Sankara seized power in a popularly-supported coup in 1983, aged just thirty-three, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power, he immediately launched one of the most ambitious programs for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Man”). His foreign policies were centered on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating 2,500,000 children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.
Other components of his national agenda included planting over 10,000,000 trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents and establishing an ambitious road and railway construction program to “tie the nation together.” On the localized level, Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary, and had over 350 communities build schools with their own labor. Moreover, his commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school, even if pregnant.
In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation, eventually banning unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, “counter-revolutionaries” and “lazy workers” in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs).
His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s impoverished citizens. However his policies alienated and antagonized the vested interests of an array of groups, which included the small, but powerful Burkinabé middle-class, the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labor and tribute payments, and France and its ally the Ivory Coast. He was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré on 15 October 1987. A week before his assassination, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”
Main Pic: eCNA.com