Sankara’s commitment to women’s rights was also far ahead of his time. He banned female genital mutilation and forced marriages, and for the first time, Burkinabé women were allowed to initiate divorce. The president actively sought out women to serve in his cabinet and army. “The revolution and women’s liberation go together,” he said. “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.”
Finally, Thomas Sankara famously lived what he preached and disdained ostentation. He sold off luxurious government vehicles, leaving him and his officials to use the cheapest Peugeots on the market. He slashed his salary to $450 a month and reached his office by bicycle. At the time of his death, Sankara’s total assets reportedly consisted of a modest house on which he was still paying his mortgage, $350 in the bank, and a few bikes and guitars.
All these revolutionary programmes made Sankara a powerful icon for the African masses. But they also won him the enmity of many, including some unions, a nascent but narrow Burkinabé middle class, and the feudal leaders he stripped of certain powers and rights. The nature of his rule also won him the hatred of France and its allies in Africa, especially Côte d’Ivoire President Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
By 1987, this animosity towards Sankara had escalated to the point at which, on 15 October, the socialist president was overthrown and killed in a coup led by Blaise Compaoré. Sankara had trusted his right-hand man, but it seems he may have known he was in danger before the coup, as a week before his murder, he prophetically declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
Compaoré’s corruption and cronyism
When Compaoré took power, he set about reversing Sankara’s policies, embarking on a privatisation programme sponsored by the IMF and rebuilding close ties with France. And unlike the incorruptible Sankara, Compaoré’s administration has been one marked by cronyism and corruption on a gigantic scale.
Under Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s food self-sufficiency has been undone and a focus on large-scale mineral exploitation has benefited foreign investors and a small political elite but few ordinary citizens. 77% of people are unemployed and the country ranks at 183 out of 186 on the global index of living standards.
While Sankara had attempted to instil a revolutionary mindset of autonomy, self-sufficiency and sovereignty – a move that scared foreign powers and vested interests – Compaoré did the opposite. Like so many African leaders, his legitimacy and longevity rested on support from international friends and a small political and economic elite. Internationally, Compaoré established himself as a smooth operator and respectable elder statesman, while domestically, he split the opposition and embarked on political marriages of convenience that earned him landslides victories in questionable elections. In 2005, he won 80.4% of the vote, with the runner-up garnering a mere 4.9%. And in 2010, he managed 80.2%, with second place on 8.2%.
Because of the bravery and defiance of the Burkinabé people, Compaoré will not be winning any more elections, though what will happen next remains to be seen. The intervention of the military in filling the vacuum of power left in the wake of Compaoré’s departure stabilised the situation, but the people who finally rid themselves of one strongman will not want to see another take his place. Regional organisations such as the West African bloc ECOWAS and the African Union meanwhile are also watching events closely and have put pressure on the country’s new military rulers to hand over to an interim civilian administration as soon as possible.
If Sankara had simply been in exile these past 27 years, it is easy to imagine that he would now be being embraced by Burkinabés who would proudly march him back to his former presidential office. But that is not the case. However, as the socialist icon said himself soon before he departed this world, “individuals can be murdered but you cannot kill ideas.” This is a lesson that Compaoré learnt all too late as Sankara’s revolutionary message echoed loudly into the present, and it is something any future leader of Burkina Faso would do well to keep in mind too.