Know your African history – Thomas Sankara

thomas-sankara

Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara ( December 1949 – October 1987), born Thomas Isidore Noël Ouédraogo, was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.

Sankara seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize 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 centered on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nationwide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles. Other components of his national agenda included planting over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together”.  On the localized level Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour. Moreover, his commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.

His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s impoverished citizens. However his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of an array of 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, and France and its ally the Ivory Coast. He was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré on 15 October 1987. A week before his assassination, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

Immediately after Sankara took office he suppressed most of the powers held by tribal chiefs in Burkina Faso. These feudal landlords were stripped of their rights to tribute payments and forced labour as well as having their land distributed amongst the peasantry. This served the dual purpose of creating a higher standard of living for the average Burkinabé as well as creating an optimal situation to induce Burkina Faso into food self-sufficiency. Within four years Burkina Faso reached food sufficiency due in large part to feudal land redistribution and series of irrigation and fertilization programs instituted by the government. During this time production of cotton and wheat increased dramatically. While the average wheat production for the Sahel region was 1,700 kilograms per hectare (1,500 lb/acre) in 1986, Burkina Faso was producing 3,900 kilograms per hectare (3,500 lb/acre) of wheat the same year. This success meant Sankara had not only shifted his country into food self-sufficiency but had in turn created a food surplus.Sankara also emphasized the production of cotton and the need to transform the cotton produced in Burkina Faso into clothing for the people.

Sankara’s first priorities after taking office were feeding, housing, and giving medical care to his people who desperately needed it. Sankara launched a mass vaccination program in an attempt to eradicate polio, meningitis, and measles. In one week, 2.5 million Burkinabé were vaccinated, garnering congratulations from the World Health Organization. Sankara’s administration was also the first African government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to Africa.

Large-scale housing and infrastructure projects were also undertaken. Brick factories were created to help build houses in effort to end urban slums. In an attempt to fight deforestation, The People’s Harvest of Forest Nurseries was created to supply 7,000 village nurseries, as well as organizing the planting of several million trees. All regions of the country were soon connected by a vast road- and rail-building program. Over 700 km (430 mi) of rail was laid by Burkinabé people to facilitate manganese extraction in “The Battle of the Rails” without any foreign aid or outside money. These programs were an attempt to prove that African countries could be prosperous without foreign help or aid. These revolutionary developments and national economic programs shook the foundations of the traditional economic development models imposed on Africa. Sankara also launched education programs to help combat the country’s 90% illiteracy rate. These programs had some success in the first few years. 

Improving women’s status in Burkinabé society was one of Sankara’s explicit goals, and his government included a large number of women, an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. His government banned female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy, while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant. Sankara also promoted contraception and encouraged husbands to go to market and prepare meals to experience for themselves the conditions faced by women. Sankara recognized the challenges faced by African women when he gave his famous address to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 1987 in Ouagadougou. He spoke to thousands of women in a highly political speech in which he stated that the Burkinabé revolution was “establishing new social relations” which would be “upsetting the relations of authority between men and women and forcing each to rethink the nature of both. This task is formidable but necessary.” Furthermore, Sankara was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to recruit them actively for the military.

Accompanying his personal charisma, Sankara had an array of original initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some international media attention to his government:

He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers.
He reduced the salaries of well-off public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets.

He opposed foreign aid, saying that “he who feeds you, controls you.”
He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity against what he described as neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance.
He called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.

In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country).

He refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabés.
As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.

He was known for jogging unaccompanied through Ouagadougou in his track suit and posing in his tailored military fatigues, with his mother-of-pearl pistol.
When asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied: “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.”
An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.

Twenty years after his assassination, on 15 October 2007, Thomas Sankara was commemorated in ceremonies that took place in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Tanzania, Burundi, France, Canada, and the United States

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Source: Wikipedia

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