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Thomas Sankara: twenty five years since his murder

by on October 15, 2012

Thomas Sankara (1949-1987) was a radical leader of the small West African state of Burkina Faso, formally the French colony of Upper Volta. He was mrudered twenty five years ago today. He rose to lead the Burkinabé revolution in 1983. At the age of thirty four Sankara set about transforming the small and rural economy of Burkina Faso, promising to ‘draw on the totality of man’s experiences since the first breath of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all the revolutions of the world, of all the liberations struggles of the people of the Third World’. Soon Sankara’s image was seen on the walls of student radicals around the world, his name a watchword for revolution. Burkina Faso, for several short years, became a beacon to another political world. He raged against the injustices of global power and sought to transform the lives of the poor. Derided by his opponents, who saw him as a stooge of Cuba and the Soviet Union, Sankara divided international opinion. In circumstances still shrouded in mystery Sankara was assassinated in 1987. While some rejoiced others saw the defeat of a possible alternative to austerity and underdevelopment on the continent.

For a figure that is still celebrated and demonised, Sankara’s life is largely unknown. The story of his life crosses the late colonial period, when French power on the continent was slowly being undermined by nationalist forces. Sankara’s life, however, tells us another story. The period of his schooling, political apprenticeship and career covers the first two decades of independence. This was a moment of rapid political and economic change, when the continent tantalised the world with the possibility of colonial liberation, independence and freedom. In a short time these hopes collapsed, new opposition parties and movements emerged from the crisis of independence. The children of independence grew disillusioned with a political elite that seemed to replicate the repression and inequalities of colonialism. New groups saw the removal of the ruling class as the only solution.

Sankara’s life spanned this period; he became the leading proponent of a new independence, which would refuse the old relationships with the ex-colonial power. He was determined to be model of incorruptibility. Refusing any of the trappings of power, accepting neither the ministerial limousines nor air conditioning; he was determined to live in the same conditions as the people he ruled. When he was murdered he left a car, four bicycles and a fridge. But the world’s poorest president was caught in the vice of global power and by his own limitations.

At the Ruth First Project we celebrate the life of this inspiring radical.

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