World Politics

Decades Later, a Measure of Justice for Thomas Sankara (I)

The Unexpected Revolution in Burkina Faso, 1983-87

(This is the first of a two-part series. The second part can be found here.)

By Ernest Harsch

The moment the presiding judge of a military tribunal read out guilty verdicts against eleven accused killers of Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, the courtroom audience burst into applause. As news spread across the capital, Ouagadougou, drivers honked horns and youths danced in the streets. Some chanted: “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!” (Homeland or death, we will win), the slogan of Sankara’s revolutionary government. A procession of activists and youth groups laid flowers at a memorial site dedicated to Sankara and the twelve aides slain with him in the 1987 military coup.

Thomas Sankara, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, October 10, 1987, five days before he was assassinated. On April 6, 2022, a military tribunal in the West African country convicted the main culprits of Sankara’s murder and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from three years to life. (Photo: Ernest Harsch)

Many thought the day would never come. Not least because the chief accused was Blaise Compaoré, who crushed Sankara’s revolution and then ruled the country with an iron hand — and with complete impunity — for the next 27 years. But Compaoré’s own overthrow in a popular insurrection in 2014 left him exposed to the possibility that he might one day have to answer for his crimes. So he fled to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), beyond the reach of Burkina Faso’s judicial system, which thus had to try him in absentia. Still, the life sentence for Compaoré and sentences from three years to life for the others convicted, brought some satisfaction to the many, many Burkinabè who revere Sankara.


“It’s a day of justice, not only for Thomas Sankara and his companions. It’s a day of justice for the entire Burkinabè people,” said Prosper Farama, a lawyer representing the Sankara family. Sampawendé Sawadogo, spokesperson of a coalition of youth associations, called it “a historic day,” an initial victory toward “demonstrating truth and justice for our heroes.”

Mariam Sankara, the late leader’s widow, said the result “is up to what we hoped for.” Still, she would have “liked all the accused to be present and ask for forgiveness.” Nevertheless, she added, “We will finally be able to mourn.”

An unexpected revolution

Emotional reactions were not limited to family members. They extended to wider circles of activists and ordinary citizens. Sankara, after all, is seen by many as a national hero, someone who helped transform his country and instill in its people a new pride in their African and national identity. The durability of Sankara’s imprint after more than three decades is all the more remarkable considering the brief time his revolutionary government was in power — just a little over four years.

Scene from revolutionary upsurge that opened a democratic revolution in Burkina Faso. Ouagadougou, August 1983. Banner reads, “Sankara, our leader.” (Photo: Afrique Asie)

Before 1983, no one would have predicted a revolutionary experience with such a lasting legacy. Then known as Upper Volta, the territory was first conquered by French forces in the 1890s and then officially proclaimed a colony in 1919. The French imposed a new state structure over the various indigenous societies, most prominently the traditional empire of the Mossi, who made up half the population, but also dozens of other peoples. From the perspective of Paris, Upper Volta was a minor colonial possession, with few exploitable resources beyond land to grow cotton or the labor of its people — hundreds of thousands of whom were conscripted to work on roads, railways, and plantations in other French colonies. Little was invested in the economy’s development or the health and education of its residents.

Formal independence came in 1960, as France also loosened its reins elsewhere in the region in favor of less direct forms of domination. More than two decades of political turbulence followed, spurred from below by combative trade union and student struggles and marked at the summit by a rotation of civilian and military elites.

The advent of Sankara’s National Council of the Revolution (CNR) on August 4, 1983, marked a break in Upper Volta’s succession of pro-French regimes that did little but enrich their corrupt officeholders. The young leaders of the CNR (Sankara himself was then just 33) quickly made it clear that they were not interested in a few modifications at the top. They wanted to fundamentally transform their society. To symbolize that rupture, they changed the country’s name to “Burkina Faso.” It marked an assertion of African identity, with words from two indigenous languages, signifying “Land of the Upright People.”

The foreign media generally described the August 1983 takeover as yet another military coup. Sankara was an army captain, and a number of key colleagues (including Compaoré at the time) also were officers. But they overthrew the previous military junta as part of a coalition that included several leftist groups, some trade unions, the student movement, and other civilian activists. The CNR and its government were hybrid institutions that drew participants from various sectors of society.

Sankara was open about his Marxist beliefs, and from that perspective acknowledged Burkina Faso’s material reality. The country was extremely underdeveloped, with limited market relations and little industry, even in comparison with other very poor African states. Accordingly, he took care to not label the revolutionary process as “socialist” or “communist.” As he explained in an interview with Radio Havana:

In our country, the question of the class struggle is posed differently from the way it’s posed in Europe. We have a working class that’s numerically weak and insufficiently organized. And we have no strong national bourgeoisie either that could have given rise to an antagonistic working class. So, what we have to focus on is the very essence of the class struggle: in Burkina Faso it’s expressed in the struggle against imperialism, which relies on its internal allies.

Cuba’s president Fidel Castro (right) welcomes Thomas Sankara in Havana, September 25, 1984. (Photo: Granma)

For Sankara and his comrades, theirs was “an anti-imperialist revolution.” Its goals were to fight external domination by forging a unified nation, building up the economy’s productive capacities, and addressing the population’s most pressing social problems, such as widespread illiteracy, hunger, and disease.

Burkina Faso’s foreign policy took a sharp turn away from alignment with France and other Western powers, toward anti-imperialist, revolutionary, and radical nationalist movements and governments across the global south. The CNR openly and actively supported Southern African freedom fighters — the first new Burkina Faso passport was symbolically issued to Nelson Mandela, then still imprisoned in apartheid South Africa.

The Sankara government also backed various movements that directly opposed French domination. During trips to Latin America, Sankara embraced Fidel Castro, as well as Nicaraguan revolutionaries resisting US intervention. Within Africa, he championed a model of pan-African unity based more on mobilized peoples than on governments.

Rapid changes

Although poverty remained a reality for most Burkinabè, the brief tenure of the CNR brought improvements: hundreds of new health clinics and schools, an adult literacy campaign, and greater support for poor farmers. In part thanks to rigorous austerity for those in state employ (especially high-level bureaucrats), public spending on education increased by 26.5 percent per person between 1983 and 1987 and on health by 42.3 percent.

Although some Western countries continued to aid Burkina Faso’s development efforts, others cut back. Sankara and his colleagues emphasized being as economically self-reliant as possible. They refused to beg for aid and accepted it only if no political strings were attached. “We know we have to depend on ourselves,” Sankara said.

Especially in such an arid country, that also meant being environmentally sustainable: water conservation and tree planting were widespread. In that, Sankara was notably in advance of most other African leaders.

Despite the economy’s handicaps, real economic growth during 1983-87 averaged 4.6 percent annually, notably above the pre-revolutionary 1970-82 average of 3.8 percent. Proponents of sweeping market liberalisation at the World Bank and IMF had difficulty explaining such results.

Sankara was also ahead of his time in stressing women’s advancement. Social and economic programs included specific measures such as women’s literacy classes, maternity training in rural villages, and support for women’s cooperatives and market associations. A new family code set a minimum age for marriage, established divorce by mutual consent, recognized a widow’s right to inherit, and suppressed the traditional “bride price.” Public campaigns sought to combat female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and polygamy.

At a time when hardly any women reached high office in Africa, the government appointed a number as judges, provincial high commissioners, and directors of state enterprises. In each of Sankara’s last two cabinets in 1986 and 1987, there were five women ministers, about a fifth of the total.

The revolutionary government headed by Thomas Sankara stressed women’s advancement. (Photo: Ernest Harsch)

Overhauled state, mobilized people

Such unprecedented results came from action at two levels: From the top, with major changes in the way the state operated, and from below, by convincing and inspiring ordinary Burkinabè to mobilize for essential economic and social projects.

The “supreme task” of the revolution, Sankara pledged, “will be the total reconversion of the entire state machinery, with its laws, administration, courts, police, and army.” Many members of the old, reactionary officer corps were dismissed, along with incompetent bureaucrats.

The CNR attacked corruption and conspicuous consumption by the elites. Frugality and integrity became the new watchwords. Public trials before new revolutionary tribunals sent scores of dignitaries to jail for embezzlement and fraud. Government ministers had their salaries and bonuses cut and their limousines taken away.

Sankara set a personal example by publicly declaring all his assets, keeping his own children in public school, and rebuffing relatives who came seeking state jobs. He expected his leading comrades to do the same.

In an effort to bring government closer to ordinary people — especially in rural areas, where state institutions scarcely existed — the authorities embarked on a sweeping decentralization process. Previously there were only a few departments to manage all government affairs in the countryside. The CNR introduce more local divisions: the village, commune, department, and province. At the highest level, the provinces took the place of the old departments, but were significantly smaller, their boundaries determined partly by population density to ensure better administrative coverage. By August 1984, there were thirty such provinces, with each provincial administration bringing essential state services closer to people outside the main cities.

More fundamentally, the CNR promoted closer ties between the reformed state and a newly mobilized citizenry. In his first radio broadcast as president, Sankara appealed to everyone, “man or woman, young or old,” to form popular organizations known as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). Directly elected by general assemblies open to all residents of a particular neighborhood or village, thousands of CDRs soon spread throughout Burkina Faso. The local committees were genuinely popular, filled with people from humble social origins, not just the educated few.

Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) office in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 1985. Sankara appealed to everyone, “man or woman, young or old,” to form these popular organizations. (Photo: Ernest Harsch)

Widespread collective labor mobilizations began soon after the August 1983 takeover. The initial calls came from the central authorities, but locally they were usually initiated and organized by the CDRs.

During the first few years, mobilized communities undertook an array of projects: cleaning school and hospital courtyards, graveling roads, building mini dams to capture or channel scarce water for farm irrigation, and, when building materials could be secured, building schools, community centers, theaters, and other facilities. Resident efforts sometimes exceeded the government’s capacity to carry them through. “When we ask a province to build four schools, they end up building twelve,” Sankara remarked. “This causes problems, since we have to provide the seats, tables, chalk, schoolmaster, and so on. Perhaps it’s better like this — that the people are zealous, that they’re committed and enthusiastic — than if they pull back.”

After a couple of years, the pace of mobilizations slowed somewhat in Ouagadougou and other large towns, but they kept a steady pace in the countryside. Visits by this reporter to rural areas in central, northern, and eastern Burkina Faso between 1985 and 1987 found ongoing mobilizations to conserve farming areas, build small-scale water reservoirs, and teach adults to read and write.

The mobilizations, moreover, were not a CDR monopoly. Relations with most trade unions were complicated and sometimes turned tense, mainly because of the CNR’s austerity policies. But scores of new self-help organizations emerged across the country, many without any direct connection to the central government.

Forging a nation

Like many African countries, Burkina Faso has a multiplicity of ethnic groups and languages — a total of sixty or so. Historically, the Mossi often dominated because they comprise about half the population, are strategically located in the country’s center, and had a head start because of their chiefs’ ties with the former colonial administration. Fortunately, social relations between the Mossi and other peoples have been generally cordial and ethnic violence relatively rare.

The CNR consciously set about drawing these disparate groups closer together, to forge a more common identity. The ruling council itself reflected Burkina Faso’s diversity, with members including Mossi, Bobo, Gourounsi, Peulh, and others. Sankara himself was from a sub-group known as Silmi-Mossi, of mixed Mossi and Peulh ancestry (previously regarded as of low social status by traditional Mossi and Peulh chiefs).

The new name for the country projected that goal. It was African, as against an artificial construct (“Haute-Volta”) taken from the colonial language. And by using words from the languages of the Mossi and Dioula (with the “bè” suffix in Burkinabè coming from the Peulh), it was also explicitly pan-ethnic.

Previously, that diversity was largely neglected. The language of government, national media, and education was French, and little research was conducted into the indigenous languages. But with the CNR, news and cultural shows on the sole television station were conducted not only in French, but also in Mooré (the Mossi language) and occasionally other tongues. Radio remained the main means of mass communication, reaching beyond the larger towns and into the countryside. The national radio network regularly broadcast in eleven indigenous languages, in addition to French. Because of the scarcity of printed material in the African languages, formal schooling had to continue in French, however.

Pibaoré poor farmers rally in Burkina Faso, October 1987. Banner in Mooré, the language of the Mossi, reads: “Farmers of Burkina Faso: Hoes yesterday, hoes today, machinery tomorrow.” (Photo: Ernest Harsch)

The most ambitious effort to promote the indigenous languages’ written form was a national literacy campaign in 1986. It had a dual purpose: to teach literacy and empower members of peasant associations to play more effective leadership roles. Some 30,000 villagers were taught entirely in nine indigenous languages. Despite many logistical problems, about half managed to acquire functional literacy.

Not all ethnic tensions could be bridged, however, especially when they coincided with social differences. In the north, for example, many semi-nomadic livestock herders are Peulh, while most settled farmers are Mossi or others. When there were disputes over land or water sources, violence sometimes erupted, often following ethnic lines — a problem that persists to this day.

Still, despite such strains, the Burkinabè national identity forged in the revolutionary era has largely held. Many citizens have acquired a sense of pride in their specifically African identity and their country’s cultural diversity. Decades after the revolution’s end, significant sectors of the population readily accept their identification as citizens of Burkina Faso, as Burkinabè. A survey conducted in the 2000s by the AfroBarometer research project asked respondents whether they held most to a national or an ethnic identity. Nearly 50 percent said they identified only as Burkinabè and another 8 percent as more national than ethnic.

(To be continued. The second part of the two-part series can be found here.)

Ernest Harsch is a journalist and a research scholar at Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies in New York. He has traveled to Burkina Faso, Ghana, South Africa and more than a dozen other African countries on research and reporting assignments. He has written about Burkina Faso since the early days of the revolution in the 1980s. He has visited Burkina Faso six times, and interviewed or had discussions with Sankara on a half-dozen occasions before the 1987 coup that took the revolutionary leader’s life. His most recent books include Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary (Ohio University Press, 2014) and Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2017). Among other works, he is also the author of South Africa: White Rule, Black Revolt (Monad Press, New York, 1980. 1983).

For further reading:

Sennen Andriamirado, Il s’appelait Sankara, Paris: Jeune Afrique livres, 1989.

Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.

Ernest Harsch, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution, London: Zed Books, 2017.

Bruno Jaffré, Biographie de Thomas Sankara: La patrie ou la mort…, 2nd edition, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007.

Amber Murrey (ed.), A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara, London: Pluto Press, 2018.

Brian J. Peterson, Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021.

Thomas Sankara, Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983-87,  2nd edition, New York: Pathfinder Press, 2007.

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