Commemorating Thomas Sankara

Between 1983 and 1987, Thomas Sankara, Pan African Revolutionary and former President of Burkina Faso, led one of the most people-centered revolutions that Africa has produced in the post colonial era. An incorruptible man, Sankara earned a meager salary of only $450 a month and his most valuable possessions were said to be a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. He was regarded as the world’s poorest President. Also, it was noted that Sankara refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabes.

To secure Burkina Faso’s economic independence, Sankara nationalized all western-controlled land and mineral wealth and broke ties with international financial institutions including the IMF and the World Bank.  By doing so, he effectively freed domestic resources that the state re-directed to fund much needed social programs for the poor, such as public education, healthcare and housing. Sankara moved fast to eradicate the remaining vestiges of neo-colonial bondage by changing the country’s name from the colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, words from two different Burkinabe local languages meaning ‘Land of the Incorruptible’.

In setting the stage for a vigorous revolutionary project that prioritized the emancipation of women, Sankara established a day of solidarity in which  men were encouraged to go to market and prepare meals, clean their homes, wash clothes etc to experience for themselves the conditions faced by women. Determined to transform sexist mentalities, Sankara appointed women to key cabinet positions ensuring their participation in the decision making process at national level. His revolutionary government also opened other key avenues for women who became effective participant in the state bureaucracy, the judiciary and all other important sectors of society.

Apart from the transformation of gender relations, the achievements of the Burkinabe revolution also  include ‘Vaccination Commando’ a state run program that in a period of only 15 days in early November 1984, completed the immunization of  2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. This operation was so successful in that children in neighbouring countries like the Ivory Coast and Mali were sent to Burkina Faso for free immunization that helped curtail high rates of infant and child mortality.

Between late 1984 and mid 1986, the Burkinabe Revolution under Thomas Sankara oversaw a massive public housing construction program, a campaign to plant 10 million trees to stem back the Sahara’s advance and the launching of "Alpha Commando" a literacy campaign that directly benefited thousands of Burkina Faso’s rural and urban poor. Towards the end of 1986, a UN-assisted program brought river blindness under control.

Thomas Sankara, a courageous proponent of self-reliant, self-directed Pan-African development, was assassinated in October 15, 1987, along with a dozen of his comrades. To this day, however, his death certificate indicates death by natural causes. The Minister of Justice at the time, and the author of this crime, is none other than the current President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, who is implicated in the assassination of Sankara and his comrades.

Thomas Sankara is widely recognized and celebrated in Africa and the world over as a champion of fundamental change who fought to liberate Africa from the control of international financial institutions, deepening poverty, war and the pillage of its resources.

In 1997, the International Justice for Sankara Campaign initiated legal proceedings in Burkina Faso to bring his assassins to justice. After exhausting all legal recourses in Burkina Faso, and in light of that country’s politically compromised judiciary, on October 15, 2002, the Campaign brought the case before the UN Human Rights Council

In April 2006, the Council rendered its verdict, based on the complaint lodged by the Sankara family and the counter-claims of the Burkinabè authorities. It ruled that "the State Party, Burkina Faso, was in breach of Covenant-protected rights under articles 7 and 14, paragraph 1, with regard to Mariam Sankara and her two sons, Auguste and Philip. The verdict adds that "These violations stem from ongoing refusal of all competent authorities in Burkina Faso to initiate a judicial inquiry to establish the circumstances of Thomas Sankara’s unlawful killing, which occurred on 15 October 1987, and to duly proceed to alter a falsified death certificate for the latter following said judicial inquiry".

The UN ruling is considered a precedent in the struggle against impunity and Africa’s first. It sets the stage for further action to bring to justice perpetrators of the heinous crime that led to the assassination of Sankara and his comrades. Twenty years later, on October 15, 2007, Thomas Sankara has been commemorated around the world in countless ceremonies that took place in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Tanzania, Burundi, France, Canada, USA and beyond. As Thomas Sankara once said "We Must Dare to Invent the Future", his legacy and vision lives on and many in Africa and around the world continue to take inspiration from his selfless quest to free Burkina Faso and Africa from the yoke of western imperialism.


Farid Omar

Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa (GRILA).


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