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Thomas Sankara, a pan-African icon still popular in Burkina Faso

Students take pictures in front of a portrait of Thomas Sankara, near Ouagadougou, October 15, 2021.

He wanted “decolonize mentalities” in his country and in Africa, where he has become an icon. But Thomas Sankara, young president of Burkina Faso, could not realize his dream: he was assassinated in 1987, four years after the coup d’etat which had brought him to power. The verdict of the alleged perpetrators of his assassination, including his former friend Blaise Compaoré, who succeeded him and remained in power for twenty-seven years, is expected on Wednesday April 6 in Ouagadougou, where Thomas Sankara remains a popular and emblematic figure.

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“Sankara is a whole philosophy, it’s a way of thinking and being, a way of life. Sankara is an African pride”, says Serge Ouédraogo, a high school teacher. During the 2014 protests that led to the fall of Blaise Compaoré, young people, who did not experience his brief stint in power, nevertheless brandished his portrait with pride. “Today, we can say that Sankara represents a compass for the people of Burkina Faso. He is a guide, he is the one who traced the path of hope for the people., believes Mr. Ouédraogo. A dozen political parties claim the ideal of Sankara, the main one being the Union for the Renaissance-Sankarist Party (Unir-PS).

A guitar and a Renault 5

Born on December 21, 1949 in Yako (north), Thomas Sankara, raised in a Christian family and whose father was a veteran, was 12 years old at the time of decolonization. After obtaining his baccalaureate in Ouagadougou, he underwent military training abroad, notably in Madagascar, where he witnessed the insurrection in 1972 which overthrew President Philibert Tsiranana, considered to be subservient to France, the former power colonial.

In 1973, on his return to his country, which was then called Upper Volta, he was assigned to the training of young recruits and stood out during a conflict with Mali in 1974-1975. After a coup in November 1980, the new Head of State, Colonel Saye Zerbo, entrusted him with the post of Secretary of State for Information. But his progressive ideas made him slam the door of the government a year and a half later.

He returned thanks to another putsch and was appointed Prime Minister in January 1983. A silent struggle for power then began between soldiers. First arrested in May 1983, he resurfaced in August, this time for good, following a new coup led by his close friend, Captain Blaise Compaoré. Aged 33, Sankara symbolizes the Africa of youth and integrity. He renamed his country Burkina Faso, the “country of honest men”.

Sporty and slender, smiling and charming, the young leader is always dressed in fatigues, carrying a pistol with a mother-of-pearl butt offered by the North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung on his belt. Living modestly with his wife and two sons in a dilapidated presidential palace, his only property is his guitar and a second-hand Renault 5, a small vehicle that he imposes as a company car on all members of his government. , used to luxury sedans.

“It goes further than it should”

His priorities: downsizing of a public service “plethoric”, improvement of the health situation, opening up of the countryside, education, promotion of women, policy in favor of peasants. This proactive policy is carried out with an iron fist. “We must decolonize mentalities”, he shouts. The population is monitored by the committees for the defense of the revolution and punished by the people’s courts of the revolution. He breaks a teachers’ strike by dismissing them and union and political opposition is repressed.

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Its relations with the former French colonial power and several neighboring countries, including Félix Houphouët Boigny’s Ivory Coast and Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s Togo, are strained. His positions, his links with the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi and the Ghana of Jerry Rawlings, are worrying. French President François Mitterrand, who officially welcomed Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi and South African apartheid regime President Pieter Botha to Paris, he gives a lesson in human rights during a visit to Ouagadougou in 1986 . “It goes further than it should in my opinion”retorts Mitterrand.

Sankara calls on Africa not to pay its debt to Western countries, denounces wars before the UN “imperialists”, apartheid, poverty, defends the right of Palestinians to self-determination. But the Sankarist parenthesis will be short-lived: on October 15, 1987, when he goes to an extraordinary council of ministers, he is assassinated during a putsch which leaves Blaise Compaoré alone in power. He was only 37 years old.

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The World with AFP

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