Thomas Sankara

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Following the 1974 clashes between Burkina Faso and Mali over the disputed territory of the Agacher Strip, the Organization of African Unity created a mediation commission to resolve the disagreement and provide for an independent, neutral demarcation of the border. Both governments declared that they would not use armed force to end the dispute. [48] Nevertheless, by 1983 the two countries were in disagreement about the work of the commission. [49] Sankara also personally disliked Malian President Moussa Traoré, who had taken power by deposing Modibo Keïta's left-leaning regime. [50] On 17 September Sankara visited Mali and met with Traoré. With Algerian mediation, the two agreed to have the border dispute settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and subsequently petitioned the body to resolve the issue. [51]

In July 1985 Burkina Faso declared the Malian secretary general of the Economic Community of West Africa, Drissa Keita, a persona non grata after he criticised Sankara's regime. In September Sankara delivered a speech in which he called for a revolution in Mali. Malian leaders were particularly sensitive to the inflammatory rhetoric, as their country was experiencing social unrest. [52] [53] [54] Around the same time Sankara and other key figures in the CNR became convinced that Traoré was harbouring opposition to the Burkinabé regime in Bamako and plotting to provoke a border war which would be used to support a counterrevolution. [55]

United States Department of State map showing the competing claims of Mali and Burkina Faso in the Agacher Strip Burkina-Mali boundary dispute, US Department of State map.jpg
United States Department of State map showing the competing claims of Mali and Burkina Faso in the Agacher Strip

Tensions at the border first began to rise on 24 November when one Burkinabé national killed another near the border in Soum Province. Malian police crossed the boundary to arrest the murderer and also detained several members of a local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution who were preparing a tribunal. Three days later Malian police entered Kounia to "restore order". Burkina Faso made diplomatic representations on the incidents to Mali, but was given no formal response. At the beginning of December Burkina Faso informed Mali and other surrounding countries that it was conducting its decennial national census from 10 to 20 December. [56] On 14 December military personnel entered the Agacher to assist with the census. Mali accused the military authorities of pressuring Malian citizens in border villages to register with the census, a charge which Burkina Faso disputed. [57] In an attempt to reduce tensions, ANAD (a West African treaty organization) dispatched a delegation to Bamako and Ouagadougou to mediate. President of Algeria Chadli Bendjedid also contacted Sankara and Traoré to encourage a peaceful resolution. [57] At the request of ANAD members, Burkina Faso announced the withdrawal of all military personnel from the disputed region. [58]

Despite the declared withdrawal, a "war of the communiques" ensued as Burkinabé and Malian authorities exchanged hostile messages with one another. [52] Feeling threatened by Sankara, Traoré began preparing Mali for hostilities with Burkina Faso. Three groupements were formed and planned to invade Burkina Faso and converge on the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. Once there, they would rally Burkinabé opposition forces to take Ouagadougou and overthrow Sankara. [59] Former Sankara aide Paul Michaud wrote that the Burkinabé president had actually intended to provoke Mali into conflict with the aim of mobilising popular support for his regime. According to him "an official—and reliable—Malian source" had reported that mobilisation documents dating to 19 December were found on the bodies of fallen Burkinabé soldiers during the ensuing war. [50]

At dawn on 25 December 1985, about 150 Malian Army tanks crossed the frontier and attacked several locations. Malian troops also attempted to envelope Bobo-Dioulasso in a pincer attack. The Burkina Faso Army struggled to repel the offensive in the face of superior Malian firepower and were overwhelmed on the northern front; [55] Malian forces quickly secured the towns of Dionouga, Selba, Kouna, and Douna in the Agacher. [51] The Burkinabé Government in Ougadougou received word of hostilities at about 13:00 and immediately issued mobilisation orders. Various security measures were also imposed across the country, including nighttime blackouts. Burkinabé forces regrouped in the Dionouga area to counter-attack. [56] Captain Compaoré took command of this western front. Under his leadership soldiers split into small groups and employed guerrilla tactics against Malian tanks. [55] [56]

Immediately after hostilities began other African leaders attempted to institute a truce. [51] On the morning of 30 December Burkina Faso and Mali agreed to an ANAD-brokered ceasefire. [56] By then Mali had occupied most of the Agacher Strip. [49] Over 100 Burkinabé and approximately 40 Malian soldiers and civilians were killed during the war. [55] The Burkinabé towns of Ouahigouya, Djibo, and Nassambou were left badly damaged by the fighting. [57] At an ANAD summit in Yamoussoukro [51] on 17 January Traoré and Sankara met [60] and formalised an agreement to end hostilities. [51] The ICJ later split the Agacher; Mali received the more-densely populated western portion and Burkina Faso the eastern section centered on the Béli River. [61] [62] Both countries indicated their satisfaction with the judgement. [61]

Burkina Faso declared that the war was part of an "international plot" to bring down Sankara's government. It also rejected speculation that it was fought over rumoured mineral wealth in the Agacher. [63] The country's relatively poor performance in the conflict damaged the domestic credibility of the CNR. [64] Some Burkinabé soldiers were angered by Sankara's failure to prosecute the war more aggressively and rally a counteroffensive against Mali. [65] It also demonstrated the country's weak international position and forced the CNR to craft a more moderate image of its policies and goals abroad. The Burkinabé Government made little reference to supporting revolution in other countries in the conflict's aftermath, [53] while its relations with France modestly improved. [66] At a rally held after the war, Sankara conceded that his country's military was not adequately armed and announced the commutation of sentences for numerous political prisoners. [67]


The British development organisation Oxfam recorded the arrest of trade union leaders in 1987. [68] In 1984, seven individuals associated with the previous régime were accused of treason and executed after a summary trial. A teachers' strike the same year resulted in the dismissal of 2,500 teachers; thereafter, non-governmental organisations and unions were harassed or placed under the authority of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, branches of which were established in each workplace and which functioned as "organs of political and social control". [69]

Popular Revolutionary Tribunals, set up by the government throughout the country, placed defendants on trial for corruption, tax evasion or "counter-revolutionary" activity. Procedures in these trials, especially legal protections for the accused, did not conform to international standards. According to Christian Morrisson and Jean-Paul Azam of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the "climate of urgency and drastic action in which many punishments were carried out immediately against those who had the misfortune to be found guilty of unrevolutionary behaviour, bore some resemblance to what occurred in the worst days of the French Revolution, during the Reign of Terror. Although few people were killed, violence was widespread". [70]

Personal image and popularity

The coat of arms of Burkina Faso under Sankara from 1984-1987, featuring a crossed mattock and AK-47 (an allusion to the Hammer and Sickle) with the motto La Patrie ou la Mort, nous vaincrons (English: "Fatherland or death, we will win"). A mattock and AK-47 are also featured on the Coat of arms of Mozambique, while the motto below the arms is also the current motto of Cuba, although in Spanish. Coat of arms of Burkina Faso 1984-1991.svg
The coat of arms of Burkina Faso under Sankara from 1984–1987, featuring a crossed mattock and AK-47 (an allusion to the Hammer and Sickle) with the motto La Patrie ou la Mort, nous vaincrons (English: "Fatherland or death, we will win"). A mattock and AK-47 are also featured on the Coat of arms of Mozambique, while the motto below the arms is also the current motto of Cuba, although in Spanish.

Accompanying his personal charisma, Sankara had an array of original initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some international media attention to his government:

Cuba rewarded Sankara with the highest honour of the state, the Order of Jose Marti. [71]


  • He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers. [15] [72]
  • He reduced the salaries of well-off public servants (including his own) and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and first class airline tickets. [15] [73]
  • He opposed foreign aid, saying that "He who feeds you, controls you". [74] [15]
  • He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity against what he described as neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. [75] [76]
  • He called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting. [76]

Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through will power, courage, honesty and work. What remains above all of my husband is his integrity.

Mariam Sankara, Thomas' widow [1]

  • In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army's provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country). [1]
  • He forced well-off civil servants to pay one month's salary to public projects. [1] [73]
  • He refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabés. [77] [78]
  • As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a refrigerator, and a broken freezer. [15] [78]


  • He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabé cotton and sewn by Burkinabé craftsmen. [18]
  • He was known for jogging unaccompanied through Ouagadougou in his track suit and posing in his tailored military fatigues, with his mother-of-pearl pistol. [1] [5]
  • When asked why he did not want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied: "There are seven million Thomas Sankaras". [79]
  • An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself. [1]

Africa's Che Guevara

"Pioneers of the Revolution", donning starred berets like Che Guevara Pionniers de la revolution.jpg
"Pioneers of the Revolution", donning starred berets like Che Guevara

Sankara is often referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara". [1] Sankara gave a speech marking and honouring the 20th anniversary of Che Guevara's 9 October 1967 execution, one week before his own assassination on 15 October 1987. [80]


On 15 October 1987, Sankara was killed by an armed group with twelve other officials in a coup d'état organized by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. When accounting for his overthrow, Compaoré stated that Sankara jeopardized foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast, and accused his former comrade of plotting to assassinate opponents. [1]

Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord allied to Charles Taylor and killer of the Liberian president Samuel Doe, told Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that it was engineered by Charles Taylor. [81] After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days. [82]

According to Halouna Traoré, the sole survivor of Sankara's assassination, Sankara was attending a meeting with the Conseil de l'Entente. [83] His assassins singled out Sankara and executed him. The assassins then shot at those attending the meeting, killing 12 other people. Sankara's body was riddled with bullets to the back [84] [85] and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation. [86] Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalizations, 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 [87] and ultimately spurned most of Sankara's legacy. Compaoré's dictatorship remained in power for 27 years until it was overthrown by popular protests in 2014. [88] [89]

In 2016, the Burkina Faso government officially asked the French government to release military documents on the killing of Sankara after his widow accused France of masterminding his assassination. [90]

34 years after Sankara's assassination, former president Compaoré and 13 others have been indicted and will be tried for complicity in the murder of Sankara as well as other crimes in the coup. [91] This development has come as part of the current President of Burkina Faso, Roch Kaboré's framework of 'national reconciliation'. [92] On 11 October 2021, the trial against Compaoré and 13 others began in Ouagadougou, with Compaoré being tried in absentia . [93] Ex-presidential security chief Hyacinthe Kafondo, was also tried in absentia, Anadolu Agency added. [94] A week before the trial, Compaoré’s lawyers stated that he wouldn’t be attending the trial which they characterized as having defects, and also emphasized his privilege for immunity, being the former head of state. [95] After requests made by the defence attorneys for more time to prepare their defence, the hearing was postponed until 25 October. [96]


The exhumation of what are believed to be the remains of Sankara was started on African Liberation Day, 25 May 2015. Once exhumed, the family would formally identify the remains, a long-standing demand of his family and supporters. Permission for an exhumation was denied during the rule of his successor, Blaise Compaoré. [97] In October 2015, one of the lawyers for Sankara's widow Mariam reported that the autopsy had revealed that Sankara's body was "riddled" with "more than a dozen" bullets. [98]


20 years after his assassination, Sankara was commemorated on 15 October 2007 in ceremonies that took place in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Tanzania, Burundi, France, Canada and the United States. [99]

A statue of Sankara was unveiled in 2019, however due to complaints that it did not match his facial features a new statue was unveiled a year later. [100] [101]

List of works

Further reading


Thomas Sankara
Thomas Sankara.jpg
1st President of Burkina Faso
In office
4 August 1983 15 October 1987

Historical Novel including Thomas Sankara

Web articles

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Burkina Faso Country in West Africa

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa that covers an area of around 274,200 square kilometres (105,900 sq mi) and is bordered by Mali to the northwest, Niger to the northeast, Benin to the southeast, Togo and Ghana to the south, and the Ivory Coast to the southwest. The July 2019 population estimate by the United Nations was 20,321,378. Previously called Republic of Upper Volta (1958–1984), it was renamed "Burkina Faso" on 4 August 1984 by President Thomas Sankara. Its citizens are known as Burkinabé or Burkinabè, and its capital and largest city is Ouagadougou. Due to French colonialism, the country's official language of government and business is French. However, only 15% of the population actually speaks French on a regular basis. There are 59 native languages spoken in Burkina, with the most common language, Mooré, spoken by roughly 50% of Burkinabé.

History of Burkina Faso Aspect of history

The history of Burkina Faso includes the history of various kingdoms within the country, such as the Mossi kingdoms, as well as the later French colonisation of the territory and its independence as the Republic of Upper Volta in 1960.

Blaise Compaoré President of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014

Blaise Compaoré is a Burkinabé former politician who was president of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014. He was a top associate of President Thomas Sankara during the 1980s, and in October 1987, he led a coup d'état during which Sankara was killed. Subsequently, he introduced a policy of "rectification", overturning the leftist and Third Worldist policies pursued by Sankara. He won elections in 1991, 1998, 2005, and 2010 in what were considered unfair circumstances. His attempt to amend the constitution to extend his 27-year term caused the 2014 Burkinabé uprising. On 31 October 2014, Compaoré resigned, whereupon he fled to Ivory Coast.

Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo Burkinabé politician (born 1942)

Jean-Baptiste Philippe Ouédraogo, also referred to by his initials JBO, is a Burkinabé physician and retired military officer who served as President of Upper Volta from 8 November 1982 to 4 August 1983. He has since mediated a few national political disputes and operates a clinic in Somgandé.

Agacher Strip War War fought by Burkina Faso and Mali

The Agacher Strip War or Christmas War was a war fought by Burkina Faso and Mali over a 160-kilometre-long (100 mi) strip of land along the border in northern Burkina Faso from 25 to 30 December 1985. The war ended in a ceasefire. The Agacher Strip had been subject to a border dispute between Mali and Burkina Faso since the 1960s. Following armed clashes in 1974, both countries agreed to mediation to resolve their differences. Progress on a solution stalled, and in 1983 Burkinabé President Thomas Sankara and Malian President Moussa Traoré decided to have the border dispute settled by the International Court of Justice and subsequently petitioned the body to resolve the issue.

Chantal Compaoré

Chantal Compaoré, born Chantal Terrasson de Fougères is the Franco-Ivorian wife of former President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso. Born in the Dabou, Ivory Coast, after becoming the First Lady in 1987 she spent much of her time on charity work in Burkina Faso. Her husband, who came to power in a bloody 1987 military coup, was overthrown in the 2014 Burkinabé uprising. Chantal Compaoré was subsequently forced to flee to her home country, going into exile together with her husband.


Sankarism is a term sometimes applied to denote a left-wing ideological trend within the politics of Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, as well as the policies of the military government led by Captain Thomas Sankara. Sankara came to power in what was then the Republic of Upper Volta in a popularly supported 1983 military coup, and ruled until his assassination in a coup led by Blaise Compaoré in 1987.

The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were a system of local revolutionary cells, established in Burkina Faso by the Marxist-Leninist and pan-Africanist leader Thomas Sankara, President of the country from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. Committees were established in each workplace. They were inspired by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Cuba, and functioned as "organs of political and social control."

Pioneers of the Revolution

The Pioneers of the Revolution was a youth organisation in Burkina Faso, modelled along the pattern of the pioneer movements typically operated by communist parties, such as the contemporary Pioneers of Enver, José Martí Pioneer Organisation and Agostinho Neto Pioneer Organisation. The Pioneers of the Revolution organised children of all ages. Much like many other young pioneer movements, such as the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation and the Young Pioneers of China, the most distinct sign of the Pioneers were their red scarves, joined by rudimentary uniforms and yellow berets.

Major Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani was an officer of Army of the Republic of Upper Volta executed on September 19, 1989 along with Henri Zongo by Blaise Compaoré who accused them of plotting a coup. Lingani was set by Laurent Sédego, Gilbert Diendéré, Hermann Yaméogo, Issa Tiendrébeogo and his cousin Alain Ouilma of national safety department.

Mariam Sankara is the widow of Thomas Sankara, the President of Burkina Faso from 4 August 1983 until his assassination on 15 October 1987. During this time she was First Lady of the country. Thomas Sankara, a Marxist and pan-Africanist army officer, became President of what was then known as the Republic of Upper Volta after a military coup in August 1983. He carried out what he proclaimed to be, the "Democratic and Popular Revolution", implementing many radical reforms. Sankara was killed in a coup in October 1987, orchestrated by his former friend and colleague Blaise Compaoré.

Burkina Faso–Libya relations Bilateral relations

Burkina Faso–Libya relations refers to the current and historical relationship between State of Libya and the Republic of Burkina Faso. Libya maintains an embassy in the Burkinabé capital of Ouagadougou, and Burkina Faso one in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

Burkina Faso–Soviet Union relations Bilateral relations

Burkina Faso–Soviet Union relations refers to the historical relationship between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the Republic of Burkina Faso. Relations between the countries were relatively close during some parts of the late Cold War. The Soviet Union maintained an embassy in the Burkinabé capital Ouagadougou, and Burkina Faso maintained an embassy in Moscow.

The Le Balai Citoyen is a political grassroots movement in Burkina Faso, which was part of the opposition against President Blaise Compaoré. It was co-founded by two musicians, reggae artist Sams’K Le Jah and rapper Serge Bambara ("Smockey") in the Summer of 2013. They organized several protests in early 2014, for example hosting a joint rally with the newly formed Movement of People for Progress, filling a 35,000-capacity sports stadium to its rafters.

Serge Bambara is a hip hop artist, actor and political activist from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Born in what was then the Republic of Upper Volta, the son of a Bissa father and a French mother, he moved to France to study in 1991. In 1999 he signed a contract with EMI and launched a first single, featuring the singer Lââm. In 2001 he moved back to Burkina Faso and started the studio Abazon. He has released the albums Epitaphe, Zamana, Code noir and Cravate Costards et Pourriture, and cooperated with the prominent Senegalese rapper Didier Awadi.

Karim Sama, more commonly known by his stage name Sams'K Le Jah, is a reggae musician, radio host and political activist from Burkina Faso. He was born in the neighbouring Ivory Coast, before coming to Burkina Faso in 1985. During his teens he was a member of the Pioneers of the Revolution, a youth movement created by Captain Thomas Sankara, a radical left-wing revolutionary who came to power in 1983 military coup. A member of the Rastafari movement as well as a Sankarist, he upholds both Sankara and Haile Selassie.

The 1989 Burkinabé coup d'état attempt was allegedly an attempt at a military coup d'état, planned by Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani and Henri Zongo, in addition to other unnamed conspirators. The plot, as described by the government of Burkina Faso, targeted President Blaise Compaoré – who, together with Lingani and Zongo, had previously carried out two coups in the country. All known conspirators were quickly executed.

The 1982 Upper Voltan coup d'état took place in the Republic of Upper Volta on 7 November 1982. The coup, led by the little-known Colonel Gabriel Yoryan Somé and a slew of other junior officers within the military, many of them political radicals, overthrew the regime of Colonel Saye Zerbo. Zerbo had previously taken power just under two years prior to his own downfall.

1987 Burkinabé coup détat Coup that brought Blaise Compaoré to power

The 1987 Burkinabé coup d'état was a bloody military coup in Burkina Faso, which took place on 15 October 1987. The coup was organized by Captain Blaise Compaoré against incumbent far-left President Captain Thomas Sankara, his former friend and associate during the 1983 upheaval.

On 4 August 1983 a coup d'état was launched in the Republic of Upper Volta in an event sometimes referred to as the August revolution or Burkinabé revolution. It was carried out by radical elements of the army led by Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, against the regime of Major Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo.


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Works cited

Commons-logo.svg Media related to Thomas Sankara at Wikimedia Commons

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Political offices
Preceded by President of Upper Volta (Burkina Faso)
Succeeded by