Thomas Sankara: Leadership and action that inspires 71 years later

Dec 21, 2020

Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was born December 21, 1949 in Upper Volta (today Burkina Faso), which, at the time, was a West African French colony. Sankara, a fierce enemy of the global system of neocolonial, imperialist capitalism (as well as all forms of bigotry and oppression), was assassinated on October 15, 1987, just four years after the people lifted him up as the president of their new revolutionary nation-state.

Like other influential socialists of the twentieth century Sankara’s life and anti-colonial and decolonial legacy continue to inspire anti-imperialist and Pan-African youth movements across Africa and beyond. A charismatic yet notably humble figure, Sankara is often referred to as the Ché Guevara of Africa [1]. Sankara is considered to have been one of the world’s most notable pan-African socialist revolutionaries.

However, unlike most of his peers Sankara wrote no major works for revolutionaries to study and learn from. What is available is a handful of speeches laying out the basic contours of his radical analysis and non-dogmatic revolutionary vision crafted for a popular audience. Sankara’s major contributions today are not only the historical example he set and the part he payed in the liberation of his own country and others, but also to the way he primarily expressed his political practice pedagogically.

While calls for decoloniality have gained currency in both academic and activist circles in the West, African leaders in particular have been at the forefront actually overthrowing colonialism through struggle, such as Sankara, tend to be either completely ignored or dismissed through the racist tropes of totalitarianism or authoritarianism. It is the duty of communists to combat this epistemic violence and celebrate the legacy of Sankara and Pan-African revolutionary socialism.


In 1960, when Sankara was 11 years-old, his country gained political independence from French colonialism. However, political independence did not equate to freedom from a new model of neocolonial French domination. The neocolonial Republic of Upper Volta Sankara grew up in was subsequently one of the poorest, most illiterate countries in the world. In his 1984 speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations Sankara describes conditions before the revolution:

“7 million inhabitants, with more than 6 million peasants; infant mortality at 180 per 1,000; life expectancy of 40 years; an illiteracy rate of 98 per cent, if literacy is considered to mean being able to read, write and speak a language; one doctor for 50,000 inhabitants; 16 per cent receiving schooling; and lastly, a gross domestic product of 53,356 CFA francs, that is, just over $100 per capita.” [2]

Sankara, like so many others, was painfully aware of the utterly destructive role of debt as the primary lever of neocolonialism. In a speech delivered in 1987 at the summit of the Organization of African Unity to African heads of state held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which occurred mere months before his assassination Sankara explains: “Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies” Elaborating on debt as a form of neocolonial oppression Sankara continues:

“Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules” [3].

Rejecting European demands to repay neocolonial debts that would only cause further immiseration and death, Sankara called for a “united front against debt.” Such a move, for Sankara, represented “the only way to assert that the refusal to repay is not an aggressive move on our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth” [4].

Debt, presented as aid, not only functions to perpetuate the neocolonial process of bleeding countries of their wealth and resources, but it also propagates a false sense of optimism. That is, by leading people to believe that foreign aid would eventually give way to modernization and raise the standard of living, the people are distracted from the imperialist violence of capitalist exploitation.

From neocolonialism to self-determination

Denied access to pursue a career in medicine due to the lack of wealth and social status of his family, as an alternative, Sankara attended a military high school. Selected with a small handful of other students to be sent to Madagascar for officer training in 1966, it was during this time that he was introduced to the works of Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Franz Fanon, and others influencing his Pan-African approach to socialism.

A central component of Sankara’s revolutionary agenda included breaking from not only colonial economic structures but also, and just as importantly, from colonial knowledge systems. Within Sankara’s vision and practice of revolution, Fanon’s challenges are apparent: “let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies which draw their inspiration from her” [5]. Drawing inspiration and insight from Fanon and others, it is it clear that Sankara was part of the revolution against the Eurocentric colonial tradition of “dragging” humanity “toward mutilation” and “imposing upon the brain rhythms which very quickly obliterate it and wreck it” [6].

From his time in the military and with a Captain’s rank,  Sankara was appointed to be secretary of state and then prime minister. While Prime Minister, Sankara invited Muammar Qaddafi—who helped free Libya from Italian colonialism and establish a prosperous and self-determined nation—as an official guest of the state without authorization from then president Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo. In response, Sankara was arrested in May 1983, propelling thousands into the streets demanding his release.

Seizing the moment, 250 military personnel organized a coup against Ouédraogo. As a result, Sankara was elevated to the status of president. Sankara would serve as president for four years before his assassination. In that time his administration started building a new socialist state designed to meet the people’s basic needs.

Land of Upright People

One of the first decolonial tasks of building a new revolutionary state apparatus was removing and discarding, completely, the name Upper Volta. The name was a colonist imposition, established through force upon the Mossi people. Renaming the country could be seen as merely symbolic, but it was significant for a number of interrelated reasons.

First, there are no remnants of the colonial name in the new name, Burkina Faso. This shift indicates a complete or revolutionary transformation marking the founding and creation of a new state. Contributing to this rupture, break, and birth the new name was no longer expressed in the colonial language.

What is more, the name Upper Volta refers to a river running through the top of the country. The name therefore served as nothing more than a descriptor of the colonial territory by the colonialists and was totally divorced from the indigenous peoples and their cultures.

The new name, Burkina Faso, meaning land of the upright people, not only reasserts the presence of the indigeneity, but a militant (i.e. upright) indigeneity with self-determination. No longer would the people be colonized and relegated to the status of invisible with no name of their own. The people would name themselves the upright people, Burkinabè.

Announcing their presence to the world at the United Nations in 1984, Sankara makes it crystal-clear: “I come to this thirty-ninth session of the General Assembly to speak on behalf of a people which, on the land of its ancestors, has chosen from now on to assert itself and to take responsibility for its own history” [7].

A new independent and sovereign state: Burkina Faso

The act of collectively naming and declaring oneself to be seems to be an indispensable part of overcoming the self-doubt and passivity engendered by aid and debt. Sankara’s revolutionary optimism was grounded in the conviction and presumption, proven through experience, that the working and oppressed classes are immediately capable of radically decolonizing and taking all aspects of their society including their own actions and thoughts.

Building a new state, for Sankara, therefore required the decolonization of knowledge production:

“Words and ideas come to us from elsewhere. Our professors, engineers and economists are content simply to add a little colouring, because they have brought from the European universities of which they are the products only their diplomas and the surface smoothness of adjectives and superlatives. It is urgently necessary that our qualified personnel and those who work with ideas learn that there is no innocent writing. In these tempestuous times, we cannot leave it to our enemies of the past and of the present to think and to imagine and to create. We also must do so” [8].

Sankara’s revolutionary program for radical material change, much of which was realized in the four short of his presidency, was laid out in his US speech:

“To prepare for the twenty-first century, we have begun, by creating a special tombola section, an immense campaign for the education and training of our children in a new school. The programme is called “Let’s teach our children”. Through committees to defend the revolution, we have established a vast house-building programme–500 units in three months–and we are also building roads, small water collectors, and so forth. Our economic ambition is to work to ensure that the use of the mind and the strength of each inhabitant of Burkina Faso will produce what is necessary to provide two meals a day and drinking-water” [9].

Central to their program for a new revolutionary state was combating the oppression of women, which Sankara characterized as slavery. Viewed as so crucial building of a revolutionary state of upright people Sankara directly addressed the issue in front of the whole world:

“…we are willing to welcome all suggestions from anywhere in the world that will help us to promote the full development and prosperity of the women of Burkina Faso. In return, we will share with all countries the positive experience we are now undertaking with our women, who are now involved at all levels of the State apparatus and social life in Burkina Faso, women who struggle and who say with us that the slave who will not shoulder responsibility to rebel does not deserve pity. That slave will alone be responsible for his own wretchedness if he has any illusions whatsoever about the suspect indulgence shown by a master who pretends to give him freedom. Only struggle helps us to become free, and we call on all our sisters of all races to rise up to regain their rights” [10].

The revolutionary government made significant gains in all areas of their agenda. A few notable examples: In a couple of short weeks the revolutionary government vaccinated 2.5 million children. The state set into motion a nation-wide literacy campaign increasing the literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987. Ten million trees were planted to prevent desertification. Without foreign aid they build roads and railways improving the country’s circulation and distribution networks.

In the area of gender equality, Sankara appointed women to leadership positions in the government. Women were also encouraged to work, join the military, and were granted pregnancy leave during education. Forced marriages, child marriages, and genital mutilation were outlawed.

They enacted an agrarian reform program redistributing land from feudal landlords to the vast peasantry that comprised nearly 6 of the 7 million country’s population. As a result, wheat production rose in three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the country food self-sufficient without foreign aid. This was fundamental to the revolutionary program. Sankara had made a point to remind the world that, “he who feeds you, controls you.”

Sankara spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity rallying against the continued Western financial, neocolonialist stranglehold on Africa. In these meetings and elsewhere, Sankara called for a united front of African nations to denounce and refuse to continue to accept their foreign debt obligations subverting their right to self-determination.

Upright Leader for the Land of Upright People

Sankara led by example and expected other servants in the revolutionary government to do so as well. Stressing the need for creativity in building the revolutionary state and overcoming the degradations of neocolonialism, Sankara’s practice was not based on dogmatism or predetermination. Making this point in 1984 at the United Nations as the general orientation the people of Burkina Faso and the National Council of Revolution of Burkina Faso empowered him to represent Sankara explains:

“I do not intend to enunciate dogmas here. I am neither a messiah nor a prophet. I possess no truths. My only ambition is a twofold aspiration: first, to be able to speak in simple language, the language of facts and clarity, on behalf of my people, the people of Burkina Faso, and, secondly, to be able-to express in my own way the feelings or that mass of people who are disinherited–those who belong to that world maliciously dubbed “the third world”–and to state, even if I cannot make them understood, the reasons that have led us to rise up, all of which explains our interest in the United Nations, the demands of our rights drawing strength in the clear awareness of our duties” [11].

Within what appear to be micro-level symbolic gestures, like selling the luxury cars for elected officials and replacing them with the country’s cheapest economy cars, by reducing the highest paid salaries of government officials—including himself—Sankara demonstrated to the whole country the sacrifice required to realize the goals of the revolution and the vast, creative potential of the people.

Taking on neocolonial French diplomats on the international stage, Sankara modeled the collective courage required to face of the imperialist juggernaut. Refusing to allow his portrait to be displayed in public, Sankara exemplified the humility necessary for a collective socialist project. When asked the reason behind this refusal, Sankara replied, “there are seven million Thomas Sankaras.”

As a leader, Sankara demonstrated to the people the revolutionary expectation comrades have of each other. Sankara took seriously living the ethics of the upright person fit for collective struggle and socialist cooperation.

He paid the cost for this as well. Sankara was assassinated on October 15, 1987 in a violent coup organized by one of his closest associates, Blaise Compaoré, who proceeded to take the presidency until a 2014 uprising forced him to flee the country. The problem with Sankara’s leadership for Compaoré—and thus the reason behind the assassination—was that it imperiled relations with the former colonial powers and the international imperialist system. Thus, when Compaoré assumed presidency he worked to reverse Sankara’s policies, privatizing natural resources, resuming a position in the International Monetary Fund, and likewise Burkina Faso’s subjection to imperialism via debt.

There was no investigation into Sankara’s assassination, as his death was officially due to “natural causes.” It wasn’t for another 30 years, until 2015, after Compaoré fled the country, that his body was exhumed, revealed to be filled with bullet holes.

Nonetheless, Sankara’s spirit lives on in Burkina Faso from 1987 until today. Compaoré’s reign was marked by numerous uprisings because the people never accepted his legitimacy. He continues to provide an inspiring example of a flesh-and-blood revolutionary, whose ideas and actions aligned and were guided by the goals of socialism and self-determination.


[1] Mathieu Bonkoungou (2007). Burkina Faso salutes “Africa’s Che” Thomas Sankara. Reuters,Oct 17. Available at:
[2] Thomas Sankara (1984). Speech before the general assembly of the United Nations. Available at:
[3] Thomas Sankara (1987). A united front against debt. Available at:
[4] Ibid.
[5] Franz Fanon. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 315.
[6] Ibid., 314
[7] Sankara, Speech before general assembly of the United Nations.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...