Thomas Sankara: The Revolutionary Icon of Burkina Faso

A socialist hero of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara is today an icon of Marxism and a martyr for his own country.

Jul 6, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

thomas sankara burkina faso revolutionary


Thomas Sankara is hailed as a hero. The leader of Burkina Faso, he had successfully steered his country through hardships and, with an anti-imperialist, socialist stance, had given the people of his country hope for the future.


On October 15, 1987, Sankara was assassinated in a coup d’état. It wasn’t until three decades later that the circumstances of his death came to light. Those accused were tried in absentia in 2021. What happened was a stain on his successor’s reputation and has thrown a lot of suspicion on the neighboring country of Ivory Coast as well as the nation of France. His legacy has grown over time and urges a re-examination of his life, death, and why he was murdered.


Early Life of Thomas Sankara

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Thomas Sankara was an accomplished guitarist, from Patrick Aventurier / Gamma-Rapho, via AFP/Getty Images


Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was born on December 21, 1949, in the town of Yako in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). At the time, Upper Volta was a French colony, and his father, a member of the gendarmerie, was one of the few Africans in the employ of the colonial government. As such, he and his family had privileges that the vast majority of the people did not.


Thomas Sankara was a studious boy who put a lot of effort into his schoolwork. He was particularly good at math and French. His father had wanted him to enter the priesthood, but Thomas decided to join the military instead, which at the time was a popular decision among young men in the country.

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In 1966, at the age of 17, Thomas Sankara entered the military academy in the capital of Ouagadougou. While there, Sankara witnessed the first military coup d’état in Upper Volta, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana. The academy had many civilian professors trained in the social sciences, and Thomas Sankara was exposed to many ideologies, such as Anticolonialism, Anti-imperialism, and Marxism. He was also educated in socialist and liberation movements.


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Map of West Africa showing Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, via Encyclopaedia Britannica


After three years, Sankara left Ouagadougou and received further military training in Madagascar, where he also learned a great deal about agriculture. While in Madagascar, he witnessed popular uprisings against the government of President Philbert Tsiranana.


In 1972, Sankara returned to Upper Volta and took part in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali. He distinguished himself in this conflict, although he would later describe the war as unjust.


In Ouagadougou, he became an immensely popular figure as a guitarist for a band named Tout-à-Coup Jazz. Despite his success as a musician, he continued with his military career. In 1976, he became the commander of a commando training center in the city of Pô in the south of the country. In the same year, he became part of a secret organization called the Communist Officers’ Group, which included Blaise Compaoré, who would, in the future, play a significant role in the death of Thomas Sankara.


Thomas Sankara Enters Politics

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Blaise Compaoré (left) and Thomas Sankara, via Ventures Africa


In 1981, Thomas Sankara received his first post in the government as Minister of Information under President Saye Zerbo’s military government. During his time in government, he was appalled by the excesses of other ministers, and he distanced himself as much as possible from them. While others drove to work in expensive cars, Sankara rode a bicycle. While others sought to censor the media, Sankara was open and honest, which led to government scandals. Predictably, he was disliked by colleagues, and he resigned in April 1982.


Later that year, another coup propelled Major Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo to power, and he appointed Thomas Sankara as his Prime Minister. Despite the change in government, Sankara again gained the ire of his colleagues by pushing for progressive reforms. Distrust in him grew so high that he was dismissed within four months and then imprisoned.


This proved a fatal mistake for the sitting government, as Sankara had developed considerable support within the military, and his imprisonment provided significant momentum for his fellow officer Blaise Compaoré to lead a coup and depose the government of Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo. On August 4, 1983, Thomas Sankara was made president.


The Progressive Presidency of Thomas Sankara

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The flag of Burkina Faso adopted under the rule of Thomas Sankara, via Encyclopaedia Britannica


Thomas Sankara saw himself as a revolutionary in the same vein as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. He was devoted to Anti-imperialism, which sent red flags waving throughout the Western world.


However, his policies were not geared toward fighting external forces but focused on his own country’s problems. His platform focused heavily on dealing with corruption. Sankara was also sold on the benefits of reforestation, which became a major policy of his government.


Thomas Sankara renamed the country “Burkina Faso,” which means “land of upright people” in the languages of Mooré and Dyula, two of the country’s major languages. He also changed the country’s flag and implemented a new national anthem.


His first policy as president was to improve the living conditions of the people of Burkina Faso. He implemented policies to provide housing, healthcare, and food, which greatly reduced the poverty in the country.


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Thomas Sankara in 1986, Alexander Joe/AFP, via the Guardian


Vaccination drives saw meningitis, polio, and measles tackled. From 1983 to 1985, two million Burkinabé were vaccinated. This represented over a quarter of the entire population. Sankara’s government was also the first African country to recognize the AIDS epidemic.


Housing was a priority, and brick factories were set up in an attempt to eradicate the large slums that were present in the country. A vast rail and road network soon connected all parts of the country, and ten million trees were planted to curb deforestation. Sankara was arguably the first African leader to put such a high priority on ecology, especially at a time when it was not seen as a major factor affecting the world. Sankara introduced laws that punished those for starting brush fires, letting their cattle roam, and illegally cutting firewood.


One of the priorities of the Sankara regime was to improve the situation for women across the country, including equal rights. Genital mutilation, polygamy, and forced marriage were the first casualties of this policy and were banned outright.


Many women were given positions of power within the government and the military, which was a move unprecedented in any African country at the time. Sankara gave speeches and suggested that men try to do the labor that women were expected to do in order for men to better understand the position of women in society.


Other Notable Policies & Events

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Tribute to Thomas Sankara in Ivry-Sur-Seine, Paris, via Vue d’Afrique


Not all of Thomas Sankara’s policies were successful. He instituted Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) which were little more than armed militias tasked with spreading revolutionary thought and protecting the government. These armed groups were also seen as a counter to the power wielded by the armed forces. The CDRs ended up abusing their power, and acts of thuggery became commonplace. Sankara admitted that this policy had been a failure.


A system of courts known as the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals was created as a way to publicly display the government’s attention to justice. Corrupt officials and those suspected of tax evasion were the first to be targeted. Sentences were light, but the defendants were not given the right to counsel, and the trials became a way for officials to publicly humiliate their rivals. Workers were put on trial for “laziness” and sentenced to work for free, while other powerful officials created their own courts.


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President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, via Afrik


Sankara’s insistence on equality also put his government at odds with the significantly large Mossi ethnic group, which had a strict hierarchical social structure. This structure was seen as an obstacle to the creation of unity and equality within the country, and many of the Mossi elite were stripped of their privileges.


In addition to these unsuccessful policies, in December 1985, Burkina Faso and Mali fought a minor war over the disputed Agacher Strip, a small piece of land on the border between the two countries. After five days of fighting, and the death of around 150 people, the Strip was partitioned.


During his tenure as president, Thomas Sankara’s leftist policies saw the country shift its foreign relations away from Western powers and more towards communist and left-leaning administrations. Of particular note was the relationship which developed between Burkina Faso and Cuba. After Thomas Sankara met with Fidel Castro, hundreds of Burkinabé children were flown to Cuba to be trained as doctors, engineers, and agronomists.


Public Image

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Statue of Thomas Sankara, from AFP – Olympia De Maismont, via RFI


Thomas Sankara won widespread support because of the way he presented himself. He showed solidarity with the people of his country by denying himself the luxuries that were generally afforded to government ministers. He sold the government fleet of Mercedes and replaced it with the Renault 5, the cheapest car available in Burkina Faso. He even refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that it was an unnecessary luxury that wasn’t available to the Burkinabé people.


He promoted an image of humility and was seen as a humble man. He was against his portrait being used to decorate walls and public buildings.


Thomas Sankara’s Death

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A wreath-laying ceremony outside the building where Thomas Sankara was assassinated, April 2022, from Sophie Garcia / AP, via Almayadeen


On October 15, 1987, Thomas Sankara was assassinated by a group of armed men during a coup organized by his former friend, Blaise Compaoré, who then ruled the country for the next 27 years. Compaoré reversed virtually all of Sankara’s progressive policies and aligned Burkina Faso with the West. Compaoré was ousted in 2014 and tried in absentia in 2021. In April 2022, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, although he is unlikely to ever serve his time. He currently lives in Ivory Coast with his family.


The trial also shed light on the fact that Ivory Coast, France, and possibly the United States were involved in the assassination, although no damning evidence has been received, as the French government has refused to release all the necessary documents.


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The grave of Thomas Sankara, from Siegfried Forster / RFI, via All Africa


Thomas Sankara fought for equality in a time and place where inequality was rife. He was a champion of the working classes and the poverty-stricken masses. Today, he is an icon of left-wing movements and is seen as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”


With media attention on his trial in recent years, his popularity has garnered even more international attention, and his fame has spread throughout the world.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.