As Burkinabés filled the streets to call for President Blaise Compaoré to step down, the veteran leader would have also heard protesters chanting another man’s name: that of Thomas Sankara. Femi Akomolafe explains who this African icon was and how he helped end Compaoré’s rule.
As Blaise Compaoré, for so long Burkina Faso’s strongman president, watches events unfold in his country from exile, one hopes he recognises the irony of his demise. Before he was toppled by popular protests at the end of October, Compaoré had been one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders. Under the constitution, he would have had to step down after the November 2015 elections, but even if he had, there is little doubt that after 27 years in charge he would have been able to maintain some grip on power.
That wasn’t enough for Compaoré, however, and it was his very attempt to change the constitution in order to prolong his rule that ended it so suddenly, completely and dramatically. Compaoré could not have misjudged the public mood more starkly, and on 30 October, as MPs got ready to vote on Compaoré’s proposed constitutional amendment in parliament, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. They defied teargas and rubber bullets and torched several buildings including the headquarters of the ruling party and the parliament building itself.
Compaoré was stunned but still refused to leave until the next day when mounting protests and domestic pressure forced his hand. He announced his resignation, and after some dispute and confusion within
the army, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida became acting president.
After nearly three decades, the Burkinabé people had had enough of their leader, and as Compaoré watched as vast waves of protesters filled the streets, he would have seen placards in their hands and heard their defiant demands of “Blaise, Get Out!” However, as it was dawning on him that his rule was coming to an ignominious end, Compaoré may also have noticed that his name was not the only one protesters were chanting. Shouts of “Thomas Sankara” were also ringing out from the streets.
Many protesters had even declared themselves to be Sankarists and demonstrators could be seen carrying photographs of the young man. The last time Compaoré saw that face in the flesh, he was a young man himself. And little would he have known at the time that 27 years after taking power from him, that iconic figure would be back to haunt him.
Who is Thomas Sankara?
Captain Thomas Sankara became Burkina Faso’s president in 1983 following a coup d’état organised by his then ally Blaise Compaoré. Sankara formed the National Council for the Revolution (CNR) and also established Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) to “mobilise the masses” and implement the CNR’s revolutionary programmes.
Sankara was a charismatic leader who matched his fiery Marxist rhetoric with practical actions in his bid to make the country proud, self-reliant and self-confident. To symbolise the new era, Sankara renamed the country from the Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which translates as “Land of Incorruptible People” in Moré and Djula.
Internationally, Sankara wanted to end the domination by France and reliance on foreign powers. To do this, he cut off ties with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and refused to accept foreign financial assistance. “He who feeds you controls you,” he said.
It was domestically, however, that Sankara’s revolutionary zeal would be most felt. Sankara believed in a self-sufficient and prosperous Burkina Faso and set about launching visionary programmes. He nationalised land and mineral wealth, launched a nation-wide literacy campaign that saw school attendance double within two years, and organised a public health programme that vaccinated 2.5 million children.