If he were still alive today, Thomas Sankara would be 71 years old. If the average age of African presidents is anything to go by, Sankara may still well be Burkina Faso’s leader.
That is not to say Sankara would have loved to hold on to power since 1987 or that his people would have even wanted him to.
But when 33-year-old Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara became the leader of Upper Volta (he later changed the country’s name) in 1983 after a coup, the young man’s ascent to power was marked by metaphorical and practical invigoration.
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On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed by a group of soldiers loyal to a onetime friend, Blaise Compaore, who has since pleaded his innocence but won over very few believers.
Sankara’s body was hurriedly buried and was never seen by his family until after 28 years. A spokesperson for the family would later say that the exhumed body was “riddled with bullets”.
The assassination of the man they called “Africa’s Che Guevara” marked another unfortunate phase of self-sabotage Africans have strangely chosen since the 1960s.
Sankara is, unfortunately, one of many who were undermined by their own. Patrice Lumumba of Congo and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana come to mind.
They were challenging their Africa with new ideas. Their Africa was plotting to see their ends.
Years later, their names become reference points for continental studies on governments that entertain collectivist visions of nation-building. They are shown so much love in death.
But a living revolutionary is better than a dead one. And Africans might do well to remember this.
Looking at the intrigue that characterises how these charismatic visionaries fall, I am frequently reminded of the novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.
In this moralistic take on national politics, Ghanaian writer, Nii Ayikwei Armah tells the story of a railway station worker in the days of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah.
The protagonist of the fiction, simply known as “the man”, is disgusted by all the moral decadence he witnessed in Ghanaian society. He was one of the good guys.
But when he refuses a bribe that could have sorted a number of domestic necessities, his wife is angered. She cannot comprehend how one insists on uprightness when there are mouths to feed and bills to pay.
This was the point at which the writer sets good against evil as a choice that is connected to who is full and who is hungry.
The man, set in his ways yet poor and hungry, is skillfully compared to his friend Koomson, a corrupt politician who became a rich government minister.
In the end, the man had to compromise on a few values, bowing to his own desires of materialism and societal pressure.
What Armah argued with his book is that in the end, we are all undone by our desires or the pressures of our environment.
The hopeful and pure in heart are the “beautyful ones”. They are the ones who work for the cause and stay true to their duties to the end; they are, however, not yet born.
I disagree with Armah. Even with the realities and dangers of African politics, I believe we have seen a few “beautyful” ones.
Sankara was “beautyful”. But he was ruined by the system and people he had placed his faith in, just like the character, Kofi Billy in Beautyful Ones.
In Sankara’s time, the food Burkinabes needed had to be produced in the country. Interestingly, in less than three years of his four in office, Burkina Faso was self-sufficient.
He insisted on land redistribution and forced the professional middle class to be cognisant of Burkina Faso’s overwhelmingly poor majority.
He was a campaigner against female genital mutilation (FGM), required roles for women in worker brigades and said of women’s rights: “We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”
Sankara’s time as head of state marked a total rejection of foreign aid from Western donors. He told other African leaders to their faces how they were ceding to imperialist and neocolonial interest.
He was ahead of time and for that, there were enemies to be made within his country and outside. But the betrayal of those closer is obviously worse.
Compaore would take over from Sankara and rule as a military and later civilian leader until 2014.
The life and betrayal of Thomas Sankara is not a thing of the past. Western powers still find parties who are willing to acquiesce to projects inimical to Africa’s benefits.
The continent deserves better and it is a venture that requires introspection. We need to stop betraying the “beautyful ones”.