Thomas Sankara: A Transformational Leader


God chooses leaders. Some leaders decide not to lead their people with wisdom, while others like Thomas Sankara lead their people with God’s wisdom. Thomas Sankara had many achievements, most of them connected to his country, Burkina Faso. He did so much for the country and changed a lot of things he felt required change. However, some people opposed his reforms and policies and plotted to assassinate him. Here we will discuss the life and times of Thomas Sankara until his death.

The Early Life of Thomas Sankara

Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara was born on 21st December 1949 in Yako as the third of 10 children to Joseph and Marguerite. Joseph Sankara, his father, was of mixed Mossi-Fulani heritage, while Marguerite Kinda, his mother, was of direct Mossi descent. Thomas Sankara spent his early years in Gaoua town, and he enjoyed a relatively privileged position. Thomas went to a primary school at Bobo-Dioulasso. Sankara applied himself seriously to his schoolwork and excelled in French and Mathematics. He went to church often and was impressed with his eagerness and energy to learn. Some priests encouraged Sankara to go on to seminary school once he completed primary school. Despite initially agreeing, Thomas took the exam needed to enter the sixth grade in the secular educational system and excelled.

Sankara’s decision to continue his education at the closest lycee, Ouezzin Coulibaly, proved to be a turning point. This step got Sankara out of his dad’s house since the Lycee was in Bobo-Dioulasso. At the lycee, Thomas made close allies, including Fidele Too and Soumane Toure.

Sankara’s Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he chose to join the military. The military was popular at the time, and young intellectuals saw it as a national institution that might help discipline the corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, counterbalance the excessive influence of traditional chiefs, and aid in modernizing the state. Acceptance into the military would come with the privilege of one earning a scholarship. In that case, Sankara was advantaged since, at the time, he could not afford the expenses to further his education. Hence, he took the entrance examination, and he passed.

Sankara joined the military academy of Kadiogo in Ouagadougou with the Academy’s first intake of 1966 at the age of seventeen. While there, he saw the first military coup in Upper Volta, which Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoule Lamizana led. The civilian professors in the social sciences taught the trainee officers. Adama Toure, who taught geography and history, was the academic director at the time. He invited Thomas Sankara to join informal discussions about neo-colonialism, imperialism, socialism, and communism, the Soviet and Chinese Revolutions, the liberation movements in Africa, and similar topics outside the class. Besides his extracurricular political works and academics, Thomas also pursued his passion for music and played the guitar.

In the late 20th century (1970), twenty-year-old Thomas went on for further military studies at the military academy of Antsirabe, Madagascar, from which Sankara graduated as a junior officer three years later (1973).

At the Antsirabe Academy, the range of instruction went beyond standard military subjects, which allowed Thomas to study agriculture, including raising crop yields and improving farmers’ lives, themes he later took up in his state and administration. He read on military strategy and history during that time, hence acquiring the analytical tools and concepts he would use on his reinterpretation of Burkinabe’s political past.

The Military Career of Thomas Sankara

As mentioned earlier, after basic military training in a secondary school in 1966, Thomas started his military career at the age of nineteen. A year later, he went to Madagascar for officer training at Antsirabe, where he saw popular revolts in 1972 and 1971 against Philibert Tsiranana’s government and first read Karl Marx’s work and Vladimir Lenin’s work, influencing his political views.

Returning to Upper Volta in the late 20th century, he combated in a border war between Mali and Upper Volta by 1974. Sankara earned popularity for his heroic performance in the border war with Mali, but later, he renounced the War as unjust and useless. In 1976, Thomas Sankara became a commander of the Commando Training Center in Po. In the same year, Sankara met Blaise Compaore in the Moroccan state.

His Government Posts

Thomas got appointed Minister of Information in Saye Zerbo’s military government in September 1981. Thomas differentiated himself from other government officials in several ways, like biking to work every day. His predecessors would censor newspapers and journalists, while Thomas encouraged investigative journalism and permitted the media to print whatever it found. This resulted in publications of government scandals by state-owned and privately-owned newspapers. He resigned on 12th April 1982 in opposition to what he witnessed as the government’s anti-labor drift.

After another coup on 7th November 1982, which brought Major-Doctor Jean Baptiste Ouédraogo to power, Thomas became the PM in January 1983 but got dismissed on 17th May the same year.

Thomas Sankara’s Presidency

A coup that Blaise Compaore organized made Thomas Sankara President on 4th August 1983 at thirty-three. At the time, on the verge of war with France in Chad, Libya supported the coup. Thomas saw himself as a revolutionary, and the examples of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and Ghana’s military leader Jerry Rawlings inspired him. As the Head of State, Sankara promoted the Democratic and Popular Revolution. Thomas Sankara was responsible for defining the Revolution’s ideology as anti-imperialist in a speech on 2nd October 1983, the Discours d’orientation politique, which his close associate Valere Some wrote. Sankara’s policy focused on fighting corruption, averting famine, promoting reforestation, protecting women’s rights, and making education and health priorities.


On the first anniversary of his accession, Sankara renamed the state Burkina Faso which meant ‘the land of Upright People’ in Dyula and More. He also gave the nation a new flag and wrote a new national anthem, Une Seule Nuit.

The Personal Image and Popularity of Sankara

Accompanying Sankara’s charisma, he had various initiatives that contributed to his fame and brought international media attention to his regime. Cuba rewarded Thomas Sankara with the highest honor of the state, the Order of Jose Marti. Sankara’s other initiatives include selling off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and making Renault 5 the ministers’ official service car. He reduced the salaries of wealthy public servants and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and first airline tickets. Sankara opposed foreign aid too.

Thomas spoke in forums such as OAU (Organization of African Unity) against what he described as neo-colonialist penetration of the continent through finance and Western trade. Sankara called for a united front of African states to renounce their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited didn’t have an obligation to repay money to the wealthy and exploiting.


In Ouagadougou, Thomas converted the military’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone. Sankara gained more popularity when he forced rich civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects. Besides, Sankara refused to use the air conditioning in his office because such luxury wasn’t available to anyone but only a handful of Burkinabes.

Sankara’s unique thing was that he lowered his salary to less than $500 a month and limited his possessions to a car, less than five bikes, three guitars, a broken freezer, and a refrigerator.

Sankara as Africa’s Che Guevara

People often refer to Thomas Sankara as Africa’s Che Guevara. Thomas gave a speech marking and honoring the twentieth anniversary of Che Guevara’s 9th October 1967 execution, a week prior to his assassination on 15th October 1987.

The Assassination of Thomas Sankara

As mentioned above, on 15th October 1987, an armed group killed Thomas Sankara with 12 other officials in a coup which his former colleague, Blaise Compaore, organized. When accounting for his overthrow, Blaise Compaore stated that Thomas Sankara jeopardized foreign relations with France and Ivory Coast and accused his former comrade of plotting to kill opponents.

Prince Johnson, a former Warlord, allied to Charles Taylor and killer of the Liberian President, Samuel Doe, told Liberia’s TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) that Charles Taylor engineered it. After the coup, and although people knew that Thomas was dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the military for some days.

According to Halouna Traore, the only survivor of Thomas’s assassination, Thomas attended a meeting with the Conseil de L’Enfant. His killers singled out Thomas and killed him. The killers then shot at those attending the meeting, killing several people. Thomas’s body got riddled with bullets to the back and quickly got buried in an unmarked grave while his family (Mariam, his wife, and two kids) fled the country.

Blaise Compaore then reversed the nationalizations, overturned all of Thomas’s policies, rejoined the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank to bring in ‘desperately needed’ money to revive the ‘shattered’ economy, and disregarded most of Thomas Sankara’s legacy. Blaise’s dictatorship remained in power for more than two decades (27 years) until popular protests overthrew it in 2014.

A few years ago (2016), the Burkina Faso authority asked the French government to release military documents on Thomas’s assassination after his widow accused the French state of masterminding his assassination.


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