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An African revolutionary: The legacy of a top-down revolution

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Jesse Bakare

Describing Africa as a ‘mess’, Boris Johnson’s comments mirror the common western stereotypes of African leaders being corrupt, myopic and kleptocratic.[1] However, it appears that few are well-versed on Africa’s greatest leaders one being Thomas Sankara, who put his country and people above all else.

Following a revolution, imprisonment and a coup, Thomas Sankara rose to power in 1983 as the President of Burkina Faso (previously the Republic of Upper Volta). Inheriting a nation exhausted by colonialism, Sankara used his new-found position to launch a transformative agenda for social, economic, and ecological change. Within his short four-year tenure, ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’ distinguished himself from Burkina Faso’s previous myopic leaders and lead campaigns which were ahead of his time.[2]

Preaching that ‘he who feeds you controls you’, Sankara refused foreign investments, loans and aid. This was one of Sankara’s guiding ideologies behind his defiance of the IMF and World Banks. His actions encouraged other nations to take a Pan-African approach as well as working with international revolutionaries like Fidel Castro. Sankara used the money withheld from debtors to invest in Burkina Faso’s health and infrastructure.

One of Sankara’s first priorities after taking office was providing healthcare for those that desperately needed it. The average life expectancy of 44 in Burkina Faso was emblematic of the problems of a nation which suffered from a lack of health care infrastructure and accessibility. Sankara addressed these issues by providing better visibility and access to Burkina Faso’s facilities and resources. Between 1983 and 1985, Sankara vaccinated over 2 million children against yellow fever, meningitis, and measles – reaching the majority of Burkina Faso’s unvaccinated child population and raising overall national coverage to 75%.[3] In complimenting this achievement, Sankara also built pharmacies in over 70% of Burkina Faso’s villages.[4] The consequent fall in infant mortality by over 30% signifies the success of his policies.[5] As Ernest Harsch highlights, Sankara offered a ‘bold step forward’ in his health campaigns which saw real and tangible improvements.[6]

Sankara’s health campaigns complimented his modernistic and liberal belief in equality for women. On International Women’s Day 1983, Sankara gave a speech detailing his plans to reshape the relations of authority between men and women - a task he described as ‘formidable but necessary’.[7] He matched his ambition in being the first African leader to appoint women to political positions and encouraging women to work outside the home.[8] Furthermore, he outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages, polygamy and imposed strict rules on schools which expelled girls for getting pregnant.[9] Sankara’s proactive policies towards gender discrimination were rare for an African leader of his time and should be taken as inspiration for current and future leaders.

Beyond promoting female participation in school, Sankara sought to improve education within Burkina Faso. Adopting a country with an adult literacy rate of 11%, he began a nation-wide literacy campaign of improving access to education. Schools were built in over 350 communities and education was subsidised. Consequently, the literacy rate increased from 11% to 73% within just four years.[10] This was an astonishing achievement when juxtaposed with the current state of Burkina Faso’s literacy rate which sits at just under 29%.

While Sankara firmly believed in improving the quality of life for his people, he believed that in order to do this he must reduce his own expenditure in order to be more like the people he ruled. Demonstrating his strong solidarity with his people, Sankara believed that his role as a leader should not give him any more wealth than the people he ruled. As such, he replaced all state cars with the cheapest cars in the country, reduced his monthly salary to $450, and humbly limited his possessions to four bikes, three guitars, one car and a fridge.[11]

Although he worked to better conditions for the Burkinabe people, some of Sankara’s actions were overly draconian. In 1984, when some members of the teachers’ union went on strike against the demands of Sankara’s party, over 2000 teachers were dismissed. Furthermore, dissatisfied civilians and military officers were arrested in 1985 for allegedly plotting a coup, with 7 of the ringleaders executed. Among these measures, Sankara limited the free press within Burkina Faso and used media outlets to maintain his strict regime. Unfortunately, while Sankara’s dream of a self-sufficient utopian Burkina Faso was admirable, these measures alienated many who supported Sankara’s philosophy. Perhaps Sankara found himself ill-prepared to tackle the difficulties of a new independent state recently freed from colonialism or believed that his dreams could only be achieved through exercising force. Ultimately, Sankara’s repression culminated in his assassination in 1987.[12]

Burkina Faso translates to ‘land of the incorruptible people’. In his futuristic approach, Sankara aimed to be incorruptible. Although his tenure was short, Sankara’s legacy is long. His authoritarian rule is a tarnish on his legacy, however, there is much to learn from his ideology. Sankara should be recognised for prioritising the well-being of his country and his people and defying imperialist powers. On March 2nd, 2019, a statue of Sankara was erected in Burkina Faso, an eternal symbol of what Sankara stood for. While Africa has not seen many leaders like Sankara since, the statue is a reminder of what leaders can be.


Image source: Google Images

[1] Boris Johnson, ‘Africa is a mess, but we can’t blame colonialism’ (The Spectator, 14 July 2016) <> accessed 24 February 2021. [2] Alex Duval Smith, ‘Africa’s Che Guevara: Thomas Sankara’s legacy’ (BBC News, 30 April 2014) <> accessed 10 February 2021. [3] Susi Keller et al, ‘Speeding up child immunization’ (1987) 8 World Health Forum 216, 219. [4] Mohamed Keita, ‘Why Burkina Faso’s late revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara still inspires young Africans’ (Quartz Africa, 31 December 2020) accessed 10 January 2021. [5] Ibid. [6] Ernest Harsch, ‘Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary’ (1st edn, OUP 2014) 38. [7] Thomas Sankara, ‘Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87’ (2nd edn, Pathfinder 2007) 202. [8] Harsch, (n 5). [9] Keita (n 3). [10] Ibid. [11] Harsch (n 5). [12] Harsch (n 5).

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