Thomas Sankara

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Moussa Traore Moussa Traore (1989) (cropped).jpg
Moussa Traoré

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. [49] Nevertheless, by 1983 the two countries were in disagreement about the work of the commission. [50] Sankara also personally disliked Malian President Moussa Traoré, who had taken power by deposing Modibo Keïta's left-leaning regime. [51] 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. [52]

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 criticized 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. [53] [54] [55] 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. [56]

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 Defence 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. [57] 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. [58] 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. [58] At the request of ANAD members, Burkina Faso announced the withdrawal of all military personnel from the disputed region. [59]

Despite the declared withdrawal, a 'war of the communiques' ensued as Burkinabé and Malian authorities exchanged hostile messages with one another. [53] 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. [60] Former Sankara aide Paul Michaud wrote that the Burkinabé president had actually intended to provoke Mali into conflict with the aim of mobilizing popular support for his regime. According to him "an official—and reliable—Malian source" had reported that mobilization documents dating to 19 December were found on the bodies of fallen Burkinabé soldiers during the ensuing war. [51]

Sankara's efforts to provide evidence of his bona fides were systematically undermined. 'It is hard to believe that the Malian authorities are unaware that the rumors circulating are false,' says U.S. Ambassador Leonardo Neher. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cable states, 'The war was born of Bamako's hope that the conflict would trigger a coup in Burkina Faso.' [61]

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; [56] Malian forces quickly secured the towns of Dionouga, Selba, Kouna, and Douna in the Agacher. [52] The Burkinabé government in Ougadougou received word of hostilities at about 13:00 and immediately issued mobilization orders. Various security measures were also imposed across the country, including nighttime blackouts. Burkinabé forces regrouped in the Dionouga area to counter-attack. [57] Captain Compaoré took command of this western front. Under his leadership soldiers split into small groups and employed guerrilla tactics against Malian tanks. [56] [57]

Immediately after hostilities began other African leaders attempted to institute a truce. [52] On the morning of 30 December Burkina Faso and Mali agreed to an ANAD-brokered ceasefire. [57] By then Mali had occupied most of the Agacher Strip. [50] Over 100 Burkinabé and approximately 40 Malian soldiers and civilians were killed during the war. [56] The Burkinabé towns of Ouahigouya, Djibo, and Nassambou were left badly damaged by the fighting. [58] At an ANAD summit in Yamoussoukro [52] on 17 January Traoré and Sankara met [62] and formalized an agreement to end hostilities. [52] The ICJ later split the Agacher; Mali received the more-densely populated western portion and Burkina Faso the eastern section centred on the Béli River. [63] [64] Both countries indicated their satisfaction with the judgement. [63]

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. [65] The country's relatively poor performance in the conflict damaged the domestic credibility of the CNR. [66] Some Burkinabé soldiers were angered by Sankara's failure to prosecute the war more aggressively and rally a counteroffensive against Mali. [67] 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, [54] while its relations with France modestly improved. [68] 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. [69]

Relations with other countries

Thomas Sankara defines his program as anti-imperialist. In this respect, France became the main target of revolutionary rhetoric. These attacks culminated in François Mitterrand's visit to Burkina Faso in November 1986, during which Thomas Sankara violently criticized French policy for having received Pieter Botha, the Prime Minister of South Africa, and Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA, in France, both 'covered in blood from head to toe'. French economic aid was reduced by 80% between 1983 and 1985. [70]

Guy Penne, President François Mitterrand's advisor on African affairs, organized a media campaign in France to denigrate Thomas Sankara in collaboration with the DGSE, which provided the press with a series of documents on supposed atrocities intended to fuel articles against him. [61]

A program of cooperation with Cuba was set up. After meeting with Fidel Castro, Thomas Sankara sent young Burkinabés to Cuba in September 1986 to receive professional training and to participate in the country's development upon their return. The latter must be volunteers and are recruited on the basis of a competition with priority given to orphans and children from rural and disadvantaged areas. Some 600 teenagers have flown to Cuba to complete their schooling and receive professional training to become doctors, engineers, agronomists or gynecologists. [71]

Denouncing the support of the United States to Israel and South Africa, he called on African countries to boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. At the United Nations General Assembly, he also denounced the invasion of Grenada by the United States, which responded by implementing trade sanctions against Burkina Faso. Also at the UN, he called for an end to the veto power granted to the great powers. In the name of the 'right of peoples to sovereignty', he supported the national demands of the Western Sahara, Palestine, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the South African ANC. While he had good relations with Ghanaian leader Jerry Rawlings and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he was relatively isolated in West Africa. Leaders close to France, such as Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d'Ivoire and Hassan II in Morocco, were particularly hostile to him. [72]


In the 1980s, when ecological awareness was still very low, Thomas Sankara was one of the few African leaders to consider environmental protection a priority. He engaged in three major battles: against bush fires 'which will be considered as crimes and will be punished as such'; against cattle roaming 'which infringes on the rights of peoples because unattended animals destroy nature'; and against the anarchic cutting of firewood 'whose profession will have to be organized and regulated'. As part of a development program involving a large part of the population, ten million trees were planted in Burkina Faso in fifteen months during the 'revolution'. To face the advancing desert and recurrent droughts, Thomas Sankara also proposed the planting of wooded strips of about fifty kilometers, crossing the country from east to west. He then thought of extending this vegetation belt to other countries. Cereal production, close to 1.1 billion tons before 1983, will rise to 1.6 billion tons in 1987. Jean Ziegler, former UN special rapporteur for the right to food, emphasized that the country 'had become food self-sufficient'. [73]


The British development organization Oxfam recorded the arrest of trade union leaders in 1987. [74] 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 organizations 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'. [75]

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'. [76]

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
('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 ('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. [77]


  • 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] [78]
  • 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] [79]
  • He opposed foreign aid, saying that 'He who feeds you, controls you'. [80] [15]
  • He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity against what he described as neocolonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. [81] [82]
  • 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. [82]

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] [79]
  • 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. [83] [84]
  • 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] [84]


  • 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". [85]
  • An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself. [1]
Pioneers of the Revolution Pionniers de la revolution.jpg
Pioneers of the Revolution

Africa's 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. [86]


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 other president Samuel Doe whose last hours of life were filmed, told Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that it was engineered by Charles Taylor. [87] After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days. [88]

According to Halouna Traoré, the sole survivor of Sankara's assassination, Sankara was attending a meeting with the Conseil de l'Entente. [89] 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 [90] [91] and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation. [92] 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 [93] 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. [94] [95]

Assassination trial

In 2017, 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. [96]

In April 2021, 34 years after Sankara's assassination, former president Compaoré and 13 others were indicted for complicity in the murder of Sankara as well as other crimes in the coup. [97] This development came as part of President Roch Kaboré's framework of 'national reconciliation'. [98]

In October 2021, the trial against Compaoré and 13 others began in Ouagadougou, with Compaoré being tried in absentia . [99] Ex-presidential security chief Hyacinthe Kafondo, was also tried in absentia. [100] 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. [101] After requests made by the defence attorneys for more time to prepare their defence, the hearing was postponed until March 1st. [102]

On 6 April 2022, Compaoré and two others were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in absentia. Eight others were sentenced to between 3 and 20 years in prison. Three were found innocent. [103]


The exhumation of what are believed to be the remains of Sankara started on African Liberation Day, 25 May 2015. Permission for an exhumation was denied during the rule of his successor, Blaise Compaoré. [104] The exhumation would allow the family to formally identify the remains, a long-standing demand of his family and supporters.

In October 2015, one of the lawyers for Sankara's widow Mariam reported that the autopsy revealed that Sankara's body was 'riddled' with 'more than a dozen' bullets. [105]


Twenty 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. [106]

A statue of Sankara was unveiled in 2019 at the location in Ouagadougou where he was assassinated; however due to complaints that it did not match his facial features, a new statue was unveiled a year later. [107] [108]

List of works

Further reading


  • Who killed Sankara?, by Alfred Cudjoe, 1988, University of California, ISBN   9964-90-354-5.
  • La voce nel deserto, by Vittorio Martinelli and Sofia Massai, 2009, Zona Editrice, ISBN   978-88-6438-001-8.
  • Thomas Sankara – An African Revolutionary, by Ernest Harsch, 2014, Ohio University Press, ISBN   978-0-8214-4507-5.
  • A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara (Black Critique), by Amber Murrey, 2018, Pluto Press, ISBN   978-0-7453-3758-6.
  • Sankara, Compaoré et la révolution burkinabè, by Ludo Martens and Hilde Meesters, 1989, Editions Aden, ISBN   9782872620333.

Historical Novel including Thomas Sankara

Web articles

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Blaise Compaoré</span> President of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014

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The 1987 Burkina Faso 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.

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Thomas Sankara
Thomas Sankara.jpg
1st President of Burkina Faso
In office
4 August 1983 15 October 1987
Political offices
Preceded by President of Upper Volta (Burkina Faso)
Succeeded by