There is a proverb from West Africa: "Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter."
When we are constantly reminded of the horrors inflicted in Cambodia, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Uganda, or Germany, it can be a daunting task to find dictatorial rulers that challenge the norm. I wrote an answer to a similar question about Joseph Pilsudski. Has there ever been a "good dictatorship"? Is humankind capable of doing this? But this time, I will focus on another dictator, one who remains largely unknown in the western world.
Thomas Sankara (1949-1987) was dictator of the west African nation of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. His regime was authoritarian to say the least, but it was one of brief and peculiar form. Despite after thirty years, many African scholars and political philosophers look to Sankara's vision of a united Africa. Even today, he is considered a hero by many Burkinabe as well as Africans.
When I first heard of Sankara, which was just a few years ago, I was really shocked. This guy was really a piece of work, and yet I never heard of him until then. As a former resident of Africa, I admit to being embarrassed over my own ignorance. Even my father had met him briefly during Sankara's visit to Addis Ababa.
Thomas “Tom Sank” Sankara was an officer in the Burkinabe military when the country was known as Upper Volta. His father served in the French army during WW2 and was held as a POW by the Germans. As an officer cadet, Thomas Sankara was influenced by marxist writings during his military education in Madagascar. He gained a heroic reputation during the 1974 border war with Mali and was also a popular guitar player. He was strongly influenced by Che Guevara and fashioned his rock star image in a similar manner. Even as president, Sankara continue to wear his signature military fatigues and red beret. As such, he is commonly known as "Africa's Che".
Courtesy of Guardian.com. Sankara arrives in Addis Ababa. I suspect my father is somewhere in this crowd
In 1983, with broad support from fellow officers and citizens, Sankara was installed as president after Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo was overthrown. Some support was provided by Qadaffi, who at the time was not on friendly terms with the French (Chadian-Libyan conflict).
In the brief period he ruled, Sankara initiated a number of policies which has given him a favorable reputation throughout the continent. I'll write them all in bullet point.
* On the first anniversary of his coup, he got rid of the name "Upper Volta". In accordance with his anti-imperialist stance, Sankara removed the name as it was given by the French colonists. He renamed the country as Burkina Faso, which means "Land of Upright (or Incorruptible) People" in the local Mossi and Djula languages. He even personally composed the national anthem which remains used today.
* Another early change he implemented was the replacement of the government's luxurious Mercedes cars, such as this 1980s model...
The Renault 5, at the time the cheapest available car in Burkina Faso. Under Sankara's presidency, it was the official vehicle for all government employees, including himself. Honestly, can you think of a single 'democratic' African president willing to drive in this?
In addition, officials, including ministers, were not permitted to hire private chauffeurs or use 1st class airline tickets. Sankara stated that before his presidency, the country's ministers took more luxury trips to the US and Europe than to the countryside of Burkina Faso.
* He changed traditional power structures among tribal chieftains. No longer were they allowed to extract tribute from peasants or forced labor. Local farmers now owned the land they worked on. This allowed Sankara to further implement a policy of self-sufficiency. By redistributing feudal landholdings and instituting large-scale irrigation and fertilization projects, Burkina Faso was producing enough of its own food and no longer dependant on foreign aid. In 1986, Burkina Faso was producing 3800 kg of wheat per hectare, more than double of the average 1700 produced by other countries in the Sahel region.
"The science of the multinationals does not offer them these means, preferring to invest in cosmetics laboratories and plastic surgery to satisfy the whims of a few women or men whose smart appearance is threatened by too many calories in their overly rich meals, the regularity of which would make you—or rather us from the Sahel—dizzy"
* With the aid of Cuban doctors, he launched a national vaccination program to eradicate polio, meningitis and measles. In one week, 2.5 million Burkinabe were vaccinated, a feat that earned Sankara the congratulations of the World Health Organization. Sankara was also the first African leader to publicly acknowledge the threat of AIDS to Africa's development, a revolutionary act considering that AIDS denialism is still thriving on the continent.
* Promoted women's rights and their political participation. He was among the first African leaders to appoint female cabinet members and his government consisted of 20% women, more than most African nations. Even military service was open to women. (Some say that, like Qadaffi, Sankara had female bodyguards that rode motorcycles. But I haven't found any evidence indicating this is more than a rumor)
He also banned female genital mutilation, forced marriages, child marriages, and polygamy. Right to divorce and widow's right to inherit were introduced. Contraception was promoted and if a girl became pregnant, she was allowed to remain in school. He argued it was discrimination if a girl should remain at home because of her pregnancy, while the boy who made her pregnant may continue his education. By placing the pregnant girls in the same class, boys would be reminded of their irresponsibility on a daily basis and be less encouraged to "fool around".
In addition, he introduced "women's day" every year, in which men would perform the chores traditionally assigned to women, such as buying food at market or cooking. Men were to experience first-hand the conditions endured by their wives and daughters.
"The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky"