Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary – Ernest Harsch

sankaraWhen I first learned of the country called Burkina Faso, I felt a sense of shock at how little of it I had heard not only in school but through the media.  The landlocked African nation was never mentioned in the history books that I had read and even today it remains a minor player on the world stage.  But between the years of 1983 and 1987,  events transpired there that were both remarkable and tragic.  Had success prevailed, the world would know Burkina Faso today as the pioneer of progressiveness in modern day Africa driven by the ideas of its late leader Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (1949-1983).

Upper Volta was the name chosen by the French as they colonized the land that would produce one its most aggressive antagonists.  The colony became prized possession but growing calls for independence succeeded and on August 5, 1960, Upper Volta became an independent nation and was formally recognized internationally.  However, Paris still played a direct role in the nation’s affairs and continued to keep a stronghold over the country for the next twenty-three years. On August 4, 1983,  Sankara seized power in a coup and installed himself as the new ruler.   The country was renamed Burkina Faso and Sankara launched a campaign of reforms that were far ahead of his time.  Agricultural reforms, anti-corruption acts, women’s rights and energy conservation were just some of the endless programs and ideas he began to institute to transform Burkina Faso from a poor developing nation into one that was self-sufficient and financially secure to maintain its independence.

Ernest Harsch knew Sankara personally, having worked with him on more than one occasion.  This book is a collection of his memories of Sankara and what he observed during Sankara’s time in office.  The account is remarkable and at times, Sankara appears to be a figure out of place on a continent plagued by exploitation and corruption.  His voice was strong, and his actions were feared abroad for he advocated for a unified Africa, emboldened to reject foreign loans with high interest rates and the meddling of more powerful nations.

He has been compared by some as the African version of Che Guevara.  Similar to Guevara, he led a frugal lifestyle and implored close relatives not to accept any gifts.  His belief in selflessness are eerily similar to Guevara but both men were incredibly intelligent figures who posed a threat to many due to their growing number of followers.  Washington once feared Guevara could spread the Cuban Revolution across Latin America.  It also feared that Sankara could spread the Burkina Faso revolution across Africa.  The tension between Sankara and Washington are discussed by Harsch and highlight the seriousness with which many viewed Sankara’s powerful rhetoric.

Abroad, eyebrows started to raise at the actions of the new revolutionary near the Ivory Coast.  Domestically, Sankara was surrounded by many enemies, some of whom he could never have foreseen.  Harsch explores what was really taking place in Burkina Faso up until and at the time of Sankara’s death.  The actions of Blaise Compaoré are discussed as well and his true role in the events of that day are still a bit of a mystery.  He is no longer the leader of Burkina Faso, having resigned on October 31, 2014.  Currently, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré sits as the prime minister.  The nation has seen power change hands many times but none can escape the ghost of Sankara.

Africa’s size and complex network of nations have made it one of the most diverse places on earth. In fact, no other continent has the number of countries contained within as Africa does.  There are 53 recognized countries across the continent with each having its clear distinctions as to language, culture and history.  Sankara hoped to bring these countries together under the banner of a Pan-African organization.  Had he succeeded, he would have accomplished the goal envisioned twenty-years earlier by Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961).  Although he did not live long enough to realize this goal, he did provide an example of the possibilities that exist for all of Africa if its people can come together as one.

The only negative part of the book is that I wish it could have been at least twice as long as I feel that there is so much to Sankara’s story that is still largely unknown. However, Harsch has done a great service to the memory of his late friend in showing world how brilliant Sankara truly was.   I sincerely hope that in years to come, Sankara’s legacy is exposed to more parts of the world.   To aid in that effort, we can rely on this sound and endearing account of Sankara’s life and death.


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