Burying Africa’s hopes: remembering Thomas Sankara, the revolution and how Blaise Compaoré stole it all

Sankara-Burkina-Faso-Joan-Baxter1-1024x607

  By: Joan Baxter

(adapted from Chapter 5: Dust from our eyes: an unblinkered look at Africa, Wolsak & Wynn 2010, Fahamu Books 2011)

Author’s note: Thomas Sankara was one of those rare individuals who come along every few decades or so, who seemed to have the energy, ingenuity and creativity to turn a small country — or maybe the universe — on its head. For four years he ruled Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest and least-known countries. Its capital, Ouagadougou, is fodder in the West for quizzes and other trivial pursuits. Even when it makes headlines in global media, as it did in the dying days of October 2014 when the people of Burkina Faso brought down a president, many news readers cannot get their tongues around the unfamiliar name. To add some context for the recent events in Burkina Faso, I’ve decided to post this extract from a chapter of my book, Dust from our eyes – an unblinkered look at Africa, which provides some detail (collected when I was reporting from Burkina Faso for the BBC from 1986 until 1988) about the late and great Thomas Sankara, about the country he loved and died for and about the ousted president, Blaise Compaoré, the man that stole it all.

 

The land of upright men and women is born

"There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas."

“There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.”

From the start, Thomas Sankara made it clear that he was not going to be another corrupt, luxury-loving African president dancing to the tune of foreign masters. On the anniversary of his first year in power, on 4 August 1984, Sankara changed the name of his country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. This combined two indigenous languages to describe his small, landlocked country as the “land of upright men” or “land of people with integrity.”

Previously a colony in the French West African Federation, France officially granted Upper Volta political independence in 1960. By August 1983, the country had already seen four presidents come and the most recent one, military pharmacist Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, was about to go. On August fourth that year, four young military officers seized power in a coup to overthrow Ouédraogo’s weak regime. The four officers, Captains Thomas Sankara, Blaise Compaoré, Henri Zongo and Commander Jean-Baptiste Lingani, quickly formed their “National Revolutionary Council,” with Thomas Sankara as head of state.

“We have to dare to invent the future . . . Everything that we are capable of imagining we are also capable of attaining.” President Thomas Sankara

The coup was not bloodless; at least five people died in the crossfire. But the overthrown president was not killed and he eventually resumed his work as a pharmacist. The physical elimination of predecessors in African coups was a sad tradition established in Togo in 1963, when President Sylvanus Olympio was killed in the French-orchestrated overthrow that brought then Sergeant Gnassingbé Eyadéma to power. Eyadéma then proceeded to promote himself to General, and ruled his country with an iron fist stained with blood[i] and corruption until his death in 2005.[ii]

In all that time, General Eyadéma had unflagging financial and military support from both France and Germany. The French built him a huge military airport and base in the north, near his native village of Pya, where General Eyadéma constructed a palace for himself. Twice France sent in troops to save Eyadéma’s presidency during attempted overthrows. Western governments applauded him for the stability in Togo. Tourists from Europe could enjoy luxury resort hotels along the coast and take afternoon outings in organized bus tours into the hinterland to watch Africans pound millet in wooden mortars in their villages.

As in many African countries, there were two distinct nations within the single country of Togo: one occupied by a tiny obscenely wealthy elite closely connected to the larger-than-life president, and the other inhabited by a huge majority with no political connections, benefits or money to speak of.

And this is exactly what Sankara was determined to change in Africa. He openly challenged the powers that be in Washington and Paris, hobnobbing with Nicaragua’s then-Marxist leader Daniel Ortega and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He tried to demystify the African Big Man, the new breed of man on the continent whose wealth, traditional status or connections, and formal education afforded him every privilege that he wanted, legitimate or not. Sankara’s actions were also an attack on the stereotype that many Western authors and journalists have drawn of African leaders, as kleptomaniacs unable to restrain their own greed and ego once they are firmly ensconced in the golden presidential chair.

Offering hope to Africa’s youth

By the mid-1980s he was heralded by many on and off the continent as leading a wave of promising second-generation leaders who would finally tackle some real problems plaguing Africa. Others offering hope to Africa’s youth at the time included Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, before he and his revolution went flabby; Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, before he overstayed his welcome at the helm of that country and involved himself in dirty wars in the region; and Mozambique’s Samora Machel, before he perished in 1986 in a mysterious air crash over South Africa.[iii]

Sankara shunned all luxury and imported goods. He dispensed with the custom-made Mercedes and Cadillacs that abounded in many presidential fleets in impoverished countries. He chose instead the tiny Renault 5, Le Car, as the official presidential and ministerial vehicles. Gone too were massive presidential convoys. Sankara could often be seen moving about the capital, Ouagadougou, in the front seat of his little black Renault, arm out the window and waiting like everyone else for traffic lights to change.

The more usual pattern I had witnessed during the 1980s in other African cities — Niamey, Yaoundé, Lomé, Cotonou, Kano[iv] — was that major thoroughfares were simply shut down for the passage of the president, sometimes hours before the president came through in a cacophony of sirens and a blur of speeding BMW motorcycles, luxury sedans, jeeps and military vehicles. This caused major traffic blockages and long waits while motorists sat and waited, and waited, for the president’s motorcade. Jaded and despairing Africans found humour their best, and often only weapon against leaders they had not chosen and had no power to remove from office. They would muse that their countries had plunged into poverty as the people waited in traffic, blocked while the president crossed town to urinate.

Sankara was a refreshing change.

A fitness fanatic, he liked to cycle. I saw him occasionally on his bicycle pedalling furiously around the man-made lake near the luxurious Hotel Silmande. One of his revolutionary acts was to have civil servants leave their offices at four o’clock on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for two hours of mandatory physical activity – cycling, soccer, walking or running. He often joined in with staff from the presidency, jogging down Independence Boulevard.

No room for pomp, props, palaces…or French wine

Sankara dispensed with all the pomp, props and palaces so popular among the Francophile presidents in francophone Africa. He also shunned imported goods and foods, believing it best to produce and consume locally. He promoted development that started at home, building on traditional knowledge and resources.

French President Mitterrand with Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, 17 November 1986 (credit: Brigitte Sodatanou)

French President Mitterrand with Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, 17 November 1986 (credit: Brigitte Sodatanou)

When French President François Mitterrand made a stop in Ouagadougou in November 1986, he was treated to a banquet of Burkinabé foods and drink. There was no wine or champagne — French or otherwise. That was something simply not done in diplomatic circles in Africa or elsewhere either. Then, during an official toast that evening, Sankara dashed protocol altogether and perhaps wrote the script for the events of October 15, 1987.

“We, Burkinabé,” he said to President Mitterrand, in front of the large corps of journalists who had accompanied him to Ouagadougou, “have never understood why criminals like Jonas Savimbi,[v] the head of UNITA, and murderers like Pieter Botha,[vi] have the right to travel to France, which is so clean and beautiful. They stain the earth with their hands and their feet covered with blood.”

In his reply that evening, after he patronizingly congratulated his Burkinabé host for his excellent mastery of the French language, President Mitterrand said that he admired Sankara’s qualities but that “he went too far.”

“Thomas Sankara makes it difficult to sleep,” said President Mitterrand. “He asks so many questions that he leaves no one with a clear conscience.” Then, as a nostalgic afterthought, he added, “He reminds me of myself when I was young, and full of energy and idealism.”

Energy and idealism abounded in Burkina Faso during the Sankara years. The country crackled with it. Sankara’s government ministers told me that he was a tough task-master, sleeping only a few hours a night. He opposed vices such as alcohol, tobacco and sloth. Head on, he confronted: ancient fears of the supernatural; female circumcision[vii] and the way men treated women; filth in the cities; laziness and incompetence in the civil service; and environmental degradation with an official “three-pronged fight against desertification,” which meant planting trees and banning both the setting of bushfires and uncontrolled grazing of livestock. Any marriage ceremony was not complete until the bride and groom had legally ‘consummated’ it by planting two trees.

At weekly cabinet meetings, Sankara’s regime issued a host of decrees known as kitis. Nearly all were highly original policies intended to reduce the country’s chronic dependence on foreign capital and imported ideas of what constituted development. There was often nothing inherently wrong with these decrees. Many were quite pointedly and brilliantly drawn up to wipe out Burkina’s problems — overnight. And that was impossible. But Sankara liked to say that anything conceivable by the human brain is achievable by the human being. And for a time in that dusty little country, even the impossible did seem possible.

The kitis came hard and fast. The BBC African Service could hardly get enough reports from Burkina Faso, not a place one would usually associate with frequent reports for the international media. Thomas Sankara provided a bit of intriguing news from what was too often portrayed as a morbidly depressing part of the world that filled newscasts with stories of famine, wars, corruption and political stagnation. I no longer had to pitch stories; the BBC called me up to see what was new in Ouagadougou.

There was something new under the African sun — a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.

One of the decrees declared Burkinabé cotton the mandatory cloth for all government workers and for anyone wishing to enter the presidential office. This cotton, called Faso Dan Fani, was grown, processed, woven, dyed and sewn in the country. The aim was to add value at home to what had previously been a cash crop, exported raw to France. Sankara also wanted to increase prestige for home-grown textiles to counter the devastating effects on tailors, weavers and farmers of the dumping of cheap second-hand clothing or ready-mades from abroad.[viii] Fashion shows ensued, as Burkina’s designers and tailors proved that home-made could be attractive and trend-setting. As Sankara pointed out, woollen suits and choking ties were wrong for the hot Sahelian climate. Such European apparel was ill-adapted for offices that were not air-conditioned. But cotton was.

Sankara then banned the use of energy-guzzling air conditioners in government buildings except during the three very hottest months of the year, radically reducing power consumption and costs to the state.

Fearless and way ahead of his time

That this dramatic measure, like many of his policies and his speeches, made him a lot of enemies did not appear to worry Thomas Sankara. At a diplomatic reception one evening, I asked the American ambassador to Burkina Faso if there was any truth in the rumour that one of his embassy drivers had been refused entry to the presidential offices because he was not wearing Faso Dan Fani. He avoided giving me a direct reply, but did say that he would never, ever allow American embassy staff to be dressed in those “potato sacks.”

One of the more spectacular decrees was intended to eliminate prostitution and begging on the streets. Both social ills were to be wiped out with a slash of the pen and a few words of encouragement from the president himself. The decree specifying the new laws on begging coincided with the establishment of social centres set up in major towns and cities, where beggars could train as artisans. Donations from the public would be accepted to feed the beggars who moved to these social centres.

In charge of the program was the minister of social development, Josephine Ouédraogo. The country’s first female ethnologist, Ouédraogo commanded both respect and admiration among rural and urban Burkinabé, although she told me her greatest problems came from her male peers in the educated urban elite right there in Ouagadougou. She explained that the purpose of this kiti was to curtail the rapid increase in the number of beggars from Qur’anic schools. These boys, known as garibouts, throng roadsides throughout West Africa, begging for money they collect in empty tins, typically ones that once held imported tomato paste from Italy or France.[ix] In theory, the money is for their schools and their upkeep, but more and more children are being exploited by their teachers, or marabouts. This tradition began centuries ago to enable children to leave their homes to attend Qur’anic schools under respected marabouts, and learn humility by seeking community support. However in recent times, the tradition has been perverted as roadside Qur’anic schools proliferate in West African cities and their students become beggars in the employ of some unscrupulous teachers.

Ouédraogo told me exemptions to the ban on begging had been made for disabled persons and women with twins, who would still be permitted to ask for alms, but only on Fridays and in front of mosques.

When I suggested that it was difficult not to give a few coins to young boys in rags who were clearly needy and who congregated on roadsides to beg, she looked at me long and hard. “That’s our problem. You Whites create these beggars. You are turning our country into a country of beggars.” She went on to say that donations would be welcome in the shelters, and that giving money to anyone who was not handicapped was not a generous act.

As for the prostitution decree, Sankara followed that up with a conference for sex-workers in the Officers’ Mess in the centre of Ouagadougou. Five hundred women — many mere girls — showed up to hear him speak, most of them Ghanaian, Nigerian, Nigerien (from Niger), Togolese or Ivorian; few Burkinabé girls could admit publicly to their work in the sex trade without intense social ostracism and rejection by their families. He told the assembled women that they were victims of “social injustice” and advised them to take up more “honourable professions” as hairdressers, seamstresses or waitresses. State-owned restaurants that had been opened in the newly designated ‘green spaces’ or neighbourhood parks in Ouagadougou (another kiti) were to employ these women immediately.

This was not entirely successful. Given the dearth of employment possibilities for young women with little or no formal education, many of those I found working in the state restaurants had not given up their extracurricular income-generating activities. They had simply moved from the bars and streets to state-owned restaurants, where their usual clients found them. Several who spoke to me were young Ghanaians who had come to Burkina Faso to earn hard currency — the CFA franc was pegged to the French Franc and not in freefall as was the Ghanaian Cedi at the time.

A Ghanaian teenager named Rose told me that she worked in a bar, but that at the end of the month the bar owner paid her only 3,000 CFA (about 12 US dollars at the time), never the 12,000 (about 56 dollars at the time) that was her official salary.[x] He always justified the deductions by maintaining that some of her customers had left outstanding bills or she had to cover the costs of broken drinking glasses. To pay her rent, Rose told me she had no choice but to “follow some men” after the bar closed. But, she said, pounding her chest with a clenched fist, “I may sell my body, but I never sell me, Rose!”

She, like all the young foreign sex-workers I interviewed, greatly admired Thomas Sankara.

Call a cancer what it is

The revolutionary president had a propensity for revolutionary slogans, which drove some people mad. “Our homeland or death, we shall overcome!” was one that was chanted with a raised-fist salute, Che Guevara style. “Down with imperialism!” and “Down with neo-colonialism!” were two more. And sometimes in the course of his long-winded but never predictable or dull speeches, he might come up with still more original slogans. “Down with inflated turkeys” he proclaimed one day, to denounce the African elite that would look down on their fellow Africans who were not amassing wealth and behaving like colonists in their own countries.

No one, except perhaps the peasant farmers for whom a special ministry was created, was spared the sharp blade of his criticism. He said that Africa’s educated elite had let the continent down. Students tended to come out of universities, often European ones he said, with top marks and then come home “to rest.” He said their role was to share their knowledge and expertise with the “popular masses.” He also expected them to contribute like everyone else to grassroots construction projects and tree-planting exercises.

Author interviewing Thomas Sankara for BBC, April 1987

Author interviewing Thomas Sankara for BBC, April 1987

In a speech on International Women’s Day, he reminded Burkinabé men that they were all sons of mothers, yet still treated their own wives “worse than cattle.” When I asked him in 1987 why he insisted on all the slogans that could be construed as deliberately provocative, Sankara replied that he had no choice but to “call a cancer what it is, a cancer.”

An attaché from the German embassy said that Sankara was “simplistic and naïve.” The American ambassador to Burkina Faso from 1984 to 1987, Leonardo Neher, was an amicable Texan with many diplomatic postings under his turquoise belt buckle. He told me that US President Ronald Reagan had pulled him out of retirement to “straighten out” Thomas Sankara. Then he admitted that he was surprised that he truly “liked the guy,” and he also truly believed that Sankara’s revolution was sincere in that he was overturning the “feudal system” and making real change in the country.

Just because Neher respected some of these changes didn’t mean the US intended to sit back and just watch as Sankara’s message spread and sparked revolutionary fervour among youth on the continent. In early 1987, I invited the ambassador to dinner to sound him out on official American plans about how to deal with Burkina’s pistol-toting, red-beret-wearing president. After dinner, after he told me that he viewed Sankara almost as a son, the American ambassador pounded his fist on my table and proclaimed, “But we are not going to allow another Cuba in Africa!” These were exactly the same words used in cables from the CIA Kinshasa bureau to its Virginia headquarters in 1960, as plans were made to eliminate Congo’s nationalist prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.[xi]

“…we are not going to allow another Cuba in Africa!” US ambassador to Burkina Faso, June 1987

Thomas Sankara was garnering followers and fans throughout Africa, although he was less popular in his own country where his reforms were being hammered through at a relentless pace and falling like cleavers on comforts and complacency to which many privileged and influential people had grown very accustomed in recent years. In early 1987, on one of his almost weekly forays into his country’s hinterland, he delivered a speech about a new campaign to “produce and consume Burkinabé.” Sankara maintained that political independence was meaningless if African countries were still tied to the economic apron strings of their former colonial and other neo-colonial powers. He told the nation that Burkina Faso had to produce and consume a whole list of products, including its own fruit juices.

Despite the abundance of fruit grown in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is often impossible to find any locally produced fruit juice. Soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and now the new caffeinated “energy” drinks made by the same companies, are found everywhere. Yet local fruit such as watermelons, mangoes, oranges, guavas, papayas, tamarind and a wide variety of indigenous fruits not known on the world market often go to waste in roadside markets because of seasonal surpluses. As Sankara said, trees that abounded in the Sahel produced delicious and nutritious fruits that were often going to waste.

The first locavore

A “Day of the Tomato” was declared, which involved demonstrations of sun-drying and preserving techniques. This was intended to curtail the consumption of expensive imported and ubiquitous canned tomato paste from Europe, and to prevent Burkina Faso’s tomatoes from rotting unsold under the Sahelian sun during periods of abundance. Decades before eating locally became fashionable in food and farm activist circles, Sankara was already espousing the ideals of the “locavore” movement.

Included in the campaign to consume what Burkina Faso produced were local liquors rather than imported French champagne and wine, and beer made by French-owned companies brewed exclusively with imported (French-grown) hops and wheat. Sankara engaged a German brew master who experimented successfully, so the German ambassador told me, with locally grown maize added to the beer. The brew master showed that the popular local brew, dolo, made with sorghum, could be produced industrially and bottled, to replace some of the beers imported from Europe. Unfortunately, the German ambassador then had a visit from his French counterpart, who informed him that Burkina Faso and Burkinabé beer were both part of the French domain. The German brew master went home, and the experiments ended.

In his speech that afternoon, as he explained the intent of the “produce and consume Burkinabé” campaign, Sankara – who never read from a prepared text — suddenly veered onto the subject of apples.

“Why do we import apples from France into our country that is overflowing with tropical fruit that we can’t sell? One apple costs more than a dozen mangoes,” he said. “The rich people buy apples because they are expensive. If an apple cost not 140 CFA [about 60 cents at the time], but 14,000 [about 60 US dollars], those people would still buy them. To them the apple is a symbol of their wealth, power and their superiority over the rest of their brothers and sisters in this country . . . people buy them because they come from Europe and not from our trees here, because they can’t resist the temptation to eat just like a French man.”

I was listening to the speech live on state radio, with a group of friends from several European and African countries. There were some chuckles. There was some open-mouthed incredulity. Someone said Sankara had really gone crazy. Another said he was becoming a “banana republic dictator.” Someone else said there was biblical significance in the speech.

“From this day forward,” Sankara announced, “it is forbidden to import apples into Burkina Faso. Then there will be no more temptation.” The nation was stunned. So were government departments supposed to enact the new decree. So were Sankara’s advisors who told me they never knew where one of his speeches would lead him.

“This is for our fruit-growers,” said Sankara. “Let’s produce and consume our own fruit. Let’s feed ourselves. Let’s not waste our precious currency on importing apples.”

A revolution with pizzazz

Unlike many other revolutionaries whose dogma and dreary rhetoric can be incredibly dull and depressing, Sankara infused almost everything he did and said with humour, plenty of dry wit and a spirit of spontaneous goodwill. He ruled with a pizzazz, energy and enthusiasm unrivalled in Africa, probably the world. Full of mischief, he enjoyed tweaking the noses of the great and powerful. As he did to the amusement of many when he invited the Soviet and American ambassadors to the ground-laying ceremony for one of the community health posts and “people’s pharmacies” that were going up all over the country. There, he had them each take turns laying a stone and applying mortar to the new building. Then he announced to the small press corps in attendance that in Burkina, the foundation had just been laid for the “wall of détente” between West and East in their Cold War.

Pranks like this did not endear Sankara to the powers that be in foreign capitals and in their embassies in Ouagadougou. Many Burkinabé also griped about the revolution. Some did not appreciate the rationale behind, nor the speed of the monumental changes Sankara was pushing on them. But many took up the challenge, and said they had been waiting for a president like this. “We complain about him because we can,” said Halidou, a friend who worked at the post office. “It is important to know the difference. If we really hated him, we would be too afraid to complain.”

The country was filled with stubborn courage and determination. “The limits of the human being are infinite,” Sankara told me during an interview in April 1987. “Mediocrity and laziness are not human. The human being is the most powerful machine there is.”

For many years, there had been talk of finally completing the rail line originally planned to cross West Africa, linking Cotonou in Benin with Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. It had been started in colonial times, but the final rail link between Niamey and Ouagadougou that would close the loop had never been laid. Sankara’s dream was to complete the railway, and have it sweep north of Ouagadougou to rich mineral deposits, before continuing on to Niger.

“The limits of the human being are infinite. Mediocrity and laziness are not human. The human being is the most powerful machine there is.” President Thomas Sankara

Speaking at an anti-Apartheid conference he hosted in early October 1987 in Ouagadougou (the very first anti-Apartheid conference held by and in an African country), he said that he had tried repeatedly to secure the financing for the missing rail link from the World Bank and the donor community. They had refused, offering instead financing for a road to the northern mining region. That is why, Sankara told an appreciative audience, he had launched the “Bataille du Rail,” a grassroots ‘battle’ to construct the railway without foreign financing. Between 1985 and 1987, 62 kilometres of rail were laid by volunteers – students, civil servants and by foreign dignitaries who were invited out to the project to see what Burkinabé were doing for and by themselves, and in some cases, found themselves expected to heave a concrete block into place, in the blazing sun and blowing dust. To my knowledge, the only foreign donation for the project was a few rails that Canada provided from a plant in Trenton, Nova Scotia.

Fighting corruption…Sankara style

One of the pillars of Sankara’s revolution was to fight the scourge of corruption, long before this became a fashionable mantra for the World Bank, donors and African leaders. Many former government ministers with ill-got wealth, including my landlord in Ouagadougou, were fearful of being called up by the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. They put their Mercedes literally under wraps while Sankara was in power, covering them with cloth and hiding them away behind the walls of their compounds.

In mid-1987, Sankara’s government launched its Anti-corruption Committee to vet members of the regime and to assess their wealth and assets after more than three years in power. Sankara was the first to appear before the committee. It would have been easy to scoff at the exercise, which at first glance looked like populist propaganda and more showy revolutionary theatre that made cynics laugh scornfully. After all, the government had appointed the committee that was vetting them. Certainly this was the view expressed to me by the Soviet correspondent from Pravda, and some derisive French journalists who came to Ouagadougou to attend the Pan-African film festival (FESPACO), an event that Sankara turned into a worldwide showcase of African cinematography and culture.

But those sceptics were not there to watch the proceedings of the first anti-corruption interrogation. It happened in the Palais de la Justice, where I took a bench in the back to watch Thomas Sankara as he faced the committee, while the proceedings were broadcast live on national state radio. Sankara stood with his red beret clutched in his hands clasped behind his back, facing the stony-faced committee as he listed his worldly belongings. The list included: two guitars that were cracked from the dry heat; two bicycles; three radios; one deep freezer that did not work and a refrigerator that did; a monthly income smaller than his wife’s who worked for the state shipping company; and a 1978 Mitsubishi car (which often had to be pushed to get it started). There were also gifts from foreign dignitaries totalling millions of dollars, which he said he had turned over to the State Treasury.

Many people laughed this off. Some people listening on tiny battery-operated radios in villages of mud and thatch said they were shocked at how “wealthy” Sankara was, so naïve were they about how those who did not have to scrape their survival out of the soil really lived. In Ouagadougou, his detractors — and there were many of these in elite circles — said it was all a hoax; he could take whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, from the state.

But the message of the exercise was not lost on the vast majority of people in the country, that is: you could be a Big Man, a president, an honourable patriotic Burkinabé, you could be somebody without being wealthy, driving a new Mercedes and flying to Paris for weekend shopping trips.

Breaking with tradition, he refused to hand out favours to his family, even to his father. His family lived as they always had, in a typical mud brick home not far from the centre of town, a stone’s throw from the presidential office, in fact. His mother still rose each day at dawn and headed to the market with a basket of greens on her head to sell. His father, Joseph Sankara, who had fought for France and been imprisoned in Nazi Germany during World War II, was crippled by an injury he sustained in Europe. Thomas Sankara refused to send his father to France for treatment.[xii] He said that he could not give his family anything that every single Burkinabé could not have. Culturally, this was simply unacceptable in Burkina Faso.

Later, people would say this was his biggest mistake, where he had gone wrong. They said he should have looked after his father, his family, himself. That, they would have understood. As it was, they understood little of what he was doing. Not then.

I once asked Sankara if he didn’t think he was moving too fast. “No,” he said, wringing his hands, his eyes alight. “Look around you. You see the children, all the children who are hungry, malnourished, illiterate. You see the desert moving in on us. If this were 20 or 30 years ago, we could afford to move slowly. We have no time left.”[xiii] In August 1987, Sankara relented a little, and admitted that “two steps without the people are not worth one step with the people” and agreed to make some compromises to take into account the negative reaction to the unrelenting pace of change.[xiv]

Graveyard for dreamers

Thomas Sankara’s initial burial site in October 1987 (credit: Joan Baxter)

Thomas Sankara’s initial burial site in October 1987 (credit: Joan Baxter)

By then, it was already too late. By the time the sun set on the evening of October 15, 1987, Thomas Sankara was dead. He, along with six of his closest advisors and seven drivers and guards, were gunned down at the Conseil de l’Entente, a high-security complex for high-level security meetings of West African leaders. Sankara, wearing his red track suit in preparation for Thursday evening sport, was shot several times at point-blank range. A lone survivor escaped over the high walls of the complex, and went into exile. There he identified some of those who had done the shooting, commandos led by Lieutenant Gilbert Guenguéré, under the command of Blaise Compaoré. But that survivor subsequently and mysteriously suffered mental problems and his eye-witness accounts of what happened were then dismissed.

A curfew was imposed and national radio proclaimed that the “traitor” Thomas Sankara had been overthrown. Later that evening, a terse statement on the radio informed the nation that the “Rectified Revolution” had begun under the Popular Front, led by none other than Sankara’s right-hand-man, Captain Blaise Compaoré.

The bodies of the fallen men were taken in the dark of night in the back of a Peugeot pick-up with no license plate to a bleak cemetery in a neighbourhood called Dagnoen on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. There, eye witnesses described watching from afar as unidentified men dumped the corpses onto the ground and covered them with a shallow layer of powdery brown earth.

Until the rectified revolutionaries, led by the new president Blaise Compaoré, forbade visitors to the graveyard, Dagnoen drew tens of thousands of Burkinabé who came to toss onto the shallow graves flowers and notes of affection and grief addressed to “Toma.” Older women and men stood there weeping. Younger people hurled insults at the armed commandos who stood watch, calling them “murderers” and “assassins.”

If the world had been watching for a few moments on the days following the coup, it quickly lost interest in the drama unfolding in the Land of Upright Men. On October 19, 1987, the stock market crashed and the world’s media, at least the few who had deemed the coup newsworthy enough to mention at all, quickly forgot Thomas Sankara.

Africans did not.

They knew why Sankara had been killed; he had defended Burkinabé and African interests and courageously, even recklessly, thumbed his nose at the world’s rich and powerful while he did so. But they didn’t know, exactly, who had killed him. Slowly, people began trying to piece together the pieces of the puzzle. In such exercises it is extremely difficult to come by solid facts, especially when the man most likely to have handled the in-country preparations is still firmly in power, and foreign involvement is covert, But here are a few pieces of a puzzle that can never be completely solved, not without a confession from a few of the world’s most powerful and secretive secret services.

Sankara’s outspoken assault on neo-colonialism, imperialism and hypocrisy seriously rankled in circles of power from Washington to Paris, from Tripoli to Abidjan. Sankara had belittled President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the so-called dean of African heads of state and the man that many called the Sage of Africa. Houphouët-Boigny had ruled Côte d’Ivoire since its independence and had amassed an untold fortune, only some of which he used to build a palace and basilica in his native village of Yamoussoukro, a building that rivaled the Vatican in size and splendour.

Blaise Compaoré had just married a woman with family connections to Houphouët-Boigny, and he had made several secret visits to Abidjan to visit the dean in the months before the coup. More compelling testimony that Houphouët-Boigny (and by proxy his allies in Paris) was eager to remove Sankara came from former Malian president, General Moussa Traoré, who had been overthrown in a coup in 1991. In the course of his 1999 trial for embezzlement, Moussa Traoré openly admitted that he had been given one million US dollars by Houphouët-Boigny to fight a border war against Burkina Faso in 1985, in an attempt to destabilize Sankara’s regime.

In addition, one of Sankara’s former government ministers also told me that the late revolutionary had also flirted with danger by shunning an invitation to join the secretive and exclusive Masonic lodge known as the Rose Croix that seemed to form an unbreakable bond of brotherhood among many of francophone Africa’s presidents. Paris’s favourites Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Gabon’s Omar Bongo were members of the Rose Croix, as was French President, François Mitterrand. Masonic Lodges all over Africa work very much like Africa’s own secret societies, developing permanent and indestructible bonds among members.

There were also reports that Charles Taylor, the notorious warlord who spearheaded wars in his native Liberia and in neighbouring Sierra Leone and also led insurgencies into Guinea in the 1990s, worked with Liberian exiles in Burkina Faso to help Compaoré stage the coup to overthrow and kill Sankara.[xv] Indeed, testimony by prominent Liberians has it that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) needed Sankara out of the way, not just because of his radical policies but also because he refused to go along with their plot to use Burkina Faso as a launching pad to prepare commandos (who would be trained in Libya) under Charles Taylor to eliminate Liberian President Samuel Doe. Blaise Compaoré, however, was the perfect partner for the CIA and French plot, so he was engaged to overthrow Sankara. After Taylor’s mysterious escape from a US prison in 1985, Compaoré offered him a temporary home in the Burkinabé capital. In 1990, I found Taylor’s name listed in the Ouagadougou telephone directory, and it was presumably from there that he put together the rebel force that would march first on Liberia to kill President Doe, and then across the border into Sierra Leone.[xvi] All of this led to the horrific and prolonged wars that decimated Liberia and Sierra Leone.[xvii]

The French government had never cared for Thomas Sankara. In May 1983, then President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo had appointed Thomas Sankara as his prime minister. Shortly thereafter, President Ouédraogo had his new prime minister arrested. Ouédraogo was on a very short leash from Paris, and Sankara’s arrest came during an unofficial visit to Ouagadougou by French President Mitterrand’s advisor on African affairs, Guy Penne, France’s eminence grise in Africa.

In his short term as prime minister of Upper Volta, Sankara had been very outspoken about the continued French domination of internal affairs in former colonies in Africa. That was apparently not to be tolerated. Penne had been in Ouagadougou only a couple of hours when Sankara and two of his closest allies were put under house arrest. Massive street protests ensued. Some former student leaders told me that the demonstrations had been supported by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who at that time loved to support any anti-Western movement. Sankara was freed, thanks to Blaise Compaoré who had evaded arrest and was able to bring military support from the commando training camp in the southern town of Pô.

So Compaoré, the new man at the helm in Burkina Faso after Sankara’s death in 1987, knew better than anyone else that Sankara could not simply be overthrown; his popular appeal could not be held behind bars. If he was to be removed, he had to be permanently eliminated. Predictably, Compaoré steadfastly denied having anything to do with the coup that brought him to power.

When I met with him on October 17, 1987 in the high-security zone of the Conseil de l’Entente, Compaoré contended that he had been in bed sick, in his underwear, he claimed, when the shooting started and that he had run outside with his own weapon thinking he himself was being attacked. He told me that the revolution had gone stale, that people were fed up, and that is why they were out on the streets celebrating on the day following the coup, which had been declared a holiday.

I told him that I had seen no one celebrating. Apart from a few unruly groups of drunken young men from the disbanded “Committees for the Defence of the Revolution” lurching about, the roads of Ouagadougou had been eerily deserted in the vacuum left by the assassination. The only crowds I had seen had been weeping and grieving at the graveyard in Dagnoen. Compaoré looked confused when I said this, then haltingly explained that this was because “the Burkinabé don’t like bloodshed.” And he said repeatedly that he never wished to be president.

I have to conclude that he was lying. Since 1987 he has clung to power, allegedly had opponents and dissenters imprisoned or executed, changed the constitution of the country to permit him to run in successive highly questionable elections, and in October 2014, tried again to do the same.

In early 1988, Compaoré would then come up with a new story, trying to justify the assassination of his predecessor by claiming that Sankara had been plotting to eliminate him with a private militia. This too seemed preposterous. If Sankara had been plotting anything, he would have protected his own wife and two small sons, got them out of harm’s way. In fact, it was Blaise Compaoré’s wife Chantal who had travelled to Paris just before the coup.

Following threats, Mariam Sankara together with sons Philippe and August left Ouagadougou in 1988, first for Gabon and then later moving to France (Credit: Joan Baxter)

Following threats, Mariam Sankara together with sons Philippe and August left Ouagadougou in 1988, first for Gabon and then later moving to France (Credit: Joan Baxter)

And there were other problems with Compaoré’s denials. First, some of those who invaded the Conseil de l’Entente and did the killing were his closest “comrades”. Secondly, Sankara’s widow Mariam said Compaoré was not sick the night before the coup. She said Compaoré had been with her husband until three in the morning, and that she had been relieved that the rift between the old friends had been healed. “They were laughing like schoolboys,” she told me. She had no doubt who was behind the coup in Burkina Faso, and she eventually had to be evacuated from her own country along with her two boys after numerous late-night attacks and threats on their lives.[xviii]

Here’s another revealing truth. Africa finally had a president who was fighting corruption head-on, while his country regularly made its debt payments and tried hard to produce some boots and boot-straps with which to pull itself up. Exactly what Western donors constantly claim they want African presidents to do. And yet, throughout Sankara’s short term in office, Western powers were busy cutting development assistance to Burkina Faso and undermining Sankara.

Some African journalists preferred not to ask who was behind the coup, but to ask who wasn’t. They fingered not just Blaise Compaoré and his commandos, but also France as the power behind them, something corroborated by Liberians involved in the plot. A journalist from the Burkinabé presidential office told me that when the shooting was going on in the Conseil de l’Entente, there were celebrations with champagne inside the French embassy, just down the road. He said that in Paris, Chantal Compaoré was drinking champagne at the Burkinabé embassy.

Even with the curfew and shoot-to-kill order in place, there was some unexplained night-time activity in Ouagadougou following the coup. First was the mysterious arrival at the Hôtel Indépendance of a large van with no registration, out of which a band of tight-lipped, burly American Special Ops men emerged and proceeded to unload large aluminum Halliburton cases. This was witnessed by Emmy-award-winning American journalist Marco Werman who repeatedly asked the men what they were doing in Burkina Faso. Through gritted teeth as they unloaded their luggage from the van, one of those burly thugs finally muttered, “We’re here to work.”[xix]

There was also a late-night landing at the airport in Ouagadougou of a Libyan transport plane carrying at least two bullet-proof Alfa Romeo cars as a personal gift to Blaise Compaoré from his ally in Tripoli, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

It was impossible to get a quote from the American ambassador about the coup — he had left the country a few weeks before it occurred, and his replacement wouldn’t arrive until the dust had just settled in mid-November. In any case, there was a conspicuous absence of condemnations of the assassination from the normally sanctimonious Western diplomatic community.

On January 1, 1988, at the annual New Year’s diplomatic get-together in Ouagadougou, the German ambassador to Burkina Faso — one of the few Western diplomats who greatly appreciated and respected Sankara — suggested a moment of silence be observed for “those who are no longer with us.” He was ridiculed by his counterparts from other Western embassies.

Blaise Compaoré begins his 27-year reign

Meanwhile, Compaoré and his henchmen in the Popular Front began the long process of trying to eliminate Sankara’s name from the national vocabulary and psyche. It was clear from the very beginning that Compaoré was taking no chances. He did not leave the heavily fortified confines of the Conseil de l’Entente for almost two months. When I went to interview him a second time after the coup, in December 1987, he said he had no intention of answering any questions about the coup or Thomas Sankara.

In this historic photo, Blaise Compaoré greets Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Lingani, both of whom his regime had killed in September 1989, alleging a coup plot against him. (credit: Joan Baxter)

In this historic photo, Blaise Compaoré greets Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Lingani, both of whom his regime had killed in September 1989, alleging a coup plot against him. (credit: Joan Baxter)

It wasn’t until January 11, 1988 that Blaise Compaoré first appeared in public at a public rally on Independence Boulevard. At that event, he shook hands publicly with the other two remaining members of the former four-man National Revolutionary Council, Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Lingani. Both became part of his government, but they seemed to have lost their tongues and remained eerily silent, becoming almost invisible on the political scene.

Graffiti appeared on university buildings in Ouagadougou that said, “four minus one = zero.” Student protests criticizing Compaoré and his rectified revolution were met with vicious beatings and arrests. One medical student was left permanently blind from such a beating by the security service. When I asked the head of security about the 3,000 new young recruits acting as spies for the Popular Front, and about the beatings by the police, he replied, “The police are not angels. You must understand that these people were threatening the security of the country and the peace. If on occasion some of them get beaten, it’s not surprising.” When this quote went out on the BBC, my phone rang and I was summoned again to his office, informed that were I not pregnant, I would be spending some days in his special cells.

Compaoré clearly meant business — the business as usual among African leaders looking for long careers in office. Dabbling in all sorts of dubious activities — diamond and weapon trafficking — that offer personal riches. Ruffling no feathers in foreign capitals and roughing up — or killing — people at home if necessary to keep the ‘peace.’

In 1989, Compaoré was the very first foreign head of state to make an official visit to China after the massacre in Tiananmen Square of thousands of students demonstrating for democratic reform. While there, Compaoré made a widely quoted speech praising China’s example of how to deal with dissent, which he said he would apply in his home country.

While his plane was on its descent to Ouagadougou for his homecoming, Compaoré’s two remaining revolutionary comrades, Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Lingani, were being secretly tried and executed for an alleged plot against him. Their bodies have never been found; no funeral has ever been permitted for them. Nor has one for Thomas Sankara. A death certificate issued to Mariam Sankara in January 1988, says that “Comrade Thomas Isidre Sankara,” born on December 1, 1949 at Yako in Burkina Faso, had died on October 15, 1987 at 16:30 hours in Ouagadougou “of natural causes.”

The campaign by Aziz Fall and the International Justice Campaign for Sankara (IJCS) for those causes to be fully detailed and exposed has led to nothing tangible, except the decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) that they must be investigated, and in death threats to Aziz Fall, who is living in Canada.[xx]

Perhaps multiple gunshot wounds are indeed a “natural cause” of death for an African leader who defies the powers that be in the wealthy world and their friendly accomplices in Africa itself.

In the end, I suppose what happened was inevitable. Reality had to be restored to the dream world in which, for a time, hope was blooming and self-confidence flowering. Such a revolution could start a dangerous precedent on the continent, where self-determination might endanger all sorts of things: access to natural resources; reliable allies in the UN General Assembly where a president who was bought and paid for could be counted on to vote correctly; control of a continent that European and other industrialized powers still viewed as a prize too great to lose.

Sankara’s former Minister of Peasant Affairs, Jean Léonard Compaoré, had this to say about his fallen leader: “He wasn’t a revolutionary or a politician. He was a preacher, a missionary.” He paused and searched the night sky as if searching for explanation in the stars. “Maybe he was a kind of messiah. He was not down here with us. His inspiration came from above — somewhere beyond you or me.”

Sankara’s legacy

I have tried over the years to look at the coup objectively. Sankara had come to power by the gun, had carried a gun, and some say that means he was also fated to go out by the gun, in a bloody coup. More to the point, I believe, is that he had stood up to giants, who eventually conspired to eliminate him. He knew the rules and knew he had flouted them. He may well have known he was going to die too. As a martyr to the causes he believed in, he is perhaps far more effective in promoting them even today than he would ever have been trying to implement them in his own small country, surrounded by Western client states.

Today, in many countries in Africa, there are journalists who continue to resurrect the hopes that Sankara inspired in Africa’s youth, printing his quotations in their papers to keep his dreams alive. Many Africans born in 1987, political clubs and “Sankarist” parties bear his name.

This is the positive legacy he has left.

Blaise Compaore (left) was elevated by Western nations to the status of "statesman" and "negotiator" in West Africa, shown here in 2002 in Bamako, Mali, with former Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure (centre), and former Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo (right)

Blaise Compaore (left) was elevated by Western nations to the status of “statesman” and “negotiator” in West Africa, shown here in 2002 in Bamako, Mali, with former Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure (centre), and former Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo (right)

Unfortunately, the lessons of his death, clearly understood by Africans, have also been negative. First, Sankara’s sad fate, along with that of other presidents who shared his belief that Africa must become truly independent, is a deterrent to any African leader who truly threatens foreign interests and the balance of power on the continent. Secondly, it also seems to prove that if you behave correctly and obediently after seizing power in a coup, if you allow foreign military and economic interests  to do as they will in your country, you can rule for many years in astounding material comfort and with impunity. You can even rig elections, transform yourself into a democrat, involve yourself in arms and diamond trafficking and meddle in conflicts and become fêted by the “international community” as a peacekeeper and statesman, just as Compaoré did for 27 years.[xxi]

Until, on 30 October 2014, the people of Burkina Faso decided they had had enough of the man that had buried the hopes embodied by Thomas Sankara and rose up to defy him. But it remains to be seen if this victory over Compaoré will truly be a victory for the people of Burkina Faso, or whether the local and foreign powers that be will hijack the uprising and continue business as usual.

Sources

[i] Amnesty International documented massive abuses of human rights over the years in Togo under General Eyadéma. In 1998, Amnesty reported that the Togolese security forces murdered hundreds of opponents before and after presidential elections. President Eyadéma changed the constitution to allow himself to run — and win — presidential elections in 2003. He died in power in 2005. His son succeeded him, and then won elections widely denounced as fraudulent, to perpetuate his father’s dynasty, and repeated the process in early 2010.

[ii] French investigative journalist, Pascal Kopp, alleges that this first coup–assassination in Africa was done as a covert French military operation, orchestrated by French president General Charles de Gaulle, incensed that Togolese President Sylvanus Olympio had publicly defied him, and was no longer serving the interests of France, having visited both Germany and the US without French “permission.” When Gnassingbé Eyadéma and his two accomplices showed their willingness to confront President Olympio to demand admission to the Togolese army, Kopp reports that French officers then convinced them that Olympio would kill them if they requested such a thing, and that the only solution was to eliminate the president. [Krop, Pascal. 1994. Le genocide franco-africain: faut-il juger les Mitterrand? Paris: Editions Jean-Clause Lattès.]

[iii] In 2006, South African president Thabo Mbeki announced that it was time to re-open the investigation into Samora Michel’s death in 1986. There had long been suspicion in Africa that the apartheid regime in South Africa and its security forces had been responsible for his death.

[iv] Niamey is the capital of Niger, Yaoundé the capital of Cameroon, Cotonou the largest commercial city in Benin, Lomé the capital of Togo, and Kano is the largest city in the north of Nigeria.

[v] Jonas Savimbi founded the Maoist UNITA movement in Angola in 1966, and from then until the early 1990s, he was supported ? with arms and training ? by apartheid South Africa. In the 1980s he was championed by the American right-wing think tank, the Heritage Foundation, and supported by the United States under President Ronald Reagan (whom Savimbi visited in Washington) and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who had headed the CIA in the 1970s. After its independence from Portugal in 1974, previous nationalist movements within Angola continued their struggle. On one side was the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) backed by Cuba; on the other were the South African- and US-backed FNLA and UNITA under Savimbi. Savimbi was close to two of the West’s favourite and key African leaders, Côte d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko. In later years, when the Cold War ended, Savimbi fell out of favour with his former friends in Washington, and was accused of being involved in drug, arms and diamond trafficking throughout Africa. Savimbi was killed by Angolan government troops in February 2002. The decades of fighting in oil- and diamond-rich Angola decimated the country, causing repeated famines, untold numbers of civilian deaths and atrocious maiming and death tolls from landmines throughout the country. See: Simpson, Chris. 25 Feb 2002. Obituary: Jonas Savimbi, Unita’s local boy. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/264094.stm

[vi] PW Botha was prime minister of apartheid South Africa from 1978 to 1984, when he became its first state president, governing until 1989.

[vii] Female circumcision comes in many forms and is widespread in parts of Africa. The UN and many Western agencies call all of these “Female Genital Mutilation” or FGM, and are trying to eliminate the practise. This campaign is widely and hotly debated in Africa, with many in favour of the elimination of the practise and others who defend it. Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonean / American scholar and Associate Professor at the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago, is one of those that denounces the campaign led by UN agencies as an “alarming multi-million dollar ‘development’ industry.” [ Ahmadu, Fuambai. 4 Mar. 2008. Hurray for Bondo women in Kailahun: Commentary. The Patriotic Vanguard: Sierra Leone Portal. http://www.thepatrioticvanguard.com/article.php3?id_article=2403 ] Another Sierra Leonean scholar, Aisha Fofanah Abrahim, says the WHO is right to call the removal of a woman’s health organ “mutilation” but notes that aesthetic bodily modifications in the West such as breast augmentations, face lifts, liposuctions, etc, acquire a “neutral coinage,” becoming “choices,” not mutilation. She says that to argue that these are performed by consent in the West, is to assume, incorrectly, that there is no consent in much of the female circumcision ceremony in Africa. [Abrahim, Aisha Fofana. 25 Mar. 2008. Female genital mutilation crisis: a response. Standard Times (Sierra Leone).]

[viii] The second-hand clothes that flood every market in Africa today come primarily from Europe and North America, where individuals give them away to charities. Charities sell them to wholesale dealers for whom frippery is very big business. They then bundle them up in bales that are sent off to Africa by the container-load. Dealers also buy bulk the unsold clothes from major clothing retailers for this burgeoning and lucrative trade that so undermines and greatly harms local textile and tailoring industries on the continent. Today, in much of Africa, people are clad primarily in these cast-off clothes, abandoning their own magnificent textiles and styles, which are more expensive.

[ix] Almudos is the term for the garibouts in The Gambia; they are known as talibes in Senegal and al manjeri in northern Nigeria.

[x] The exchange rates here reflect those before the 1994 devaluation of the CFA franc against the French franc, thereby reducing the value of the CFA franc by half against major international currencies.

[xi] Church Committee.1975. Interim Report: alleged assassination plots to kill foreign leaders. p 14. http://history-matters.com/archive/church/reports/ir/contents.htm

[xii] Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s right-hand man and friend in the Revolutionary Council, who later became president of Burkina Faso, stepped in and did arrange for Joseph Sankara to get to France for medical care. He also bought him a moped. Compaoré’s own father had died when he was a child, something that one of his friends told me had “deeply marked” him. Until the coup in 1987, Sankara’s parents viewed Compaoré as a son who visited far more often than did their son, Thomas. Their walls were filled with photographs of Compaoré and members of the Sankara family. After the coup, Compaoré never came back and those photographs of Compaoré came down, leaving the walls almost empty but marked by pale squares where they had once hung on the dusty walls.

[xiii] In a candid conversation with a UNICEF official, Thomas Sankara also worried about the impact of universal childhood vaccinations without a parallel campaign on family planning. The UNICEF official told me that Sankara was saying what no one else dared to even contemplate: in his country mothers produced many children assuming that half of them would die very young, that only the strong children would survive the harsh realities of rural life. Traditional methods of spacing births, with young mothers going back to their mothers’ homes after the birth of a child until that child was weaned, were disappearing. Without a concomitant emphasis on family planning, vaccinating children would result in rapid population growth that would outstrip resources available for national development. The population of the country has doubled since then, and it remains one of the world’s very least developed countries.

[xiv] For more on Thomas Sankara, see: Andriamirado, Sennen. 1987. Sankara le Rebelle. Paris: Jeune Afrique Livres “Collection Destins”; Andriamirado, Sennen. 1989. Il s’appelait Sankara: chronique d’une mort violente. Paris: Jeune Afrique Livres; Ray, Carina. 2007. True visionary: Thomas Sankara (1949–1987) New African, December 2007: 8–9; Sankara, Thomas. 1988. Thomas Sankara speaks ? the Burkina Faso Revolution: 1983–87. New York: Pathfinder Press; Wa Ngugi, Mukoma. 2007. Future imperfect. BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, Oct–Dec 2007: 19; AND : Ziegler, Jean (entretiens avec Jean-Philippe Rapp). 1986. Thomas Sankara: un nouveau pouvoir africain. Lausanne, Suisse: Editions Pierre-Marcel Favre. Collection: Les Grands Entretiens.

[xv] Ellis, Stephen. The Mask of Anarchy: the destruction of Liberia and the religious dimension of an African civil war. London: Hurst. p 68.

[xvi] Ghanaian journalist Cameron Duodu asks how Taylor could have escaped a US prison (where he was being held on extradition charges laid by then-Liberian president Samuel Doe) and managed to get out of the US to return to West Africa and garner funds and military backing enabling him to overthrow Samuel Doe. Duodu says that many Liberians believe that Taylor must have had help, perhaps from the CIA, something backed up by later testimony from other high-level Liberians who worked with Taylor. Duodu, Cameron. 30 Mar. 2006. The nine lives of Charles Taylor. The Guardian. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/cameron_duodu/2006/03/why_should_charles_taylor_be_t.html

[xvii] Montanaro, Silvestro. 9 Mar. 2009. Italian revelations on the assassination of Thomas Sankara. Pambazuka News, Issue 446. http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/58463

[xviii] Mariam Sankara and her two sons were flown to Libreville, Gabon, on a plane sent by Gabonese president Omar Bongo, who offered them a safe haven in his palace. Eventually, after Mariam Sankara complained about being treated as a prisoner rather than a guest by President Bongo, Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French president and a human rights activist, arranged for Sankara’s widow and her two sons, Philippe and Auguste, to go to France to live. There, Mariam Sankara completed a PhD in agronomy. She has worked with the Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa, the International Campaign for Justice for Sankara and a team of international lawyers to mount a legal case to force Compaoré’s government to shed light on the assassination of his predecessor. In March 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) ruled that the Sankara family had “the right to know the circumstances of his death.” But to date, not surprisingly, the government has not complied.

[xix] Personal communication with Marco Werman. What the American role in the coup may have been is impossible to determine unless CIA archives on its work in Burkina Faso are opened for public scrutiny. However, it is worth noting that following the exposure of CIA assassinations in the 1960s, President Gerald Ford enacted Executive Order 12333 in 1976, banning assassinations by the CIA. President Ronald Reagan renewed the ban, but it had become ambiguous: did it cover just targeting a head of state or just the way the assassination was carried out? If the coup or assassination was not actually carried out by US agents, was it legal for the CIA to be involved? In any case, if such covert support is never revealed, if the agents are special forces involved in “deniable operations,” there is little way to find out just how much the CIA are involved, especially in out-of-the-way countries in Africa. This is problematic for democratic countries, where the public is not permitted to know what crimes may be committed “in their interests” by their secret service agents around the world. The Church Committee interim report into CIA covert operations and alleged assassinations issued in 1975 reveals that crimes were indeed committed. Other publications that provide ample evidence that these deniable operations have continued around the world include: Coll, Steve. 2004. Ghost Wars ? the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2000. Toronto: Penguin Group (Canada), AND: Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. military and C.I.A. interventions since World War II. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press.

[xx] Thomas Sankara website: http://www.thomassankara.net/article.php3?id_article=0419

[xxi] On 25 January 2008, The News in Sierra Leone carried a report on the decisions made by West Africa’s leaders at the annual ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) summit, held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso a few days earlier. In the article entitled “West African leaders approve framework to combat poverty,” it was reported that the presidents “praised President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso for his untiring efforts towards the restoration of sustainable peace to that country.” In April 2008, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon visited Ouagadougou and praised the “noble” efforts of Compaoré in promoting “peace and stability.” See also: Jaffré, Bruno. Jan 2010. Metamorphoses du Président Blaise Compaoré – Le Burkina Faso, pilier de la “Françafrique”. Le Monde Diplomatique: p 19

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  1. Richmond Apore September 22, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

    Thank you so much for this very well written extensive account of the legend that is Thomas Sankara. To the Western world and the myopic co-opted Africans, hahahaha Sankara didn’t die in 1987. He still lives on in the hearts of Africans like me who are fed-up, angry and impatient to not only bring respect, but more importantly ensure that no one, be it the West or East, undermines the great future of Africa. Aluta Continua!

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