In a ceremony in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara’s exhumed remains were reburied on Thursday, February 23. Sankara was a charismatic anti-colonist who is renowned for his revolutionary socio-economic and political vision, notably the rejection of Western economic and political “assistance” for his West African nation, during his brief tenure as president of Burkina Faso.

Widely referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara,” Sankara was assassinated in 1987 after a bloody coup that Blaise Compaoré, a former ally turned enemy, spearheaded. Just 37 years old at the time.

After nearly three decades in power, Compaoré was overthrown in 2014. Authorities exhumed Sankara’s remains in 2015 to help with the murder inquiry after he was removed from office. Compaoré received a life sentence in prison in absentia last year for his involvement in the murder of Sankara. The same punishment was given to two of his assistants in 2021.

After the investigation was over, Sankara was reinterred at the place of his murder, which for some provided closure, but left long-lasting scars.

Holding back tears, Mayamba Malick Sawadogo told Reuters, “It is traumatic to find myself here again.” While more than 30 years have gone, it is still difficult. Sankara’s ally Sawadogo served time in jail during the coup in 1987.

During a coup in 1983, Sankara took over. The Republic of Upper Volta, one of Africa’s poorest nations at the time, gained its formal independence in 1958 but continued to suffer from the lingering effects of French colonialism and relied largely on foreign aid and corporate interests.

Sankara saw that true independence required both political and economic freedom in addition to a new flag and currency. As a result, after assuming power, Sankara changed the name of his nation to Burkina Faso, which means “Land of Upright Men,” signifying a radical new concept of national independence.

According to The Jacobin, “nationalisation, land redistribution, and extensive railway building plans were characteristics of Sankara’s rule.” Around two million kids received vaccinations during one of the most effective vaccination campaigns in Africa at the time. In addition, he was among the first African politicians to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. In order to stop desertification, Sankara also built schools and hospitals all around the nation and planted over 10 million trees. For the first four years of his administration, Burkina Faso had enough food.

Including women at all levels of Burkina Faso’s administration was one of Sankara’s greatest political accomplishments. Both polygamy and female genital mutilation were outlawed by his rule.

Importantly, Sankara rejected aid from international organisations like the World Bank and the IMF, emphasising instead the development of self-reliance and ties with other nations in the global south.

Thomas Sankara once responded, “Our economic aspiration is to employ the strength of the people of Burkina Faso to provide, for all, two meals a day and drinking water,” when questioned about his revolutionary goals.

Although Sankara enjoyed enormous popularity among the general public, both Burkina Faso’s traditional elites and Western capitalist interests found his political theory and programme objectionable. Much of Sankara’s accomplishments were undone after his assassination, in addition to the decades-long persecution of his close allies.

His successor cozied up to France, reinstating the colonial ties Sankara had worked so hard to break, and the companies and entities he had nationalised were once more privatised. The IMF also became one of the nation’s largest lenders. In addition to receiving a warm welcome in Paris, Sankara’s assassins’ leader Gilbert Diendéré—who was also given a life sentence—was also given France’s highest honour, the National Order of the Legion of Merit.

Anti-Thomas Sankara propaganda that cast the coup as “rectifying the Revolution” inundated Burkina Faso. But ideologies endure, and in the midst of the West and China’s “Great Game” in Africa in the twenty-first century, Sankara’s legacy offers a welcome alternative that is founded on independence and pan-African solidarity.

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