomas Sankara’s wife and family have been asking the United Nations Human Rights Committee to compel Blaise Campaore to state the circumstances surrounding his death. Although the committee approved in 2006 that the Thomas Sankara family has “the right to know the circumstances of his death” the government of Burkina Faso, led by Blaise Campaore has not responded in any meaningful way. The family continues to fight.

  3. annick

    December 8, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Wow, i’m happy to read this article, it changed me and Will probably change others, i’m now proud to be an african.

    • chikaforafrica

      December 8, 2013 at 1:21 pm

      Thanks, Annick. I am happy you are now a proud African.

  4. ibrahim Mahmud

    January 13, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Dr Chika great piece,Thomas Sankara was a great African hero,as a young man growing up i had tremendous admiration for the ideals and values Sankara stood and died for.I was deeply saddened by his assassination,Africa need more men of Honor in the likes of Sankara for the African continent to fully realize its potentials.The youths of today know little of true heroes like the Great Thomas Sankara

    • chikaforafrica

      January 13, 2014 at 3:31 pm

      Thanks, Ibrahim. I can only imagine your sadness on hearing of Thomas Sankara’s assassination. As we continue to hold his legacy up before younger Africans, it won’t be long before another like him, and perhaps greater, will arise. Best.

  5. Ajibade Otolorin

    March 1, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Dr Chika,I am happy and surprised that there are some Africans who still believe and clamour for a renewed hope for the a
    African continent like you.I am an educationist whose lifelong ambition is to run a school at whatever level whose curriculum will be anchored to a substantial degree on African and Pan-African values.Finance is a big problem but I find it difficult to let the dream die

    • chikaforafrica

      March 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      Thanks much for writing, Ajibade. I am happy to know that you will not let your dream of building a school with African-centered curriculum die. Where there is life, there is hope. Please keep the hope alive because if you lose that, you have lost everything. I look forward to stepping into your school premises someday.

  6. Omugabi Katosi

    March 7, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I agree with the opinions above. Dr Chika, when are you visiting Uganda?

    • chikaforafrica

      March 10, 2014 at 9:06 am

      Thanks, Omugabi. I regret that I do not have plans to visit Uganda in the near future. But who knows, a window of opportunity could open sooner than we both can imagine.

  7. isaacongomadero

    November 28, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Reblogged this on 7154.adero.

  8. Alfred The Marshal (ATM)

    December 11, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    An awareness of our past is essential for establishment of our personality and identity as Africans. Dr. Chika, thank you for another soul-gripping and thought provoking piece. If we do not have intangible foundations, we cannot sustain physical infrastructure. This is what Miquel Brockman had to say at the 63rd UN General Assembly session “we must ask for forgiveness and consciously acknowledge the damage done by one part of humanity. States must think of different ways to compensate for the cultural, economic and social wrongs committed against African countries, we must recognize that the rich countries built the foundation of their economies from the sweat and lives of millions of African slaves”. I can hear the resounding echo of Eric Garner’s voice in my subconscious, “i can’t breathe”. I held my breath when I saw grave of the brave Thomas Sankara and i soberly asked, O my God, where at thou? A heroic president of monumental achievements buried without any national colors of admiration . Education is the creative ability to listen to almost anything without losing yourself-confidence and temper. The operating system of our philosophy of life, values, beliefs, socio-cultural exposure, educational attainment and faith must be centered on setting goals to be who we want to become not necessarily where we want to be. As Africans we must be more growth-oriented than goal-oriented. Some goals are selfish and very destructive, it can be only be achieved by bringing someone down in order to go up. We will never forget the virtues of self-determination that Thomas Sankara stood for. Great leaders never die because their works are always immortalized in our hearts. I am inspired , thank you Dr. Chika

    • chikaforafrica

      February 2, 2015 at 9:16 am

      Yours is a deep soul, ATM. You packed a lifetime of wisdom in your short note. Thank you so much.Indeed, “the operating system of our philosophy of life, values, beliefs, socio-cultural exposure, educational attainment and faith must be centered on setting goals to be who we want to become not necessarily where we want to be.” Life is about who we are – what we shall become is a natural offspring of who we are and who we are striving to be. It is one of the greatest deceits of our time, to think we can acquire success, without a soul that is successful in consistently generating and maintaining excellent thoughts, ideas and thought of peace, love and respect for self and neighbor. I appreciate your depth ATM.

  9. ATM

    April 29, 2015 at 9:53 am

    Dr. Chika a true Pan-Africanist, i was moved to come back here again and read this very insightful article. Indeed, Thomas Sankara was a man of great faith, he understood the conceptual capacity of faith, without faith one will have a limited perception about the reality of life. Faith is the original technology. I have not seen any recent write up from you, i am eagerly waiting to draw inspiration from your great fountain of knowledge.

  10. Daniel Sonny Sibiya aka Sanzaa

    May 18, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    Dr.Chika,i am from South Africa,i am touched by what i have read about Thomas Sankara,for the first time to hear of his name but i can see now that should this hero didn’t assassinated,Africa should not be in the disasteral situation as it is today.Thomas was thinking of other people than himself.He was man the man of the people,i wish one Africa would have a man like him.Someone who will change the minds of the African people..despite the western pressures.

    • chikaforafrica

      May 18, 2016 at 9:47 pm

      Thank you for reading, Daniel. Most certainly, Africa is in need of revolutionary thinkers, who should not only be political leaders, but also entrepreneurs, researchers, teachers, academics, entertainers etc. Africa needs authentic, self-assured, independent thinking across spectrum. I think there are people rising in different spheres, we only need to up the momentum. Regards.

  11. Irvine Nyaningwe

    May 12, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    The tragedy of Africa Dr Chika is lack of self-actualization long stolen by the colonial imperial system, the continued exploitation of Africa and its people is an an unbearable mental misery. Assure you Africa Sankara is alive irrespective of his grave state, no mortal can kill a dream and a live vision for millions of African people.


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