President Thomas Sankara: A 70th Birthday Tribute

Upright man

President Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara would have turned 70 on the 21st of December 2019. At the tender age of 37, however, he was felled by bullets from soldiers loyal to his best friend, Blaise Campaore. Thomas Sankara’s passion was Africa’s advancement; his experimental field was Burkina Faso. What President Sankara wanted to see in Africa, he strategized, mobilized and implemented in Burkina Faso. He would then present his successes to African leaders, while encouraging them to surpass his achievements.  Thomas Sankara’s achievement are too numerous to be summarized in an essay or even be elucidated in any book, but a few key points will be here noted.

Perhaps, the first in Thomas Sankara’s achievement is his refusal to borrow a dime from the IMF or any other foreign government or agency, mobilizing instead his fellow citizens to invest in community development and to consume only what the land of Burkina Faso yielded.  Likewise, President Sankara, at the risk of being a target of the malignancy of Western governments, strongly encouraged other African leaders to shun external aid and borrowing. Thomas Sankara implored African leaders to rethink governance by reorganizing governmental systems and expressing those systems along a different line from the West in order to reduce costs and simplify governance.

A Pan-Africanist who was deeply committed to the cause of African people, it bothered President Sankara that African leaders were not seriously investing in the progress and unity of the continent, but were excited about uniting and aligning with the West. At a 29 July 1987 meeting of African leaders in Addis Ababa, he decried the poor attendance often recorded at meetings where Africa’s advancement is discussed; “Mister President,” he asked the [O]AU chairman, “how many heads of state are ready to head off to Paris, London, or Washington when they are called to a meeting there, but cannot come to a meeting here in Addis-Ababa, in Africa?”

Like Patrice Lumumba, Sankara incurred the wrath of the French President, Francois Mitterand when Mitterand visited Ouagadougou in 1986. Citing the spirit of the 1789 French Revolution, President Sankara reprimanded France for its oppressive policies in Africa and for the disrespectful treatment of African immigrants in France. Mitterand was livid with rage. He was used to African leaders groveling and shriveling under the mighty-hand of France. The French President would toss his prepared speech aside and take on Sankara, concluding with the thinly veiled threat, “This is a somewhat troublesome man, President Sankara!” Many would say that Sankara’s days were numbered after that fateful visit.

Prior to the French President’s visit, Thomas Sankara, a man of deep philosophical convictions, had in 1984 dumped the colonially contrived and imposed name of Upper Volta to call the nation what they wanted to be known as, Burkina Faso, “Land of Incorruptible People.” That renaming exercise was paired with an asset declaration exercise where President Sankara made known his properties, consisting of one working and one broken down refrigerators, three guitars, four regular motorcycles and one car. Thomas Sankara capped his salary at $462 and forbade both the hanging of his portrait at public places and any form of reverence attached to his person or presence.  Burkina Faso is about Burkinabes and there are 7 million of them. This seemed to be his guiding principle.

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