Thomas Sankara is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.
He was one of a series of leaders in the Global South who championed national development and social change in the era after independence.
His father was originally a low-level officer in the army of the colonial state.
As such, Thomas Sankara was able to access education and to progress through the military academy to lead the Commando Training Centre.
The reality of independence from 1960 was very different to the promises of freedom.
French multinationals still extracted the country’s wealth and the French state looked to compliant local leaders to meekly follow the dictates of imperialism. Sankara railed against this outside control in the interests of an elite.
He believed the army could be an instrument of national emancipation and was inspired by the movements in Cuba and Algeria that had confronted imperialism.
Despite the repression and the assaults on workers and peasants, he also saw Russia as a model.
The strong centralised state under Joseph Stalin had enabled extraordinary economic development and seemed to be an alternative to Western regimes headed by the United States.
A series of power struggles that began in the late 1970s saw Sankara become a leading figure in the battle for power. In 1981 he was minister of information in a military government that triumphed through a coup.
He left when it abolished the right to strike.
Another coup saw him become prime minister in 1983. But he was removed after he called for breaking links with France.
His position was saved by mass protests of students and workers—and by an uprising by his Commando colleagues. From then on, Sankara made important changes.
In 1984 the government nationalised land and food production rose substantially.
The expansion of education saw tens of thousands of rural people learn to read and write. Women won new rights.
A clash with imperialism soon followed.
As economic crisis bit in the 1980s, international financial institutions that controlled the country’s debt clamoured for more pro-market measures.
Sankara called for African countries to unite, telling one conference, “Those who lend us money are those who colonised us.
“Debt is a skilfully managed reconquest of Africa. If we don’t repay, lenders will not die. But if we repay, we are going to die.”
But Sankara had no mechanism to put his more radical ideas into practice.
Seeing the army and the state as central to change meant he didn’t build up the workers’ power that had reinstated him.
Worse, during his rule trade unions were banned and denounced as “subversive”. Around 1,500 striking teachers were sacked.
This created space for his enemies to mobilise. In 1987 one of his former allies, Blaise Compaore, led a military coup against his government.
Sankara was shot dead and Compaore was congratulated by France and reactionary African leaders.
Sankara’s revolution from above had been snuffed out.