Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (21 December 1949 – 15 October 1987) was a Burkinabé military officer, Marxist revolutionary, and pan-Africanist President of Burkina Faso from his coup in 1983 to his deposition and murder in 1987. Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.

After being appointed Prime Minister in 1983, disputes with the sitting government led to Sankara’s eventual imprisonment. While he was under house arrest, a group of revolutionaries seized power on his behalf in a popularly-supported coup later that year. Aged 33, Sankara became the President of the Republic of Upper Volta. He immediately launched programmes for social, ecological and economic change and renamed the country from the French colonial name Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Incorruptible People”), with its people being called Burkinabé (“upright people”). His foreign policies were centred on anti-imperialism, while he rejected aid from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund. Sankara welcomed foreign aid from other sources but tried to reduce reliance on aid by boosting domestic revenues and diversifying the sources of assistance.

His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating more than 2 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, which saved the lives of 18,000 to 50,000 children annually. His government focused on building schools, health centres, water reservoirs, and nearly 100 km of rail, with little or no external assistance. Total cereal production rose by 75% between 1983 and 1986. Other components of his national agenda included planting over 10 million trees to combat the growing desertification of the Sahel, redistributing land from private landowners, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents and establishing a road and railway construction programme. On the local level, Sankara called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had pharmacies built in 5,384 out of 7,500 villages. From 1982 to 1984 the infant mortality rate dropped from 208 per 1,000 births to 145. School attendance under Sankara increased from 6% to 22%. Moreover, he outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy. He appointed women to high governmental positions and encouraged them to work outside the home and stay in school, even if pregnant.

As an admirer of the Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. As such, he prioritised gender equality, slashed the wages of his top officials and set up Popular Revolutionary Tribunals to prosecute public officials charged with political crimes and corruption, counter-revolutionaries, and “lazy workers”. The latter programme led to criticism by Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations for violations of human rights, who alleged that there were extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions of political opponents. Opposition parties and unions were also banned and media freedoms curtailed, as striking teachers were fired and replaced by young people with no experience. Although his revolutionary programmes for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor, and Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s citizens, his policies alienated and antagonized several groups, which included the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders who were stripped of their long-held traditional privileges of forced labour and tribute payments, and the governments of France and its ally the Ivory Coast. On 15 October 1987, Sankara was assassinated by troops led by Blaise Compaoré, who assumed leadership of the state shortly thereafter.

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