Editorial note: Leader of the Burkinabè Revolution, Thomas Sankara was a Marxist and Pan-Africanist revolutionary who became president of Burkina Faso in August 1983 at the age of 33. The following is a transcript from the documentary, “Thomas Sankara.”
Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, is one of the poorest nations in the world. It won its independence from France in 1960. In August, 1983, Captain Thomas Sankara took power and established a non-aligned socialist government. This documentary celebrates and assesses his commitment to bring about change and to empower the citizens of his country.
Narrator: At the foot of what remains of a country of dignified, free men, a lonely, giant tree still challenges and frightens the vultures. Bird of prey from Mossi land, I will never tell your name. Forget nothing on your way. The sun never sets. It is man who walks away from light.
“Defining oneself – that is the most difficult thing. First, because you are never sure of making out what you really are. I think there are three ways of being: as perceived by others, as you perceive yourself, and the truth which lies between these two views. As far as I am concerned, I am sure I am an amalgam of projects, convictions of faith, in a future which may require a good deal of daring or nihilism. As for the rest, history alone will judge me and define me.” – Thomas Sankara
Joseph Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s father: On December 21st, 1949, in Yako, the day after his birth, I called his Uncle Abel to tell him a ‘captain’ had been born in our family. He was our third child and first son. After that, people called him ‘Captain’ or ‘My Captain’.
Joseph Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s father: In 1960, as we were preparing for independence, he noticed that the Flag of Volta had been created. He got his brother and friends together with a few Europeans as well. He raised the French flag just to get it down and raise the Voltaic flag instead. There was a little European schoolmate of his. He didn’t understand why the French flag was taken down when the Voltaic flag was hauled up. Some fighting broke out.
Valerie Somé, Ex-Minister: We attended the same primary school in Gaoua. We played childhood games, even served Holy Mass, together.
Ernest N. Ouedraogo, Ex-Minister: When we set up our games, he would always stand out as the group leader. He was highly respected. He used to have excellent ideas.
Mariam Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s wife: We met in Ouagadougou in 1977. I had just graduated in Dakar and was going to continue in France.
Marguerite Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s mother: He told me he was planning to get married. But he added, “I want to get married, but my work takes up all my time, and that worries me a lot. I don’t know what to do.”
Joseph Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s father: He sent me a letter when he was abroad, saying: “A young lady will come to say hello.” One evening, I did see a young lady who came to say hello. I already had the letter in my pocket. I asked her name, and she said it was Serme Mariam. I said, “Good, please sit down.” She was to be his wife.
Mariam Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s wife: I was very struck by his simplicity. He was very simple and very intelligent and very sensitive. We married in 1979. He was a lieutenant on Pô. He had a real sense of duty. He was a very hard worker. He was against injustice of any kind. He had a militant spirit. He denounced any injustice, mainly within the army. He would often discuss matters with trade unionists and militant students. He was interested in all militant organizations. He was a very upright person.
Thomas Sankara: I became a civil servant. I am one of the lucky 0.035% of people in my country who are civil servants and receive a regular salary. Do you think it is normal for me to get a regular salary while the rest of the population, millions and millions of people, are continually suffering? That is not normal, and we fight it, beginning with our leaders: the president, his ministers, and all people in authority.
Thomas Sankara: People love freedom. People love democracy. Therefore, people will attack all their enemies. So, the enemy must be fought. Will you fight them? On with the struggle! Do you agree with maintaining corrupt civil servants? Then we must drive them out! We will drive them out!
Valerie Somé, Ex-Minister: In October 1979, I kept up my relationship with Thomas Sankara who was then head of the commando training center in Pô. We would have working sessions exchanging points of view on the future of Upper Volta.
Narrator: One coup followed another: Yameogo, Lamizana, Seye Zerbo. The politicians tried to pluck Thomas Sankara from his army.
Ernest N. Ouedraogo, Ex-Minister: Thomas Sankara was “invited” – in fact, it was an order – to participate in the CMPN government. He refused and asked to be entrusted with a military function, a function for which he had been trained. He was made to understand it was an order. After lengthy “discussions,” he finally gave in.
Thomas Sankara: An artist’s inspiration must express his culture.
Valerie Somé, Ex-Minister: In 1982, Thomas Sankara resigned and uttered the following sentence: “Woe to those who gag their people!”
Ernest N. Ouedraogo, Ex-Minister: “Woe to those who gag their people!” was a warning to those in power. Woe to those who gag their people.
Narrator: I will tell you of my wanderings with a loaned pencil. And on borrowed paper I will put a part of my great question. Let memory be our iron ring! Forget nothing on your way.
Thomas Sankara: Few countries have been flooded as has my country with all kinds of external aid. Theoretically, such aid is supposed to boost development. You will look in vain for any trace of development in what used to be called ‘Upper Volta.’ The men in power, out of naivety, or out of class selfishness, have been unable or unwilling to control external support or understand its scope and articulate the country’s need in favor of the people.
Narrator: The sun never sets. It is man who moves away from the light.
Thomas Sankara: People of Upper Volta, once again, today, August 4th, 1983, soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers of all arms and unities have decided in a patriotic surge to sweep away the unpopular regime, the regime of submission and humiliation, imposed since May 17th, 1983, by Doctor Commander Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo.
Thomas Sankara: People of Upper Volta, go forward with the CNR for the great patriotic fight and radiant future of our country. Our homeland or death! We shall overcome!
Thomas Sankara: Our revolution is also about giving water to our people. We have bored wells all over the country and have built dams. They are not big dams. Do not imagine we have built gigantic dams like the Aswan Dam in Egypt. That would be too big for us. These are small dams which the people were able to build themselves, often by carrying stone blocks on their heads since we have no wheelbarrows or trucks to help us. We dug the earth with our hands because we have no bulldozers, no machines or Caterpillars.
The sign reads, “One Way: Progress. Homeland or death will defeat us”
Thomas Sankara: We must make sacrifices, and those sacrifices must begin with the leaders themselves. In our country, ministers are not allowed to travel first class. They must fly economy class. We have gotten rid of luxurious cars. Our ministers have to use very small cars which are economical so that the people can recoup the money saved and use it to build dispensaries for our population’s welfare.
Thomas Sankara: We are fighting illiteracy. We are building more and more schools. To give you an idea: from 1960 to 1983 – that is, when the French colonial power granted our country independence to the beginning of the Revolution – we have managed to send only 12% of our children to school.
Unnamed Reporter: Written on the material of the dress is the calendar of vaccinations for the young children, including polio, DPT, and I’m not sure of the other one.
Thomas Sankara: We have built many dispensaries; we have vaccinated the children against the four major childhood diseases. The vaccination campaign has been so successful that even neighboring countries have had their children vaccinated – countries bordering Burkina Faso. We called the campaign ‘Operation Commando.’ It is a military term, but it means we wanted to achieve a great deal using very little means and in a very short period of time. Operation Commando has been a great success. We vaccinated millions of children at very low cost.
Thomas Sankara: We encourage aid which helps us to do without aid. An aid-dependent policy cannot help us organize. It simply enslaves us and makes us irresponsible. We have chosen to take risks and follow new tracks to be happier. We have therefore rejected, once and for all, any sort of dictate from outside our country, enabling us to create conditions for a dignity to match our ambition. We reject the survival syndrome. We want to release pressures and free our countryside from repression and ultra-conservatism. We want to democratize our society and open our minds to a universe of collective responsibility, so we dare invent our own future.
Marie-Roger Biloa, Journalist: Thomas Sankara arrived at a time when the political landscape was stagnating. It looked as though African heads of state had become entrenched and everything was frozen. And it was at this point that Thomas Sankara came on the scene to show us that there might be a third way for Africa.
Guy Penn, former African Affairs Advisor to President Mitterand: He came across as a very determined young man. Today, you’d say he’d taken some care over his “look.” There was an impertinence in his tone. Whereas the other heads of state – who were most concerned with maintaining the established status quo and good relations between France and their own countries – were wary of impertinence.
David Gakunzi, Journalist: Sankara came at a time when Africa was confronted with many cataclysms, both economics and natural disasters. The tremendous thing about him was that he showed us that misery was not unavoidable in Africa. He demonstrated that Africa was not doomed to misery by simple, concrete actions. He tackled the problems of the deforestation of Burkina Faso, the advance of drought and problems of food supply. Within four years, he was able to grant every Burkinabé two meals a day. This was tremendous for the whole of Africa. It also went against the current of Afro-pessimism.
Jack Lang, Minister of Culture, France: The fascinating and affecting thing about Thomas Sankara was his will to drag the country away from colonialism. His desire to put into practice an autonomous development program, calling on the effective participation of all the country’s inhabitants. He was also intent on restoring national pride, the pride of belonging to a particular culture.
Marie-Roger Biloa, Journalist: I would say that he was everything Africa lacked. He had courage. We felt there was nothing more we could do. We were resigned to our fate. He also represented the young generation, filled with hope compared to the old dinosaurs who are still haunting the African political landscape. And thirdly, he brought us the moral dimension we were lacking. The image we had of African leaders was of corrupt people from whom nothing could be expected. He came along and proved to everyone that a leader could be proud, dignified, and serve his nation without filling his own pockets.
From now on, the African territory once known as Upper Volta will be named Burkina Faso. The name ‘Upper Volta’ was handed down through colonization. To recapture our cultural identity, we changed it to Burkina Faso, which means ‘The Country of Free and Dignified People.’ The citizens of Burkina Faso are called Burkinabé. Their motto is: “Homeland or death. We shall overcome.” – Ouagadougou, August 2nd, 1984. Captain Thomas Sankara.
Ziniare Mossi, Farmer: Thomas Sankara was a hardworking man. He was a revolutionary man, and we are still relying on him. May the ground be light upon him.
Germaine Pitroipa, Diplomat: When I met Thomas Sankara, I did not feel I was treated as a woman. He always treated me as someone who was on an equal footing to himself. We would argue, and he would always try to convince me. For those who weren’t sure of their arguments, it wasn’t easy to argue with him.
Thomas Sankara: I am speaking in the name of all women of the world who are suffering an exploitation system imposed on them by men. I speak in the name of all mothers from our impoverished countries whose children are dying of malaria or diarrhea, ignorant that simple cures for these diseases do exist but are denied them by the multinationals’ science.
Narrator: Memory, I name thee ‘Immortality of the Baobab.’ Forget nothing on your way. The sun never sets.
Thomas Sankara: We are ashamed when we hear about Africans who buy palaces in Europe or deposit large amounts of money in Swiss banks or elsewhere. Considering the poverty of many Africans, this is shameful, and we cannot allow it. That is why our fight is also against corruption. And in our fight against corruption, we are merciless. We hold public trials to denounce the thieves or anyone who has embezzled money or public goods, and we punish them very severely. Of course, those we have punished never miss an occasion to oppose our regime, and they present it abroad as a fascist and dictatorial regime.
Thomas Sankara: Not only do I speak in the name of Burkina Faso which I love so much, I also speak in the name of all those who are suffering. I speak for the thousands of human beings who live in the ghettos because their skin is black or because they belong to a different culture and whose status is barely above that of an animal.
Narrator: The old troopers kill the freedom. The fratricidal Kalashnikov was worn like a captain’s stripe. The petty triumphs of their crime deserve spittle. Fifteen times! The 15th day of every 10th month. Forget nothing on your way.
Blaise Compaoré, Friend & chief aide to Sankara: We must drive out the corrupt military. We shall drive them away! That may cost us our lives, but we are ready to take risks. We are there to dare, and you are there to carry on the fight at all costs.
Narrator: Over there, Dagnoin’s Baobab is troubling the murderer’s sleep. Traitor, I will not tell thy name, triumph of darkness. Horizon which dresses with light at dawn and is bloodthirsty at sunset, are you not the only destination of the answer-seekers?
“Ideas cannot be killed.” – Thomas Sankara, Ouagadougou, October 8th, 1987.
On October 15th 1987, troops loyal to Blaise Compaoré murdered Thomas Sankara at his office. Compaoré, Sankara’s second in command, took his life-long friend’s place as President of Burkina Faso.