Many say that the problem of African development lies in a lack of leadership. Yet at times when it has thrown up charismatic, inspirational leaders who have put the needs of the people before themselves, they have found it difficult to survive. So it was with Captain Thomas Sankara, dubbed the African Che Guevara, one of Africa’s greatest leaders. So on what would have been his 65th birthday, it is an opportunity to remember who he was and what he achieved. Perhaps one day, we can all watch Thomas Sankara: The Movie and wonder what could have been.
- Born in 1949 into the country known as Upper Volta.
- Followed a career in the military rising to the rank of captain.
- Led a coup d’etat against the government.
- Became head of state in 1983.
- Renamed the country Burkina Faso meaning “Land of Upright People”.
- Despised development aid because it led to dependence and external domination.
- Refused to listen to the World Bank and IMF describing them as “charlatans trying to sell development models that have all failed”.
- Launched the most ambitious programme of social and economic change ever seen on the African continent.
- Paid himself $450 a month and refused air conditioning on the grounds that most of his countrymen could not afford it.
- Would not let his portrait be hung in his office or public places
- Was a fitness fanatic who was regularly seen jogging unaccompanied on the streets of Ouagadougou
- Assassinated October 15th 1987 at the age of 37
- At the time of his death all he had was an average house with an outstanding mortgage, $350 in the bank, some bikes and guitars.
- Purged deeply entrenched bureaucratic and institutional corruption.
- Slashed the salaries of ministers.
- Abolished many of the previlideges of government.
- Sold off all extravagant vehicles. Made the Renault 5, the cheapest car in the country the official car of government including for himself as president.
- Civil servants were made to donate a month’s wage every year into a state development fund.
- Forced civil servants to wear locally made clothes during office hours to increase demand for locally made goods.
- Led an agricultural revolution.
- Redistributed land from the economic elite to subsistence farmers.
- Launched massive irrigation and fertiliser enrichment programmes.
- Constructed social housing in the cities.
- Declared 1 year rent free.
- Established special economic zones for private business.
- Attempted to create an industrial base for the dominant agricultural economy
- Focused on infrastucture improvement
- Promoted women’s rights – they could join the army, FGM was banned and women were put into top government and state owned company positions.
- Forced marriage and polygamy was made illegal.
- Declared day of solidarity with housewives during which men took on the role of their women.
Results (within 4 years after coming to power)
- Burkina Faso was virtually self-sufficient in basic food. Today the country imports most of its food.
- 10 million trees were planted as part of a successful reforestation and environmental protection programme.
- Literacy improved with school attendance rising from 10% to 25%.
- 5 million children were vaccinated.
- Childhood mortality was halved.
- The population wore clothes made in Burkina Faso and from cotton that was 100% sourced from within the country.
- He stifled independent unions.
- Did not educate the population politically so the ideals of revolution were never embedded.
- Change was too fast and too radical for most.
- He underestimated the power and influence of local rulers
- Alienated the middle classes.
- Became the hero of pan-africanism , was anti-imperiualistic but did not convert his influence into international clout. He did however reach out to the African American community on a visit to New York to express solidarity over racism, and spoke out aginast apartheid.
- Some saw him as an autocrat who came to power through the use of force
- “He who feeds you, controls you”
- “…welfare and aid policies have only ended up disorganizing us, subjugating us, and robbing us of a sense of responsibility for our own economic, political, and cultural affairs. We chose to risk new paths to achieve greater well-being.”
- “We cannot transform society while maintaining domination and discrimination against women who constitute over half of the population.”
- “debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa. It is a reconquest that turns each one of us into a financial slave.”
- “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” (one week before his death.
Burkino Faso today, is one of the 10 least developed countries in the world.
Image credit: Romano Martino, Thomas sankara, CC BY-ND