Thomas Sankara was president of Burkina Faso from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. He launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he even renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Men”).
Sankara lived ascetically with few possessions, and kept a minimal salary once assuming power. When asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.”
Sankara’s commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy; while appointing females to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.
His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nation-wide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. He planted over ten million trees to halt growing desertification, doubled wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants and suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents. Sankara established an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together.”On the localized level Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour.
His foreign policies were centered around anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
But Sankara was not a democrat and he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation, eventually banning unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans and be manipulated by powerful outside influences.
A week prior to his murder Sankara gave what would become his own epitaph, remarking that “while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”