BY MICHAEL ODIGBE
CAPTAIN Thomas Sankara rose to power in Upper Volta (now called Burkina Faso) as military President totally devoted to improving the lives of the common man. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in the morning of his career by enemies of the state. A case of a crocodile eating its eggs.
Twenty-three years ago after Sankara died, a BBC reporter in AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE chronicles his life and times in a documentary. His Report.
Today in Burkina Faso, people use Sankara as a reference point for good governance, said a man I interviewed in Ouagadougou:” If for example, the government does a thing people are not happy with, they will say: Oh if Sankara was alife, he wouldn’t behave like this. If there is injustice, they will say: Oh, by the time of Sankara, it wouldn’t have been done. Even the greatest and best opposition to the government of President Blaise Campoare today is Sankara, although he died 23 years ago,” observed the man.
Another person, a labour unionist spoken to about Sankara, revered by some and feared by others, had this to day:
“Even though I personally believe he has some good ideas about how to direct this country, I wouldn’t forget the oppression he unleashed on many of us should not be the way to get what he wanted.”
Sankara changed the course of his country’s history. He even changed the name of his country, formerly Upper ‘volta, to Burkina Faso which means LAND OF MEN OF INTEGRITY. Also, he introduced a new national anthem for his country.
Sankara’s four years in power, in the 1980s, was mot dramatic in the lives of not only the people of Burkina Faso but those of West Africa also.
He was young and handsome and described by his supporters as visionary. But who really was Thomas Sankara? He was a man with a great passion to liberate his country from colonialism. His speech at the UN was his first demonstration that he was committed to liberating his country from post colonial rule. Any soldier in power who is not patriotic is a criminal, he said at the UN.
A military coup in 1983 was led by another young army officer Captain Blaise Campoare but quickly Thomas Sankara became head of state. He ushered in a period of profound change, what he called an African revolution.
He stressed the need for national pride, self-sufficiency and an end to corruption. Former leaders were tried in popular courts in which they didn’t have a right to a lawyer. Committees for the defence of the revolution patrolled the country side committing all sorts of atrocities in his name.
Sankara stripped powers from traditional chiefs which he felt were hindering his revolution. People all over the African continent were fascinated and inspired by Sankara and his left-wing blend of ideals seasoned with local flavourings.
I spoke to some people on the streets of Ouagadougou. Here are what they said. One person spoken to was some of Sankara’s former key supporters and is now a member of a coalition of political parties. I asked him what type of a man Sankara was.
His response: “Sankara was somebody who disliked injustice and fawning. He was someone interested in the dignity of the people. He was very strict. He respected good actions and things that benefited the nation as well as the people. In comparison, I will say that Obama’s style is Thomas Sankara’s style. Obama is president of a big country like America. But the way he speaks, the way he tries to solve America’s problem is the same style Sankara used for Burkina Faso”.
I asked another person to tell me about the atmosphere in Burkina Faso when Sankara was in power. The person said: “It was a time of revolution, of Marxism – Leninism. There were revolutionary committees all over the country.”
I asked a passerby how life was in the country at the time. And I got this response; “Burkina Faso at the time was a very busy country. Every one tried to give his best for his country. People were confident of the revolution taking place. Revolution is a big word really. Simply, Sankara tried to give to his people confidence to understand that poverty is a dishonour”.
It is a hot Quagadougou day and I am standing under a mango tree shade. There are young men playing a game of football on a pitch. I am with someone who is a female teacher and a bar tender nearby.
I first asked her: “for how long have you been teaching?”
She said it was about 4 or 5 years. Thereafter I asked what in Sankara appealed to her. Her response: “He wanted us to organize ourselves and see what we could do for our own country. That is on the basis of what we produce. He felt that with what we have, we could manage with it even without help from outside. For example, he said since we produce cotton in the country, we don’t have to be buying clothes from China or somewhere and then sellout cotton to them”.
In other words, I remarked, that means Sankara preferred people wear clothes made form cotton produced in their country? Again, the woman replied: “Yes, that is right. At the time he said it, people didn’t take him serious. It is now that he is not there that people are now wearing clothes made in the country. The people today believe what he said was right”.
That means, I observed, that Sankara gave the message of self sufficiency before his time? The woman retorted: “That is again true. Sankara was a prophet. All what he said have come true. Everything he said has come to pass. Today, the people are regretting his death. Thomas Sankara! He is not dead in our culture. If somebody does a good thing, he doesn’t die in our minds. We always remember him. He is not dead at all. He is still the president to Burkina Faso”.
But do you know he has been dead for more than 20-years? Yet you are saying he is still the President; I queried. Her answer: “Of course, I know he died many years ago. But we are still proud he was our president. I mean, no one can measure up to his standard when he was in power. He was intelligent. He was simple. When you listen to his speeches, you will discover he was so convinced of what he was saying. He spoke naturally. So, we are still following him today”.
Later, I was on a street in Quagadougou named after Thomas Sankara. There I spoke to a teacher and trade unionist. His words: “there was some form of oppression during Sankara’s rule. For instance, to prove that he was in charge, he ordered thousands of teachers to be dismissed because of a 2-day strike they embarked on. All because to tell people the revolution was strong. Not all of us like his days and so not all Burkinabes want to go back to those times. We hate the kind of oppression we got when he was in power”.
What we learnt while producing the BBC AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE is that not only adults were fascinated by Thomas Sankara. Young people too were. One of them told me: “Thomas Sankara has never been so important as he is now to us. This time is one of revolution. Everybody wants to change his way of thinking; in fact change everything. Because of the big problem of capitalism. All over the world, people are seeing that capitalism is not a good way of doing things. People are trying to find a new way of life, you know”.
He continued: “There are lots of poor people around. They are all suffering. There is misery everywhere. So people have heroes inspiring them to change the system. And the Guavera, Thomas Sankara and others are these heroes. Thomas Sankara, himself, had big and strong message of change for the people. No one can, therefore, easily forget Sankara. That is the simple truth. On the other hand Blaise Campoare is not a good president. If he was a good one, he won’t still be holding onto power in Burkina Faso since 1987. Imagine, he has spent about 23 years as our president. What we are talking about is not someone thinking about his country and Africa but someone thinking only about his stomach.”
I demanded that he should be specific about his accusation. I asked him to explain who is thinking about his stomach. Again, the youth said: “the President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campoare has been thinking only about his own stomach. On the contrary, Sankara, during his rule, was thinking about the people, even about Africa. Thomas Sankara was not even thinking about Burkina Faso. He was thinking about Africa, the whole of Africa”.
He fired on: “Thomas Sankara died with nothing. Go to his house today and you will see nothing. He got nothing. You will see may be a guitar, a bicycle or another ordinary thing. He didn’t steal government money. People who know Sankara think he was mad, that he was crazy for not looting public funds and for being honest. But I really think he was honest”.
You can see that there are divided opinion about the man called Thomas Sankara. He is an honest revolutionary hero to some while others didn’t like his harsh policies as a ruler.
He came to power in 1983 and was killed on October 15, 1987 after which Blaise Campoare became head of state. Blaise Campoare before the coup was his right-hand man.
The circumstances leading to the death of Thomas Sankara is still unclear. What is known, however, is that tension between him and Blaise Campoare, his friend, existed and built up until 1987. There was something like a power struggle over the direction the country was going.
When Sankara was killed on October 15, 1987, Compoare told the BBC at the time that he didn’t give any order for the arrest of Sankara. However independent investigation showed that Campoare’s troops were at Sankara’s house. No one knows whether they went there to arrest or kill him.
Commenting on the event, a Burkinabe citizen explained: “You should know that the history of revolution produces joy, pain and sometimes tragedy in circumstances over which someone has no control. And that is the kind of experience we revolutionaries have been going through lately in Ouagadougou. Even today the death of Sankara is still a touchy subject. Sankara’s supporters believe he was killed by Blaise Campoare who has been in power since 1987.
But those close to Campoare don’t discuss Sankara. They prefer to only list Blaise’s achievements. For instance when I spoke to one government minister, this was what he said: “We work towards a policy of introducing democracy. We try to apply good governance and make appropriate laws to improve the lives of the people”.
After he had spoken, I asked him if Blaise Campoare and his men killed Sankara. For a while he kept quiet, refusing to reply to my question. Feeling that he wasn’t interested in it.
I moved on to another government official whom I asked the same question. This time around the answer I got was: “You know, it was a very, very difficult situation. Many people don’t understand. See, if we are civilians and we have trouble, you will fight me. I too will fight you.
That is all. But if you are a soldier and I am a soldier, you have gun and I have gun also. If we have problems, we don’t use hands. We use guns. O-k-a-y??”
Two decades after his death, Thomas Sankara’s families have been in exile but his younger sister is still in Quagadougou. She says that till date there is no official confirmation of who killed her brother.
Her words: “The family wants to know and find out why he was killed and by whom. Otherwise we are stuck with our interpretation of what happened.
Because we don’t have an official version of why he was killed and who did it. For me, I think he was killed because he disturbed people here and abroad. Anyway, we are waiting for justice so that we can have peace in our hearts. His father and mother died before they could know the truth. They never went to the cemetery to look for his grave because no one told us officially Sankara was buried there”.
She further lamented: “But all Burkinabes think he was buried there. Anyway, we don’t know if this is true officially. Sankara’s parents died before being told where he was buried. But thank God people like us are still alive. We want to know the truth about his death and where they buried him”.
If you walk around Quagadougou, it is clear Thomas Sankara made history in his country. I came across two school boys who were not born when Thomas Sankara was killed. I approached them and asked them in English of their impressions of Sankara. One of them answered my question in this passable English: “Ah, Thomas Sankara is my president. He is the best President to Africa”.
I retorted: “But you were not alive when Sankara was president”.
In response to my observation, the youth disclosed he was born a year after Sankara was killed. Nonetheless when he grew up, the youth explained he read and head about the great exploits of the man. For this reason, he considered Sankara, the best president Africa has ever had.
Emphatically, the youth re-affirmed: “Sankara is No 1 in the whole of Africa. He has no rival at all”.
Later, I turned to the second youth for his comment on the personage of Thomas Sankara. This was his answer when I asked him whether he liked the man: “Yea, I like Sankara. He is important to young Burkinabes like me, today. If only Sankara was alive today life will be easy for us. Now without him things have turned upside down”.
What type of country would Burkina Faso have become had Thomas Sankara not been killed in 1987, I asked a teacher sitting in her outdoor bar. She told me: “If he had stayed in power a lot of African Presidents would have changed from their evil ways. First of all, he was setting an example. People led, Sankara. Not the other way round. And because he was setting an example, most African leaders would have been changed by his good examples. Whether they liked it or not”.
I asked her what Thomas Sankara’s legacy was. Her answer: “The legacy is that no one can talk about Burkina Faso today without talking about Sankara. It was because of him the poor could get houses. Otherwise everything would have belonged to the rich. With this issue in mind people will never forget him.”
Does she consider Thomas Sankara an African hero, I wanted to know. She replied: “Yes, he was an African hero. When people from Burkina Faso go to other African countries and they know you are from Burkina Faso, they query you for allowing their president to be killed. But we always reply that there was nothing we could do to save his life. Because to Africans, he was the best of all presidents. I remember one of my Burkinabe friends once went to the Republic of Benin. When the Beninoise people knew he was from Burkina Fasco, they said: OH, look! You NASTY PEOPLEHAVE KILLED OUR PRESIDENT. AND YOU ARE HERE SAYING YOU ARE A REVOLUTIONARY. It is just sad.”
A close ally of Blaise Compaore and mayor of Ouagadougou believe it would have been a disaster if Thomas Sankara had stayed in power. The mayor explained the reason for his conflicting view: “With Thomas Sankara you were not allowed to have a newspaper. If you don’t go in the way of the revolutionary, he will call you a counter-revolutionary. But Blaise Campoare brings freedom. The traditional chiefs. They are very, very happy because he returned their powers to them. Sankara had removed their powers, destroyed our culture and our nation”.
Once again different people, different views of Thomas Sankara. Next I asked a political science professor the way Burkina Faso would have looked like with Sankara as President. He said that Sankara would have transited from a military president to a democratic leader as happened with flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. Then, he added: “If Sankara were alife today he would have beaten Blaise Campaore in any election, hands down. Because Sankara was a charismatic. Leader, a great statesman”.
Postscript : All said, Captain Thomas Sanakra was a uniquely transparent leader who expectedly would be hated by reactionaries now everywhere in the continent of Africa. Nevertheless, he still stands tall in stature today. Because our elders say: “No matter the abuses thrown at the honeybee, it still produces sweet, natural honey”.
Source : Weekend OBSERVER Sunday OBSERVER Saturday, October 30, 2010 http://nigerianobservernews.com/30102010/weekendobserver/features/indexfeatures2.html