Thomas Sankara was a man ahead of his own time. He was a forward thinking leader and no wonder his ideas seem even more relevant with time. What Thomas Sankara achieved in just 4 years, other presidents have not in over 30 years.
The former President of Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaore will go on trial in November over the alleged assassination of former president Thomas Sankara. Alioune Zanre, a commissioner of the tribunal told journalists that 13 others would also face trial in connection with the crime. Thomas Sankara was killed on October 15, 1987 in a coup that brought Blaise Compaore, his close friend, to power. Compaore himself, was deposed in October 2014 by the masses who opposed his bid to change the country’s constitution and extend his 27 year hold on power. Most of the protesters said they had been inspired by Sankara’s legacy.
What is this legacy? Bear in mind that Sankara was only leader for 4 years and yet his short tenure keeps changing the trajectory of politics in Burkina Faso and the rest of the African continent almost 30 years later. It has been said Thomas Sankara was a man ahead of his own time. He was a forward thinking leader and no wonder his ideas seem even more relevant with time.
What exactly did the great Captain Sankara want of his country? A retired professor of economics, Noel Nebie told Al Jazeera, “Sankara wanted a thriving Burkina Faso, relying on local human and natural resources as opposed to foreign aid and starting with agriculture, which represents more than 32 percent of the country’s GDP and employs 80 percent of the working population, he smashed the economic elite who controlled most of the arable land and granted access to subsistence farmers. That improved production making the country almost self-sufficient.”
CHANGING THE ECONOMICS
Sankara did away with the luxuries widely associated with the oligarchs of Africa. His car was nothing fancy; a relatively cheap Renault 5 which was the same make used by ministers. Gone were the grand and expensive presidential cars and unnecessary convoys too. Joan Baxter, who was a BBC reporter at the time says, “Sankara could often be seen moving about the capital Ouagadougou, in the front seat of his little black Renault, arm out the window and waiting like everyone else for traffic lights to change.”
This was in comparison to the loud processions that would close down major roads “hours before the president came through in a cacophony of sirens and a blur of speeding BMW motorcycles, luxury sedans, jeeps and military vehicles”. Sankara was not that kind of man. He went on to ban the use of air conditioners in government buildings except in the three hottest months of the year in a bid to control the state energy bills. His salary was the equivalent of $450 and he had reduced the salaries of all public servants.
CHAMPIONING GENDER EQUALITY
Sankara was a forward thinking leader whose policies make more sense now than they would have in the 1980s. He was not scared to think differently and be loud about it too. One International Women’s Day, he gave a speech reminding Burkinabe men that they all had mothers yet they treated their own wives “worse than cattle”.He did not simply create policies detached from the woman on the ground, the poor woman who would not benefit from quotas for government positions.
Sankara went down to the family unit and addressed issues from there going up. He gave an anti-prostitution decree and even went as far as having a conference with sex-workers. He then told the assembled women that they were victims of social injustice and advised them to take up “honourable professions”. Sankara did not just speak, he made certain that State-owned restaurants employed the women. As if that was not enough change for a short four years, Sankara also outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy.
One of the most famous Sankara quotes is, “He who feeds you, controls you.” The wisdom in that statement cannot be doubted. In early 1987, he had delivered a speech about producing and eating Burkinabe. Baxter says, “Sankara maintained that political independence was meaningless if African countries were still tied to the economic apron strings of their former colonial ad other neo-colonial powers.” According to him, there were trees that abounded in the Sahel which produced delicious and nutritious fruits that were going to waste. In a bid to save the local tomato industry, he declared a “Day of the Tomato” to educate the populace on preservation techniques. He also spoke out against importing apples from France when Burkina Faso had tropical fruits that could not be sold.
His thinking was, “…people buy them because they come from Europe and not from our trees here, because they can’t resist the temptation to eat just like a French man.” Baxter calls him the first “locavore” but his intention to produce locally did not simply revolve around food. After having a hard time getting financing for a railway project that would connect Benin to Cote d’Ivoire, he launched a programme to complete the railway with limited foreign aid. 62 kilometres of rail were laid by the Burkinabe between 1985 and 1987. Instead of grovelling for aid, he tapped into the strength of his people and achieved success.
BUILDING BURKINA FASO, INSPIRING AFRICA
One of the greatest feats achieved by Sankara was naming his country, Burkina Faso, “The land of the upright man”. This united his country yet etching a fundamental value of his people; honesty above all else. This spoke volumes about the country’s approach to corruption and all manner of vices in the country.
The exploits of Thomas Sankara cannot be fully documented without doing a disservice to the man’s legacy. What is clear is that he was larger than life and it only took him four years to change the thinking of all Africans. He may have had his flaws like every other man but his positive work in mapping a self-sustainable route to African success is undoubtedly proof of a legend at work. His ideas live on! In his own words, “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”