It could just as easily have gone the other way. It could have been just another case of yet another African leader looking to secure their presidency for life and succeeding amid a seemingly indifferent populace. But last year in October, 2014 the people of Burkina Faso had enough. The spark was set amid the parliamentary maneuverings of President Blaise Compoare, who was preparing to extend his term after some 27 years in power. Small protests broke out which evolved to become larger protests. Before long these protests became full blown riots pushing inexorably towards an uprising. Even the National Assembly building of Burkina Faso caught the fury of the people who torched a large section of it. As days passed it soon became clear that the government would have to act quickly to contain the situation. Meagre concessions were angrily rebuffed. President Blaise Campoare vowed not to stand down with observers wondering how much courage stood behind his words. When the military soon stepped in, his courage took flight, as did his person who soon after fled to the Ivory Coast after a hasty resignation.
This all happened in the space of 2 days. There are many reasons for the so called Burkinabe Uprising that have been cited. The economy had long been stagnant dissatisfying a fast growing and young population. The Burkinabes had no illusions, Campoare had lined his pockets from his first term in power onwards, but on the whole they tolerated it so long as they had something to make a living from. A wave of public reactions fanned by social media against African Presidents exceeding their terms also played a part. However another reason for the protestors kicking up a storm seemed to be evident by many of them displaying a portrait of a familiar face: Thomas Sankara.
Thomas Sankara was an unusual President by the standards of Burkina Faso. From the time he came to power in a popular coup in 1983, ironically arranged by his successor, he didn’t just promise large, he delivered. Upper Volta (as Burkina Faso was formerly known) a small west African country bordering the Sahara was beset by many problems including; deadly epidemics, mass illiteracy, dismal women’s rights, environmental degradation and grinding poverty. Instead of taking aim at just one of these problems Thomas Sankara tackled all of them simultaneously.
After lackluster attempts by previous governments that vaccinated very few, Sankara directed a campaign that vaccinated millions of children from meningitis, Yellow Fever, Measles and Polio (the latter being all but eradicated in months). Groups of volunteers were sent out to the largest towns and the smallest villages alike to teach the illiterate to read. In addition to tackling genital mutilation Sankara strived to make women equal citizens in the country, gaining the highest representation of women in government yet among other successes. In a memorable speech Sankara with a cheeky smile asked how it could be justified that pregnant girls were kicked out of school when the male culprits went unpunished, free to carry on impregnating. Tree planting was actively encouraged and at times demonstrated by Sankara, to help stop soil degradation caused by the encroachment of the ever growing Sahara desert. While he was an avowed Marxist, Sankara pragmatically worked with local private business to achieve food and economic self-sufficiency. Linking self-sufficiency to his fight against neocolonialism, Sankara openly called for African countries to develop native clothing industries, to both increase employment and stop the industries of the former colonial powers making money off Africans at their expense.
Debatably the real reason that Thomas Sankara was widely admired is that he practiced what he preached. He openly declared that his mission was to lessen the distance between the governors and the governed, a far cry from much of Africa back then and presently. To this end he trimmed the privileges of government ministers, including selling the government’s fleet of luxury Mercedes cars in preference for modest Renault cars. When Campoare took power in 1987 his government tried to smear Sankara, who was murdered during the coup with allegations of lining his pockets with public money. When Sankara’s assets were declared this failed spectacularly. It was declared that Thomas Sankara owned nothing more than; a bungalow, a refrigerator, a car, 4 motorbikes, 3 guitars (on one of which he composed the current national anthem), a fridge and a broken freezer. Sankara had lowered his salary down to $450 a month.
So why does Thomas Sankara and his legacy still matter in Burkina Faso? The truth is Thomas Sankara is not just an icon in his own country but throughout Africa, often idolised next to late figures such as Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela. But most importantly for his countrymen his absence has been felt amid the disappointing years of Campoare’s rule. Most of Sankara’s achievements, including the hard won food self-sufficiency has been reversed as Campoare and his family rode the gravy train. But more importantly advancing technology including social media has allowed information to filter through to a younger generation that is becoming more assertive.
On 25th May 2015 the remains of Thomas Sankara were exhumed. This is a part of the efforts of the transitional government to finally narrow down the specific circumstances of his unexpected violent removal from power. The activities of the ongoing investigation and it’s finding are bound to spark more debates about Thomas Sankara’s legacy. While Sankarist political parties have performed poorly during recent years, upcoming transitional elections may promise better returns at the polls.
In my opinion, Burkina Faso is presented with a great opportunity, but nonetheless one that is accompanied by great risk. An honest and full debate needs to happen about Thomas Sankara’s legacy. Burkinabe’s need to embrace Sankara’s intolerance of corruption but reject his intolerance for political opposition. Burkinabe’s need to learn again to respect their military of which Sankara was a part of, but not expect it to step in when the going gets tough in future. But most of all Burkinabe’s need to rediscover the progressive sense of nationalism fostered making the people of a small country feel as though they matter. There are many lessons for Burkinabe’s to learn from their President who quite literally gave the country a name for itself, this author sincerely hopes they learn the right ones.
Image credits: US Department of State|Flickr, Jeff Attaway|Flickr.