There is actually no murder mystery:

When Thomas Sankara was killed after four years as President of Burkina Faso, it was at the orders – if not at the hands – of one of his oldest friends, now President Blaise Compaoré. Echoes of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as much as Disney’s The Lion King. Why should we care about this particular African tragedy?

We should care because the revolution Sankara led between 1983 and 1987 was one of the most creative and radical that Africa has produced in the decades since independence. He started to blaze a trail that other African countries might follow, a genuine alternative to Western-style modernization – and, like other radical African leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and Amilcar Cabral, was shot down as a result. Whereas his murderer, still in power eight now twenty years later, has pursued self-enrichment and politics as usual – and has been fêted by the West for his compliance.

An incorruptible man

A major anti-corruption drive began in 1987. The tribunal showed Captain Thomas Sankara to have a salary of only $450 a month and his most valuable possessions to be a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. He was the world’s poorest president.

Sankara refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabes.

When asked why he had let it be known that he did not want his portrait hung in public places, as is the norm for other African leaders (and as Blaise Compaoré does now), Sankara said ‘There are seven million Thomas Sankaras’.

Chronicle of a revolution

Feb 1984 Tribute payments to and obligatory labour for the traditional village chiefs are outlawed.

4 Aug 1984 All land and mineral wealth are nationalized. The country’s name is changed from the colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, words from two different local languages meaning ‘Land of the Incorruptible’.

22 Sept 1984 A day of solidarity: men are encouraged to go to market and prepare meals to experience for themselves the conditions faced by women.

Oct 1984 The rural poll tax is abolished.

Nov 1984 ‘Vaccination Commando’. In 15 days 2.5 million children are immunized against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.

3 Dec 1984 Top civil servants and military officers are required to give one month’s pay and other civil servants to give half a month to help fund social development projects.

31 Dec 1984 All domestic rents are suspended for 1985 and a massive public housing construction program begins.

1 Jan 1985 Launch of a campaign to plant 10 million trees to slow the Sahara’s advance.

4 Aug 1985 An all-women parade marks the anniversary of the Revolution.

10 Sep 1985 The mounting hostility of the region’s conservative regimes is revealed at a meeting in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire.

Feb-Apr 1986 ‘Alpha Commando’. A literacy campaign in nine indigenous languages involves 35,000 people.

End of 1986 A UN-assisted program brings river blindness under control.

15 Oct 1987 Sankara is assassinated in a coup d’état along with 12 aides. His body is unceremoniously dumped in a makeshift grave which quickly becomes a shrine as for days thousands of people file past it to pay their respects. Popular feeling forces the new regime to give Sankara a decent grave.

A villager’s assessment of Sankara

‘I wasn’t surprised when he was killed – the Revolution took me by surprise but that didn’t. He had bad men around him, people who just wanted to get fat and drive around in big cars. Many things changed in the Revolution. Not always in the best way. But because of the Revolution we know a little more about the type of politicians we need. It taught us to work by ourselves for ourselves. But Sankara wanted everything to happen too quickly – he expected too much.

‘If I were President myself I would do just as Sankara did and send my ministers out to the villages to learn what it’s like there and give the peasants help. Sankara’s very best idea was to teach us that it wasn’t enough to live with what we get in wages each month – we should get by with the minimum and give the rest to the development of the country instead of always asking for aid from overseas.’

An eminently corruptible man

Captain Blaise Compaoré played a key part in the 1983 Revolution – he led the march on the capital that released Sankara from house arrest to become President. Compaoré himself served as Justice Minister and Sankara’s effective second-in-command.

Compaoré has garnered a considerable personal fortune from his position and allegations of corruption and nepotism under his regime now abound. One of his early acts was to buy a presidential plane to reflect his personal prestige.

Power from a major new hydro project has been diverted to electrify Compaoré’s home village, Ziniaré, while big towns have been ignored.

Chronicle of a ‘rectification’

15 Oct 1987 Blaise Compaoré assumes the Presidency, backed by Major Jean-Baptiste Lingani and Captain Henri Zongo.

Nov 1987 The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the local bodies which had replaced traditional élites, are abolished.

1988 Salaries of civil servants, reduced under Sankara, are increased and the special tax that forced them to contribute to health and education projects is scrapped.

Dec 1988 A World Bank report lauds the unusually high standards of financial management in Burkina Faso during the revolutionary years while noting the increasing incidence of corruption since Compaoré’s takeover.

Sept 1989 Lingani and Zongo attempt to oust Compaoré in a coup and are executed.

Dec 1989 31 Sankara supporters are detained without trial for over a year. Lecturer Guillaume Sessouma dies during torture.

Dec 1990 The draft constitution guarantees freedom of association and expression and property rights. It provides for an elected President and National Assembly.

Early 1991 A structural-adjustment package is agreed with the IMF, involving privatization and liberalization of the market.

May 1991 All political prisoners are released.

Dec 1991 Blaise Compaoré wins the presidential election. This is not surprising since he is the only candidate – 73 per cent of the electorate do not vote.

1993 The IMF lends Burkina $67m for 1993-5 on condition that it continues implementing free-market policies.

June 1993 An official presidential visit to Paris establishes Compaoré as France’s favourite ally in West Africa.

Jan 1994 The CFA franc is halved in value in relation to the French franc at the insistence of Paris and the IMF.

March 1994 Compaoré tightens his control, sacking the prime minister to install a loyalist.

A villager’s assessment of Compaoré

‘France gave Blaise money. I don’t know exactly how but they did. And when you have money in Africa you can do anything. The trade unions have been bought off, for example – the President gives them money so that they’ll shut their mouths. He’s our President, we agreed to that – but his policies come from France. Every order comes from France and he never asks the Assembly’s opinion.

‘There is no real opposition. Politics here means who will give money. People who want to become ministers or deputies look to develop themselves first and the country after – they all know the Western way of life, they want everything easy. Politics is just a means of becoming rich and giving you a big car. And Blaise gives money to opposition groups so they will divide and, voilà, no opposition. Another Sankara simply couldn’t arrive out of the current democratic landscape.’

I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory… You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future. Thomas Sankara, 1985

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