The story of Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara of Burkina Faso is the story of a pan-African hero of the 1980s, a Burkinabé anti-imperialist revolutionary and Africanist who was the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. His revolutionary charism made his supporters regard him as a figure of revolution, Africa’s ‘Che Guevara’, as he was greatly inspired by the Cuban revolution.
In a three-piece series, we will narrate the pan-African acts of Thomas Sankara to liberate and unite Africa. Sankara was born on the 21st of December 1949 in Yako, French Upper Volta (present day Burkina Faso). He was a descendent of mixed Mossi–Fulani heritage.
After finishing his secondary education, his Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he refused. Instead, he chose to become a soldier. In 1966, at the age of 17 years, he joined military training at the Kadiogo Military Academy in Ouagadougou. While at the academy he witnessed the first military coup d’état in Upper Volta led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana on the 3rd January 1966.
At the academy he was also exposed to the fundamentals of imperialism, neo-colonialism and socialism as well as well learning about the communist revolutions in the Soviet Union and China.
After two years of training, Sankara began his military career at the age of 19. He was later sent for further military training at the Antsirabe Military Academy in Madagascar and graduated as a Junior Military Officer in 1973. He returned to Upper Volta in 1972, and was sent to war between Upper Volta and Mali in 1974.
In 1976, he became the commander of the Commando Training Centre in Pô. In 1980 during the presidency of Colonel Saye Zerbo, Sankara, with a group of young army officers formed a secret organisation called the ‘Communist Officers Group’ (ROC). In September 1981, Sankara was appointed Secretary of State for Information in the military government of Saye Zerbo, but he later resigned on the 21st of April 1982 in opposition to what he saw as the regime’s anti-labour drift. Meanwhile, another coup occurred on the 7th November 1982 that brought to power Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, and Sankara became Prime Minister in January 1983.
Suspected of planning another coup d’état, he was dismissed on the 17th of May 1983 and was placed under house arrest together with his ROC friends Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani. While under house arrest on the 3rd of August 1983, Captain Blaise Compaoré overthrew President Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo in a coup d’état and made his friend Thomas Sankara who was then aged 33 years the President of Upper Volta.
Thomas Sankara’s main objective as the leader of Upper Volta was to promote the well-being of the poorest people in the country by eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched an ambitious programmes for social, ecological, gender and economic change ever attempted on the African continent.
To symbolise this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso meaning the “Land of Upright Man”. This was indeed a sign of the first step to liberate his people’s mind from the lingering yoke of imperialism and neo-colonialism.