Thomas Sankara was only 37 years old when he was shot and killed by soldiers on October 15, 1987, after a bloody coup that saw his close friend, Blaise Compaoré, take control of the country.
The duo had staged a coup four years earlier, which saw Sankara become president in August 1983.
Popularly known as ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’, Sankara has remained somewhat of an icon across Africa and an inspiration to many Pan-Africanists.
As president, Thomas Sankara renamed the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso: which means, “Land of Upright People”.
Thirty-four years after his death, the mystery surrounding Sankara’s death is yet to be solved. Those allegedly involved in it are yet to be prosecuted and are still at large.
Now, the begging question is, who killed Thomas Sankara?
An Early Life
Born Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara on December 21, 1949, in Yako, French Upper Volta, Sankara was the third of ten children to Joseph and Marguerite Sankara.
His father was of mixed Mossi–Fulani heritage while his mother was of direct Mossi descent. Sankara attended primary school at Bobo-Dioulasso, where he took his studies seriously and excelled in mathematics and French.
He attended church regularly, and several of the priests were so struck by his energy and eagerness to learn that they pushed young Thomas to continue on to seminary school after completing primary school.
As a matter of fact, Sankara’s Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he chose to join the military.
The military enjoyed widespread support at the moment, having recently deposed an unpopular president. Young thinkers saw it as a national institution that might assist to control the inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy, counterbalance the overbearing power of traditional leaders, and help modernize the country in general.
Furthermore, admission to the military college would come with a scholarship; otherwise, Sankara would be unable to afford the costs of further education. He took and passed the entrance exam.
Entering the military
Thomas Sankara was 17 years old when he entered the military academy of Kadiogo in Ouagadougou with the academy’s first intake of 1966. While there, he witnessed the first military coup d’état in Upper Volta led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana on January 3, 1966.
The trainee officers were taught by civilian academics in the social sciences. At the time, the academic director was Adama Touré, who taught history and geography and was noted for his progressive ideals. Outside of the classroom, he allowed a select of his brightest and most political students, including Sankara, to participate in informal conversations about imperialism, neocolonialism, socialism, and communism, the Soviet and Chinese revolutions, African liberation movements, and other themes.
Sankara was exposed to a revolutionary perspective on Upper Volta and the globe for the first time in his life. He pursued his interest in music and played the guitar in addition to his academic and extracurricular political activity.
Further Military Training
Thomas Sankara, then 20 years old and approaching 21, continued his military education at the military academy of Antsirabe in Madagascar, where he graduated as a junior officer in 1973. Sankara was able to study agriculture, particularly how to increase agricultural yields and improve the lives of farmers, at the Antsirabe academy, which he eventually took up in his own government and country.
He read a lot about history and military strategy during that time, gaining the concepts and analytical tools he would later employ in his reinterpretation of Burkina Faso’s political history.
Sankara also read Marxist books, mastered the French language, and conceptualised ideologies of the productive role of the military in a poor nation. Sankara believed an educated soldier is the best soldier, as he would say, “A soldier without training is just a criminal in power.”
Career as a Soldier
Thomas Sankara fought in a border conflict with Mali as a young lieutenant in the Upper Volta army in 1974 and returned home a hero, but years later he would reject the war as futile and unfair. He studied in France in 1976 and then in Morocco in 1977 when he met Blaise Compaoré and other Upper Volta civilian students who eventually founded socialist organizations in the country.
Evolution of leadership in Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso’s military has interfered in times of crisis on multiple occasions since its independence on August 5, 1960. In 1966, the military, commanded by Lieut. Col. (later Gen.) Sangoulé Lamizana deposed Maurice Yaméogo’s elected government. Lamizana ruled the country until November 1980, when a series of strikes by workers, teachers, and civil personnel resulted in a second coup, this time led by Col. Saye Zerbo.
Noncommissioned army officers revolted and installed Maj. Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo as president in November 1982, ending Zerbo’s brief reign.
On August 4, 1983, the Ouedraogo administration divided into conservative and radical factions, with the revolutionaries assuming power. They formed the National Revolutionary Council, which was led by Captain Thomas Sankara.
Renaming Burkina Faso
Sankara renamed the country Burkina Faso, which means “Land of Upright People,” a year after taking control, and ordered all officials, including himself, to open their bank accounts to public scrutiny. His government was responsible for a number of tangible successes, including vaccine and housing projects, tree planting to keep the Sahel at bay, women’s rights promotion, and waste reduction in government.
Burkina Faso has also adopted a new flag, with red representing revolution, green representing hope and abundance, and a gold star representing mineral wealth.
Thomas Sankara’s Legacy
Sankara led what was genuinely a post-colonial movement throughout his four years as President. He had a vision of Burkina Faso as a country where people would want to live, and he began making drastic changes that excited the younger generations while annoying many of the older ones.
He had taken power away from the chiefs of the Mossi kingdom, which was one of the significant reforms he had undertaken. Despite the fact that the French had assumed control of Burkina Faso’s government, the Mossi chiefs still held a lot of authority in the communities.
Sankara wanted to put a stop to all oppression in Burkina Faso, so he deposed the Mossi and forced the kingdom to pay for the free water and energy it had been enjoying.
Strains with Mali, over the mineral-rich Agacher Strip, broke out in a short-lived border war under Sankara’s rule in December 1985. A year later, the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of both countries before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Assassination and Death
In a coup d’état staged by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré, Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara was assassinated along with twelve other officials on October 15, 1987. Compaoré accused Sankara of jeopardizing diplomatic relations with former colonial power France and the neighbouring Ivory Coast. Sankara was also accused of plotting to assassinate opponents.
Sankara was said to be at a meeting with his council when his assassins targeted and killed him. The assassins then opened fire on the meeting attendees, killing 12 other persons.
Thomas Sankara’s body, riddled with bullets, was quickly buried in an unmarked grave while his widow, Mariam, and their two children fled the country.
Compaoré promptly reversed the nationalizations, revoked practically all of Sankara’s initiatives, rejoined the IMF and World Bank to bring in “desperately needed” funding to reconstruct the so-called “shattered” economy, and ultimately rejected most of Sankara’s legacy.
Blaise Compaoré’s dictatorship lasted 27 years before being ousted in 2014 by mass demonstrations.
Who killed Thomas Sankara?
Many believe Sankara’s friend and right-hand man, Blaise Compaoré was the main suspect behind his assassination. While there is little doubt about that, the story runs deeper than that.
According to Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord who killed the Liberian president Samuel Doe, and allied to Charles Taylor, Sankara’s assassination was engineered by Taylor who later became Liberia’s president.
Also, West Africa’s longest-serving leader, Felix Houphouët-Boigny who had so much appetite for regime changes in the region was also complicit as well.
Until Thomas Sankara’s overthrow and killing in 1987, Houphout-Boigny and Burkina Faso’s leader, Thomas Sankara, had a turbulent relationship. The Ivorian president would have benefited immensely from the divisions in the Burkina Faso government, so he called Blaise Compaoré, the second-most powerful man in the government; it is generally believed that they worked in conjunction to overthrow the Sankara regime.
Interestingly, the coup may have had French involvement, since the Sankara administration had fallen into disfavour with France.
In 2016, the Burkina Faso government officially requested that the French government release military documents on Sankara’s death, after his widow, Miriam Sankara accused France of masterminding her husband’s assassination and gruesome death.
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