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Remembering 'Africa’s Che Guevara'

Martina Schwikowski
October 15, 2017

Burkina Faso's late President Thomas Sankara is considered one of Africa’s revolutionaries and an icon of the liberation movement. He continues to inspire youth movements across Africa.

Burkina Faso Päsident Thomas Sankara
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AFP

October 15, 1987, remains an unforgettable date for many parts of Africa.  This was the day Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso, was killed in a coup. His deputy, Blaise Compaore, took over the leadership and ruled the small West African country until 2014.

Sankara, a socialist, has become a posthumous hero to many Burkinabes, as well as other Africans. Some even refer to him as Africa's Che Guevara and his ideals continue to appeal to young people in Burkina Faso.

On the occasion marking the 30th anniversary of his death, his followers have unveiled a monument in honor of his memory.

"What was so special about Thomas [Sankara] was that he completely committed himself to his country and his people," Moussbila Sankara, former Ambassador of Burkina Faso in Libya, told DW. For many of his compatriots, Thomas Sankara was a visionary.

Pragmatic and charismatic

Born in 1949, the young Sankara dreamed of creating a state free of corruption, independent of the West and united with its African neighbors. He was inspired by the Cuban revolution and his Ghanaian colleague, Jerry Rawlings, who later planned to merge the two countries.

General Thomas Sankara took over power from Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo in August 1983 following an internal power struggle.

Burkina Faso remembers Thomas Sankara
Burkinabe opposition supporters held posters bearing Sankara's portrait in defiance to President Blaise CompaoreImage: Getty Images/A. Ouoba

As president, he usually appeared in military uniform with his trademark red beret. His strict style of clothing stood in strong contrast to his hobbies. Sankara played guitar in a band and had a taste for motorcycles.

But above all, Sankara was known for being very charismatic. Wearing a smile, he made demands that left former colonial powers shocked and bewildered. He once called for ignoring the debts of African states in the West, pointing to the colonial exploitation of Africa by Europe.

Sankara's goal was to improve the lives of people living in the countryside, which was the vast majority of Burkinabes. During his reign, village clinics and community centers received much greater support. In 1984, more than two million children were vaccinated by mobile health teams in just two weeks.

Burkina Faso young protesters
Young Burkinabes who never saw Thomas Sankara strongly identify with what he stood forImage: Getty Images/ AFP/ Issouf Sanogo

In that same year, Sankara nationalized land. Agricultural production in Burkina Faso grew. In 1986, 35,000 villagers learned to read and write in three months.

"The poor people who longed for justice and recognition followed Thomas," Moussbila Sankara said. "They were proud to be part of their community, their nation."

Man of the people

Sankara is said to have possessed two characteristics which are rare among Africa's elites. He was considered humble and a man of integrity. He never owned much, sent his two sons to public schools and his wife, though First Lady worked in the Burkina Faso Transport Authority.

He sold all the luxury limousines from the previous government and instead obliged his ministers, like himself, to use a Renault 5 which was the cheapest car at the time.

In 1984, he changed the name of the state from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which in the Moore and Dioula ethnic language means, "land of the upright people."

Elderly people in Burkina Faso, who witnessed Sankara's reign, mostly have a rather skeptical view of his socialist policies. But many young people in the country are euphoric about him, even though he held power for only four years.

He was shot in a putsch in 1987 and his deputy and friend Blaise Compaore took over the post. The two had become familiar in the army in the 1970s. It was Compaore who helped Sankara ascend to power.

From friend to enemy

In October 1987, while commemorating Cuban revolution leader Che Guevara, Sankara quoted Guevara in a speech saying: "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas!"

A week later, Sankara was dead and the autocrat, Compaore, set about reversing many of his policies and achievements.

Burkina Faso Ex-President Compaore Archiv 2011
Some critics accuse former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore of assassinating SankaraImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/R. Blackwell

Compaore ruled from 1987 to October 2014. He was forced out of power by mass protests after failing to change the constitution which would have allowed him to stay longer. Sankara was once again the rallying symbol of the popular uprising, with people taking to the streets, carrying posters with his portrait.

Burkina Faso: Struggle for Democracy

At the end of 2015, former Prime Minister Roch Marc Christian Kabore became Burkina Faso's new president. But many people's hopes for change remain unfulfilled. Even the exact circumstances surrounding Sankara's death have not been clearly determined, despite the exhumation of his alleged remains and DNA analysis. The result of another DNA analysis from France, which is to confirm whether or not the exhumed corpse is actually Thomas Sankara, is still pending.

"The men who killed Sankara were led by Gilbert Diendere, who was Blaise Compaore's security chief," Sankara biographer, Bruno Jaffre, told DW. "The names of the killing squad are all known." Compaore, who fled to the Ivory Coast, has been charged, in absentia, with murder.

Jean-Michel Bos contributed to this article.