Sankara, the 38-year-old president of Burkina Faso, was shot to death on Oct. 15, 1987. The killing was led or instigated by his best friend and second-in-command, Capt. Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré – who acted at the behest of the French government and with the support and assistance of foreign elements, including Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Libyan mercenaries – assumed leadership of the country and remains in power today.
Sankara's murderers cut up his body, burned the remains and buried him quickly and unceremoniously in an unmarked grave. Compaoré claimed later that Sankara was silenced for betraying the revolution, for jeopardizing his country's relationship with France, and for creating fractious relations with neighboring countries.
Exactly 24 years after Sankara was murdered, Oct. 15, 2011, more than 40 of his admirers, supporters, friends and Sankara family members assembled at Sankofa Books in the District of Columbia to watch the film, "Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man," about the former president's life and participated in a panel discussion to reflect on his work and legacy.
Almost a quarter of a century has passed, but guests agreed that Burkina Faso is much the poorer without Sankara's charisma, vision, energy and guiding hand. A week prior to his death Sankara is said to have prophetically stated: "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."
"I was in high school in 1983-84 and my teacher was a citizen of Burkina Faso. Because we were full of political activity in Africa, we were interested in South Africa (and Mandela) and a young leader, Thomas Sankara, who was Minister of Information," said Gnaka Lagoke, Ph.D., professor of African Studies at Howard University and a friend of the Sankara family.
"We were excited and hoped he embodied the hope we had in Africa. I met with my teacher after classes and I lived the revolution thanks to what I was reading ... in four years, he steered the destiny of Africa."
One of the aspects of the film Lagoke said he appreciated was that Sankara's flaws and shortcomings were not glossed over. For example, we learn that Sankara had difficulty delegating, he pushed for change at a pace that was too widespread and too fast, and his actions alienated tribal leaders, the middle class and others inside and outside of his country.
Sankara, Lagoke told the audience, saw revolution as a way for African nations to shake off the deleterious effects of neo-colonialism. Compaoré named Sankara, an air force pilot, president of the West African country's revolutionary government in 1983, following a popular uprising.
In his article, "There are Seven Million Sankaras," author and researcher Koni Benson summarized Sankara's rule.
"As President of Burkina Faso from 1983 until he was killed in 1987, he led one of the most creative and radical post-colonial revolutions," said Benson. "He is known for his strong stand against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), rejection of inherited colonial and neo-colonial debts, a vision of Pan African self sufficiency, environmental reforestation initiatives to slow the desertification of the Sahara and to solve famine, for land reform, for vast improvements in health and education, and for women's liberation."
"Sankara was clear about the need to emancipate women from sexism and patriarchy. Justice cannot exist when half the population lives in fear at home and in public. Sankara argued that "when regressive aspects of our cultures, like sexism or female circumcision interfered with the cause for freedom, they had to be eradicated because they serve our continued oppression."
Selome Gerima lived in Burkina Faso from 1983-91 and witnessed the Sankara revolution first-hand.
"He was a leader and my mentor in so many things," said Gerima, whose husband was working with what is now the African Union. "Sankara was [the first leader I could interact with up close]. He would sit beside his driver in a modest blue car (a Renault). I worked at the American Embassy near the palace. He gave me a lot of opportunities to observe African leadership."
"When I went, I saw the First Lady drive her own car and I saw him riding a bicycle. He was a very simple man. Sankara hired Africans to teach. There were no British or French [teachers]. He made the French mad. He was so proud of Ethiopian Airlines. He was the first African leader to bring Ethiopian Airlines to Burkina Faso. He had no private plane and would fly commercially from country-to-country until he reached Ethiopia," Gerima said.
Gerima, and other speakers at the more than two-hour long event, said leaders like Sankara attract undue attention when they try to take their country in another direction.
"What I really want to say is, when leaders try to improve their countries, superpowers will label them as communists and traitors," she said. "Burkina Faso at the time of Sankara was the talk of the world. That little country was doing what no one else did. The superpowers were scared. We knew he was not going to live long."
As president, Sankara took a salary of $450 a month, and when he died, his possessions amounted to four bicycles, three guitars, a car, a refrigerator, and a broken freezer.
"Our revolution will be of value only if, looking back ... and ahead, we are able to say that the Burkinabe people are a little happier because of it. Because they have clean drinking water, because they have plenty to eat, because they are in good health, because they have access to education, because they have decent housing, because they have better clothing, because they have the right to leisure, because they have greater freedom, more democracy and greater dignity," Sankara said. "Revolution means happiness. Without happiness we cannot speak of success."
In the movie, while addressing members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Sankara declared: "We need an African market, where we produce what we need, consume what we produce so no need for expensive imports. To conclude, the clothes I and my delegates are wearing are made from Burkinabe cotton, weaved by Burkinabes and sewn by Burkinabes, not a single thread came from Europe. I am not here for a fashion show, but that was just an example of our potential."
Sankara became the voice of the dispossessed railing against a system and an economic order that relegated many of these countries to penury.
As the event came to a close, Sankara's younger brother, Pascal, thanked the crowd for its support.
"On behalf of the Sankara family, here and in Burkina Faso – and in the name of the entire family – I would like to thank everyone for coming here today together so we could commemorate the assassination of Thomas Sankara," he said. "It's not just Thomas Sankara, it's for all African fighters. African leaders ... the list is long ... every time we talk about the assassination of leaders, let's have the courage to reflect on the future. Today we're talking about Thomas Sankara but tomorrow it may be someone else."
Since Sankara's assassination, Compaoré has attempted to erase any evidence that his one-time best friend ever ruled the country. He has systematically reversed the revolution through what he called a "rectification," offered up the country's resources for exploitation by foreign interests, and has accepted millions in loans from the IMF. At the same time, most Burkinabes remain desperately poor.
Compaoré's efforts have been in vain because Sankara's legacy continues to burn brightly at seminars and forums, and "in recordings, oral tradition, films, documentaries and books, and the Internet..."
"When you lose someone important, you realize (his/her) true power," said an unidentified speaker in the movie. "Sankara was integrity, creativity, wisdom, morality and a spiritual reference for us all. It is a tragic waste (of) a man (seeking) to bring Africa from the abyss."