Like film stars who die young, there is a constellation of African thinkers and freedom fighters whose brightness never wanes. Steve Biko, black consciousness founder, murdered by apartheid police in South Africa, aged 30; Patrice Lumumba, Congolese prime minister, murdered with the complicity of western governments, aged 35; Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso, murdered in a coup, aged 37.
The announcement this week that Burkina Faso has ordered Sankara’s corpse to be exhumed is testament to the enduring legacy of “Africa’s Che Guevara”. A government decree said the move was aimed at formally identifying the remains of the former president, assassinated in a 1987 putsch that brought his former friend and protege Blaise Compaoré to power.
While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas
Compaoré held power for 27 years, making him one of Africa’s longest serving leaders, but pushed his luck too far last October by seeking a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay on longer. Mass demonstrations, including the torching of parliament, forced him to flee. In a Shakespearean scene, his slain predecessor’s ghost came back to haunt him as protesters chanted Sankara’s name.
While Compaoré was still in office, a court blocked a request by Sankara’s family for an exhumation. But the new government, headed by Michel Kafando, has announced that the long-awaited investigation can finally go ahead.
Sankara, a Marxist and pan-Africanist, transformed the former French colony of Upper Volta into Burkina Faso, which means “Land of the Upright Men”. He became president in 1983 after an internal power struggle and launched nationalisation, land redistribution and grand social programmes in one of the world’s poorest countries. During his four-year rule, school attendance leaped from 6% to 22%, some 2.5 million children were vaccinated and thousands of health centres opened. Housing, road and railway building projects got under way and 10 million trees were planted.
Sankara declared war on corruption and embraced personal austerity, paying himself a salary of $450 a month, slashing the wages of his top officials and forbidding the use of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants. He refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, still a rare thing in the Africa of 2015, and was staunchly opposed foreign aid, declaring: “He who feeds you, controls you.”
Under Sankara the government also prioritised gender quality, working towards the end of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy.
The tragedy that robbed 'Africa’s Che' from his family may also have preserved his place among the stars
Sankara is still much revered across Africa today. Writing in South Africa’s Sowetan newspaper in 2011, radical commentator Andile Mngxitama said: “Sankara is even more important than giants of the last century like Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe. Sankara used power to serve the people. We don’t know what Biko and Sobukwe would have done with power. And what Nelson Mandela and the ANC have done with power is not pretty.”
But Sankara was in power long enough to make enemies and sow doubts about his political philosophy. He set up “revolutionary people’s tribunals” to try former public officials charged with political crimes, and stripped traditional chiefs of their rights and privileges. Opposition parties and unions were banned and media freedoms curtailed. Striking teachers were fired and replaced by young people with no experience.
As discontent grew, Sankara was caught off guard when gunmen burst into his office and gunned him down, along with 12 aides in October 1987. He was given a pauper’s burial at the dead of night. Compaoré, now in exile, has always denied involvement in the killing, insisting that the “facts are known” and he has “nothing to hide”.
But whatever the outcome of the exhumation, a deeper, more troubling mystery will remain: whether Thomas Sankara’s revolution would have sustained itself had he lived or whether, like so many others, it would have turned and consumed him. Age shall not weary him, nor the years of clinging to power condemn. The tragedy that robbed “Africa’s Che” from his family may also have preserved his place among the stars.