Kimathi burial debate revives memories of Thomas Sankara

Tuesday, May 16th, 2023 06:30 | By
Kimathi burial debate revives memories of Thomas Sankara
Kimathi burial debate revives memories of Thomas Sankara

Following last Saturday’s burial of freedom hero Mukami Kimathi, debate on whether her husband, Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, should be reburied has re-emerged, 63 years after he was shot dead.

Kenya’s President William Ruto has pledged that his government will ensure that Kimathi — believed to have been buried in chains — will be given a hero’s ceremonial reburial.

The fate that befell Kimathi is not too different from what happened to another African political hero — Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara.

When then President Uhuru Kenyatta, during a national holiday two years ago, included Sankara’s name among the continent’s revered legends to be emulated, many Kenyans may not have followed him for they were not yet born when he was gunned down by his close friends.

In January, there was a standoff in Burkina Faso over plans to rebury Sankara’s body and this plunged the country into a series of controversies.

It is now going to 36 years since Sankara was ghastly assassinated by his power-hungry comrades-in-arms. However, his name and fame still linger on in his country where he is idolised.

Worth noting is that Sankara was reburied in February, the same month Kimathi was killed.

Africa’s Che Guevara

In October last year, to mark that date when he was murdered, a court in the West African country opened a hearing in which his suspected killers were accused of murder. The case is still going on.

The same year, senior military officers staged a coup d’tat in which democratically elected president Roch Marc Chrisrian Kabore was overthrown and replaced by a junta headed by Lt-Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba. The Junta suspended the case against Sanjara’s killers and mayhem once again hit the tiny West African country.

So, who exactly is this revered man whose name and fame are not about to disappear from the global political scene? Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, pan-Africanist theorist and President from 1983 to 1987. Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”

Sankara seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted in Africa. To symbolise the new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso which translates to “Land of Upright Man”.

His foreign policies were centrered on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalising all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritising education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.

Other components of his national agenda included planting over 10 million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction programme to “tie the nation together”.

Locally, Sankara called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour. Moreover, his commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing women to senior State positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.


In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control, eventually banning unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, “counter-revolutionaries” and “lazy workers” in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals.

As an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs). His revolutionary programmes for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s impoverished citizens.

However his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of an array of groups, which included the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labour and tribute payments, and France and its ally the Ivory Coast.

As a result, he was overthrown and assassinated in 1987.

A week before his murder, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed by an armed group with 12 other officials in a coup d’état organised by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré.

Sour relations with neighbouring countries was one of the reasons given, with Compaoré stating that Sankara jeopardised foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast.

Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord allied to Charles Taylor, told Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that the coup was engineered by Charles Taylor.

After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days. Sankara’s body was dismembered and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave, while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation. Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalisations, overturned nearly all of Sankara’s policies, rejoined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to bring in “desperately needed” funds to restore the “shattered” economy, and ultimately spurned most of Sankara’s legacy.

Compaoré’s dictatorship remained in power for 27 years until he was overthrown by popular protests in 2014.

Sankara’s visionary leadership turned his country from a sleepy West African nation with the colonial designation of Upper Volta to a dynamo of progress under the proud name of Burkina Faso. He led one of the most ambitious programmes of sweeping reforms ever seen in Africa. It sought to fundamentally reverse the structural social inequities inherited from the French colonial order.

Personality cult

He focused the State’s limited resources on the marginalized majority in the countryside. When most African countries depended on imported food and external assistance for development, Sankara championed local production and the consumption of locally-made goods.

He firmly believed that it was possible for the Burkinabè, with hard work and collective social mobilisation, to solve their problems: chiefly scarce food and drinking water.

In Sankara’s Burkina, no one was above farm work, or graveling roads–not even the president, government ministers or army officers. Intellectual and civic education were systematically integrated with military training and soldiers were required to work in local community development projects.

Sankara disdained formal pomp and banned any cult of his personality. He could be seen casually walking the streets, jogging or conspicuously slipping into the crowd at a public event.

He was a rousing orator who spoke with uncommon candour and clarity and did not hesitate to publicly admit mistakes, chastise comrades or express moral objections to heads of powerful nations, even if it imperiled him.

For example, he famously criticised French President François Mitterand during a State dinner for hosting the leader of Apartheid South Africa.

Thomas Sankara ranks amongAfrica’s everlasting greats whose names will never fade away,  many centuries to come.

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