A coup d’état might not always be that bad

By Veerle van Onzenoort

When Thomas Sankara, then president of Burkina Faso, visited Côte d’Ivoire in 1984, he was originally banned from visiting its largest city, Abidjan. Ivorian authorities were afraid that Sankara would be welcomed with more enthusiasm than the president of Côte d’Ivoire itself. Sankara brought revolutionary improvement to his home country within four years, before being murdered in a coup d’état which has now been linked to several powerful forces. 

Thomas Sankara grew up in the Republic of the Upper Volta: a self-governing colony within the French community. The country had gained its independence in 1960 but struggled to establish any real autonomy or prosperity, despite the natural resources it had to offer. After briefly being prime minister earlier that year, Sankara organised a coup d’état in August 1983, which made him the first president of what he named Burkina Faso, meaning: land of honest people.

From the beginning, Sankara’s ideas put emphasis on self-sufficiency, pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism and feminism. In one of his speeches, he says: ‘true emancipation is that which empowers women, which associates them with productive activities, with the various battles confronting the people. The true emancipation of women is that which commands respect and consideration for men.’

In only four years of presidency, ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’ built health centres, schools and railways all over the country. This resulted in school attendance increasing from 6% to 22%. Infant mortality rates dropped from 208 per 1.000 births to 145 and two million children were vaccinated, saving the lives of 18.000 to 50.000 children annually. Sankara also committed himself to feminising social and political life by launching literacy campaigns for women and banning forced marriages. Furthermore, his independent economic perspective paid off. For example, cereal production rose 75% within three years. Famine changed into overproduction. He accomplished all of this on a self-imposed wage of $450 a month, whilst declining foreign aid.

All of this came to an abrupt end in the autumn of 1987. Tensions had been growing ever since he came into power as his anti-imperialist speeches and policies became increasingly unpopular within the West. Sankara repeatedly declined foreign aid and refused to pay back any colonial debt. Several colonial powers, especially France, became worried that the country’s sudden prosperity would cause further unrest and revolution in Western Africa, with a united Africa being their biggest fear.

On October 15th, Thomas Sankara was shot and killed in a coup by his lifelong friend, Blaise Compaoré, who then became president. Ever since then, this assassination has been investigated, with more and more evidence implicating both the USA and France’s involvement in his death. After taking power, Compaoré stated that Sankara’s government had to be overthrown because his policies were deteriorating relations with both France and neighbouring states aligned with France. France has not cooperated with investigations into the matter and thus, these suspicions cannot be verified.

After Sankara, Burkina Faso was governed by Compaoré until 2014. Compaoré reversed almost all of Sankara’s actions and restored ties with the West. Today, 40% of Burkina Faso lives in poverty, and it ranks 184th out of 191 nations in quality of life. With 39.3%, it has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Under Sankara, this rate was 73%. Sankara is still fondly remembered as an inspiring leader who brought hope to his whole continent.

“What is essential, is to develop a relationship of equals, mutually beneficial, without paternalism on one side or an inferiority complex on the other.”