Success Story from Burkina Faso: Thomas Sankara’s Legacy

By Heidi G. Frontani

This week I am reviewing Dr. Ernest Harsch’s book, Thomas Sankara – An African Revolutionary (Ohio University Press, October 2014). It is the first English-language book to tell the story of the late President Sankara’s short life (1949-1987). The engaging, yet brief (160 page) biography draws on Harsch’s extensive firsthand research on Burkina Faso, including interviews with Sankara.

Thomas Sankara – An African Revolutionary traces Mr. Sankara’s life from his student days to his time in the military, to his early political awakening and increasing distress over his country’s poverty. As Mr. Sankara reached higher leadership positions, he began to mobilize people for change, including challenging corrupt elites. He became Prime Minister and then President of his country.

As President (1983-1987), Sankara initiated economic reforms that shifted his country away from dependence on foreign aid and reduced the privileges of government officials; he cut salaries, including his own, decreed that there would be no more flying in first class or driving Mercedes as standard issue vehicles for Ministers and other government workers. He led a modest lifestyle and did not personally amass material wealth. President Sankara encouraged self-sufficiency, including the use of local resources to build clinics, schools and other needed infrastructure.

President Sankara’s Marxist revolutionary stance and motorcycle riding led to many comparisons to Argentina’s Che Guevara, whom Sankara admired. But as with Guevara, not all were pleased with the social reforms that Mr. Sankara was working to set in motion. President Sankara had a pan-Africanist vision, was a staunch anti-imperialist and challenged the power and influence of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. He sought debt relief from donor agencies and changed the name of his country from the French Colonial ‘Upper Volta’ to Burkina Faso, which means ‘The Land of Upright Man’.

President Sankara promoted land reform, childhood vaccination, tree planting, communal school building, and nation-wide literacy campaigns. He was committed to gender equity and women’s rights and was the first African leader to publicly recognize the AIDS pandemic as a threat to African countries. Although Sankara became somewhat more authoritarian during his Presidency, his ideas, and the possibility that they could spread, were viewed by many as posing the greatest threat. President Sankara was assassinated during a coup led by a French-backed politician, Blaise Compaoré, in October 1987. Compaoré served as the President of Burkina Faso from October 1987 through October 2014, when he himself was overthrown.

Although his tenure as President was relatively short, Mr. Sankara left an indelible mark on his country’s development. Thomas Sankara remains an inspiration to people throughout Africa and around the world for his idealism, integrity, struggle against neo-colonial forces and Western economic domination, as well as his dedication to African dignity, independence and self-determination. In 2007, twenty years after his death, Thomas Sankara was commemorated in ceremonies that took place in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burundi, Tanzania, Canada, the USA, and France. Ernest Harsch’s 2014 biography gives further attention to Sankara and his legacy.

Dr. Ernest Harsch is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. As a professional journalist Dr. Harsch published hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. He worked on African issues for more than 20 years, including serving as managing editor of the UN’s quarterly journal Africa Renewal. His other Africa-focused books examine the Angolan civil war and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

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