Maybe it has been the inability to overcome the truncation of life and verve that fed hope of a better Burkina Faso – a better Africa, largely – but Thomas Sankara continues to be regarded as one of the most worthwhile examples of pro-people leadership more than 30 years after his death.
He died a few months to his 37th birthday. We console ourselves with the adage that the gods take away young the mortals they love but fate owes us no justification for how it unfolds. However, in Sankara’s particular case, we may attune ourselves to the idea that Sankara was loved by another world because right where we live, the young soldier was not liked by some other African leaders.
Sankara met his death, allegedly by the order of a man who used to be a close friend, Blaise Compaoré. But even if we take out the latter from the equation of Sankara’s foes, Ghanaian history writer, Explo Nani-Kofi, believes that independence-winning Ivorian leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny was not a fan of Sankara’s. Nani-Kofi even alleges that some analyses of how Sankara’s reign was brought to a bloody end rope in Houphouët-Boigny’s involvement.
The Ivorian leader is said to have helped facilitate Sankara’s overthrow. Nani-Kofi is however not alone in holding the position that Houphouët-Boigny could have been complicit in Sankara’s death. It is widely understood that Sankara and the Ivorian leader were ideological opposites. Houphouët-Boigny, a friend of France’s till his death, once fought vehemently against the appointment of Sankara, a tireless Pan-Africanist, to the leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), allegedly calling the Burkinabe, “a kid”.
But the dislike for the revolutionary Sankara was not only limited to the leader next door to his country. Sankara was a charismatic young man who did not spare an occasion to recite Pan-African leftist rhetoric. He made the point that African leaders were morally responsible for post-colonial development which was beyond the traditional infrastructural progress but also wired into the fight against neocolonialism. It suffices to say that Sankara did not mice words for African leaders.
Below is an excerpt of a speech delivered to African leaders at the then-Organization of African Unity (OAU) conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1987:
Mister President [of the conference], how many African heads of state are present here when they have been duly called to come to speak about Africa in Africa?
Mister President, how many heads of state are ready to head off to Paris, London, or Washington when they are called to a meeting there, but cannot come to a meeting here in Addis-Ababa, in Africa?
I know some of them have valid reasons for not coming. This is why I would suggest, Mister President, that we establish a scale of sanctions or penalties for the heads of state who do not presently respond to the call. Let’s make it so that through a set of points for good behavior, those who come regularly – like us, for example – can be supported in some of their efforts. For example, the projects that we submit to the African Development Bank should be multiplied by a coefficient of Africanness. The least African should be penalized. With this, everyone will come to the meetings.
Sankara was clearly not afraid of calling out a generation of African leaders who had almost entirely abandoned the Pan-Africanism of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and others. Forcing the issue of neocolonialism into the OAU’s agenda definitely lost Sankara a few friends among Africa’s leaders. To get with the program of fighting neocolonialism, Sankara was effectively asking for the leaders to risk economic costs that did not simply threaten young and inexperienced countries but also the political hegemonies in those jurisdictions.
But it is also important to note that it was not all enmity. Some of the leaders were genuinely good friends to Sankara. One of such was the recently deceased Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, who also advertised himself as a revolutionary.