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Who Was Thomas Sankara, The 'African Che Guevara' Who Reformed His Country?

© AFP 2023
 - Sputnik Africa, 1920, 07.04.2024
As Burkina Faso plans to build a memorial mausoleum in memory of Thomas Sankara, Sputnik Africa looks back on the great achievements of this hero of the first Burkinabe revolution.
At the time of independence (August 5, 1960), Upper Volta was one of the least economically developed French colonies in Africa, according to Russian senior research fellow Andrey Demidov.
The country was characterized by an arid climate, progressive desertification of agricultural lands, acute water shortages, and the colonial metropolis — France — invested few resources in the development of this country due to its low strategic importance. However, decolonization did not bring economic progress or political stability to Upper Volta.
This was the case until 33-year-old Thomas Sankara came to power.
At the age of 20, Thomas went to study in Madagascar. By coincidence, he arrived during a period of student riots, protests and demonstrations against the authoritarian regime of President Philibert Tsiranana. The active citizenship of the locals made a deep impression on Sankara, Demidov wrote. His radical leftist views were ultimately shaped by the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
On August 4, 1983, yet another military coup took place in Upper Volta, organized by Thomas Sankara's friend, Captain Blaise Compaore. As a result, Sankara became the chairman of the new highest authority — the National Council for the Revolution (NCR).
After coming to power, Sankara began to implement a broad program of socio-economic reforms. His role model and source of inspiration was the Cuban Revolution. From the very beginning of his rule, Sankara made it clear that he considered social justice and economic development of the country as the highest values.
Sputnik Africa tried to recall the main (apparently, not all) transformations that took place in the African country during the reign of the revolutionary leader.

Anti-Colonial Struggle

At the summit of the Organization of African Unity in 1987, Sankara called on African countries to collectively refuse the repayment of debts contracted with Western powers. Moreover, he was highly critical of international financial institutions, pointing out that their activities in Africa were neocolonialist in nature, and only led to economic enslavement and aggravated the backwardness of the African countries.

State's Integrity and Fight Against Corruption

Sankara implemented measures to simplify the lives of government officials, advocated for austerity and practicality. He urged his ministers to opt for cost-effective transportation, such as the Renault 5, over luxury cars. Additionally, he reduced officials' salaries, prohibited personal drivers, and restricted travel to economy class for both himself and his subordinates on international flights. Sankara also promoted the use of locally-made clothing from Burkinabe craftsmen, encouraging civil servants to wear garments crafted from local cotton. Once a year, all high-ranking civil servants were required to contribute one month's salary to social funds. Remarkably, just three years after Sankara came to power, the World Bank declared that corruption had been eradicated in Burkina Faso.

Environmental Protection

During Sankara's presidency, about 7,000 tree nurseries were created in the country, about 10 million trees were planted, which ultimately helped slow down the desertification process. Along with this, the country launched a campaign to build wells, dams and reservoirs. The measures taken made it possible to improve the water supply in villages and increase the efficiency of Burkinabe agriculture.
Moreover, since April 1985, on the Sankara's personal instructions, a campaign called “Three Struggles” was launched. It included: 1) stopping illegal logging and bush burning that caused wildfires; 2) increasing knowledge in the field of natural gas use; 3) stopping the hunting of wild animals.
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Healthcare and Vaccination

With the help of Cuban volunteers, in early November 1984, 2.5 million children were vaccinated against infectious diseases in just 15 days as part of the Vaccination Commando campaign. Moreover, even the border areas of neighboring countries were vaccinated. As a result, infant mortality rates in Burkina Faso, previously the highest in the world, fell by almost half (from 280 deaths out of 1000 to 145). In addition, the fight against polio, measles, yellow fever, meningitis and other diseases began. The World Health Organization later commended the vaccination campaign.
It's worth noting that the government led by Sankara was the first on the continent to recognize the existence of the AIDS epidemic, which Burkina Faso described as a serious threat to the people of Africa and the need to prevent this disease.

Women's Rights

Sankara realized that the solution to the social problems facing his country's society was inextricably linked with the issue of the status of women, Demidov pointed out. Sankara's government included an unprecedented number of women for the countries of the African continent. Women received equal rights with men and were given access to education. They began to be involved in military service. The custom of female circumcision, forced marriage, and polygamy were prohibited. Contraceptives were distributed nationwide. In addition, the practice of having the so-called “days of solidarity” was introduced. On these days, men were encouraged to cook family meals, take on laundry and housecleaning duties, and trade in markets.


The head of state abandoned the colonial name of Upper Volta and named the country Burkina Faso, which can be translated as the "land of honest men". He composed the new national anthem himself. Furthermore, new state symbols of the country were approved, and a new national motto was adopted: “Homeland or death. We will prevail!” (borrowed from Cuba). Sankara personally participated in the development of these symbols.


The chairman of the NCR recognized the importance of reforming the education system in the country. His government took a course towards eliminating illiteracy. Education was made available in the nine main languages spoken in Burkina Faso. As a result of this campaign, the country's literacy rate rose from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987.
It is important to emphasize that the financing of all these reforms was provided exclusively from Burkinabe public funds. The country did not receive any assistance from France, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank.
On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed in a coup d'état staged by previously mentioned Compaore. The new authorities reversed the nationalization program, restored high salaries for officials, and abolished the social tax. In 1991, the country took out a $67 million IMF loan under French guarantees.

Speaking a week before his death at a rally dedicated to the memory of Ernesto Che Guevara, Sankara said: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”