In a popularly-supported 1983 coup and Aged just 33, Thomas Sankara became the President of a country that still retained its colonial name, Upper Volta.
He immediately launched one of the most 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 (“Land of Upright Man”).
His foreign policies were centred on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalising all land and mineral wealth and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritising education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating 2,500,000 children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.
His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor.
Back To Africa Movement
In addition to his focus on Burkina Faso, Sankara was a true Pan-Africanist, absorbing ideas from the diaspora, particularly those coming out of Black America.
This culminated in a visit to Harlem which Sankara dubbed the ‘Black Washington’ due to its association with phenomenal African-American culture and figures from the days of Langston Hughes with the Harlem Renaissance, all the way to the era of Black Militants like Malcolm X.
Harlem before the crack epidemic of the 80s was indeed the ‘Mecca’ of Black America, and Sankara duly performed his ‘pilgrimage’ during his lifetime.
Sankara emphasised the unity of Africans everywhere including those in the diaspora echoing the sentiments of Marcus Garvey’s ‘Back To Africa’ Movement…This theme has recently been resurrected and explored in the recent Black Panther Film.
In order to achieve his radical transformation of society, Sankara increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation. He eventually banned unions and a free press.
Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s citizens. However, his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of several groups, which included the small, but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labour and tribute payments as well as France and its ally Ivory Coast.
On 15 October 1987, Sankara was allegedly assassinated by troops led by Blaise Compaoré, who took Sankara’s office shortly after.
Thirty years after the assassination of Africa’s last revolutionary leader, significant political challenges still obstruct the road to justice. France has so far ignored the formal request to submit its archives. Cote d’Ivoire, who exerts heavy dominion over Burkina Faso, granted Compaoré Ivorian citizenship to shield him from extradition.
What is clear however is the Burkinabe authorities’ pledge to rehabilitate Sankara as a national hero, an honour which is way overdue…Salute!
Peep the video of Sankara’s historic Harlem visit as well as our Black Panther movie review discussing the presence of Marcus Garvey’s ‘Back To Africa’ ideas in the Film…Our previous Retro article on the Harlem Renaissance will be up soon.
Links & Credits
Related: Black Panther Movie Review