A ‘madman’ who earned the tribute

Supporters in Ouagadougou of Thomas Sankara commemorate the 20th anniversary of his assassination. (Kambou Sia/AFP)

Supporters in Ouagadougou of Thomas Sankara commemorate the 20th anniversary of his assassination. (Kambou Sia/AFP)

A little over 31 years ago, in October 1987, the president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, was murdered in a coup instigated by his former friend and army captain, Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré went on to become president, a position he retained until October 2014 when he was overthrown by a popular uprising.

It should be remembered that the elections Compaoré won were in name only. They consolidated the odious power of a politician who followed a policy of so-called rectification of Sankara’s progressive agenda.

Sankara was two months short of his 38th birthday when he and a dozen of his bodyguards and aides were assassinated.
He had led Burkina Faso for little more than four years, from August 1983, when Compaoré marched 250 soldiers into the capital, Ouagadougou, leading to the removal of the previous president, Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo. Sankara was made president of the National Council of the Revolution, a body that, under his guidance, lived up to its name.

Despite paying homage to revolutions in the West, and in particular the French and American ones, Sankara was not popular in the capitals of the Bretton Woods nations. Memorably, at the United Nations in 1984, he invoked a significant moment in French history, saying: “The French Revolution of 1789, which overturned the foundations of absolutism, taught us the connection between the rights of man and the rights of peoples to liberty.”

Sankara was one of the few Pan-Africanists to gain power in postcolonial Africa and to wield it with the good of the people in mind. He believed in the ability of the people to govern. The people of the former Upper Volta were harnessed in a great national project: young and old, women and men, artisans and farmers. The new name of the country laid out its credo: Burkina Faso, meaning “land of incorruptible people”, was adopted in 1984.

To advance the revolution, Sankara gave inspiring speeches (and interviews) at home and abroad. In some, he took the guise of intellectual and theorist, in others the role of galvaniser of the people. Here are excerpts from some of them. They focus on the emancipation of women and the Burkinabè revolution. (Excerpts from Thomas Sankara Speaks, Pathfinder Press, 1988.)

From the end of a lengthy interview with Swiss journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp in 1985:

Sankara: “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain kind of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. Besides, it took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen.”

Rapp: “To invent the future?”

Sankara: “Yes. We must dare to invent the future. In the speech I gave launching the five-year plan, I said, ‘Everything man is capable of imagining, he can create’. I’m convinced that’s true.”

From his Political Orientation speech, October 1983:

“The genuine emancipation of women is one that entrusts responsibilities to women, that involves them in productive activity and in the different fights the people face. The genuine emancipation of women is one that compels men to give their respect and consideration.”

A longer version of this article was originally published in newframe.com

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the annual M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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