The Upright Man, Thomas Sankara

Burkina Faso is finally doing right by the memory of Thomas Sankara: Yesterday, a foundation in Sankara’s name, unveiled plans for a public memorial for Sankara. This happens nearly 29 years this month after he was murdered and two years after Blaise Compaoré, considered one of the people responsible for his murder, fled the country.

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Sankara remains an inspiration to young Africans and people committed to a radical pan-Africanist future. His supporters and admirers argue that his short four-year reign as President of Burkina Faso – for all its faults – pointed briefly to the potential of different political futures for Africans.

Plans for the memorial and a museum were announced at a symposium in Ouagadougou attended by nearly 3,000 people. “The proposed memorial is estimated to cost around $8m (£6.2m) and will be funded by small contributions from supporters of the former Burkinabe president.”

On October 15, 1987,  armed men burst into the office of Thomas Sankara, murdered him and twelve of his aides in a violent coup d’état. In events that eerily paralleled those in the Congo 27 years earlier (when a conspiracy of European intelligence agencies and their Congolese surrogates murdered Patrice Lumumba), the attackers cut up Sankara’s body and buried his remains in a hastily prepared grave. The next day Sankara’s deputy, Blaise Compaoré, declared himself president. Compaoré then went on to rule the country until 2014, at which point he fled the country due to a popular uprising. Between 1987 and 2014, Compaoré both attempted to co-opt and distort Sankara’s memory.

Burkina Faso (known as Upper Volta until 1984) didn’t attract much attention outside West Africa until Sankara overthrew the country’s corrupt and nondescript military leadership in 1983. (It bears repeating that Burkina Faso had been ruled by military dictatorships for at least 44 years of its independence from France. One year after Compaore fled, there was a brief one week coup, but the country has been ruled by democrats since then.)

Like Lumumba – an earlier principled political leader who was a violent casualty of the Cold War – Sankara proved to be a creative and unconventional politician. He wanted to a chart a “third way,” separate from the interests of the major powers (in his case, France, the Soviet Union and the United States). This, however, resulted in a complex legacy where those who praise his social and economic reforms — discussed below — have a hard time squaring it with his often-undemocratic politics.

The documentary film, Thomas Sankara: the Upright Man by the British filmmaker Robin Shuffield, is probably the best filmic account Sankara’s rise, government and murder. It gives some sense as to why, unlike Lumumba among Third World nationals or Nelson Mandela among Western elites, people don’t talk much of Sankara today (except for those with more than a passing knowledge of postcolonial African politics). One West African historian suggests Sankara was a 1960s figure trapped in the politics of the 1980s.

In 1985, Sankara said of his political philosophy: “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”

Sankara openly challenged both French hegemony in West Africa as well as his fellow military leaders (Sankara labelled them “criminals in power”). He called for the scrapping of Africa’s debt to international banks, as well as to their former colonial masters.

His reforms were widespread, both at a symbolic level and in terms of political and economic reforms. For one, in 1984 he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta, the name it kept from colonialism, to Burkina Faso. The country’s new name translates as “the land of the upright people.”

Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. (There’s a classic scene in Shuffield’s documentary where he had the whole Burkina delegation to an Organization of African Unity meeting decked out in local textiles and designs.)

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By Sean Jacobs