When Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was assassinated on October 15, 1987, by military officers believed to have been led by Blaise Compaoré, he had to his name $450 salary, a car, four bikes, 3 guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.
He had asserted upon assumption of office that Burkina Faso was not poor given its resources but that its resources were not benefitting its citizens rather French nationals who controlled the economic life of the state.
Sankara quickly launched a program which ensured two meals a day and 10 liters of water for all. He built roads, railways, schools, hospitals, and led by example. He sold the government fleet of Mercedes Benz cars and had sought to make two ministers use one cheaper vehicle. He was impressed upon and allowed each minister to have his own vehicle.
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Why then was such a man who sacrificed luxury for the benefit of the state get assassinated? The answer lies in his anti-imperialistic stance. Sankara was not one of those African leaders to be told what to do by western nations. On that score also, he rejected aid from them as well.
Sankara’s resolve to transform the lives of his fellow citizens also led him to alter the colonial name of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, “Land of Incorruptible People”. He is credited with changing the mindset of the people, making it clear that none would develop the state for them.
Although his parents wanted him to become a priest, Sankara opted to join the military. At military school, he met the young activist Blaise Compaoré and given they share similar political ideology, they became inseparable. Compaoré was a regular presence in the Sankara home and even considered a brother by Sankara’s parents.
In 1970, aged 20, Sankara was sent to Madagascar for officers training. Over there, he witnessed a popular uprising of students and workers which toppled the government. In Cameroon, he again witnessed a form of revolution.
Back home, although he wanted to serve in some capacity to better his people’s lot, his integrity put him at odds with a lot of the political and military figures. But it soon became clear to Sankara and his comrades that the change they wanted to effect could only come if they rescued the country so on August 4, 1983, Sankara seized power with Compaoré his political ally by him.
In the four-year rule of Sankara, it soon became clear to observers that there was more to Compaoré than met the eye. Ernest Ouédraogo, a security minister, informed the Faces of Africa team that in the period before his assassination, Sankara was informed by agents in the police and military that Compaoré was staging a coup to overthrow him but his trust in his ally and friend turned brother was so deep that he couldn’t fathom such a betrayal.
In the end, Sankara’s anti-imperialistic stance put him at odds with French imperialistic and neocolonial interest. Compaoré, on the other hand, was ready to be used for the political and economic ends of France. To that end, France backed him to assassinate Sankara.
In a meeting on October 15, with three other ministers including Alouna Traore, gunmen invaded the room and started shooting. According to Traore who played dead to save his skin, despite Sankara raising his arms that they should take him and leave the rest, they butchered them all. A public statement was issued to the effect that the country’s leader Sankara had died from natural causes.
The nation was stunned. Sister to Sankara, Odile, told the Face of Africa team that for two months, many in Burkina Faso believed his brother was jailed and would be released as they could not come to terms with his sudden killing.
Meanwhile, the direct beneficiary of the crime, Compaoré, took the reins of power. Sams’k Le Jah, a musician and a staunch Sankara advocate, noted that even though there was no public outcry following Sankara’s murder, his photographs hung in homes.
Compaoré had altered the constitution to be able to run for four consecutive terms and so he won elections in 1991, 1998, 2005 and 2010. By this time, 47% of the Burkinabe people wallowed in poverty but by 2014 he was still looking to amend the constitution yet again to run for another five-year term. The youth would have none of that.
In October 2014, a public uprising led by the youth toppled the Compaoré regime. The parliament was torched with assets of the Compaoré family set ablaze. He had to be rescued by French commandos.
On the streets, the ideals of Sankara were reignited. His burial ground which was under guard was now open to the public for all who wished to mourn and pay their respects.
Sams’k Le Jah was right. The Sankara babies had become men and women and even though it took 27 years to dispose of the traitor who stole a dream from them, they finally avenged the man who represents everything good about Burkina Faso.