by Ernest Harsch
Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, USA, 2014; 164pp; pb $ 14.95
Following the exit of President Blaise Compaore from power in October 2014, Burkina Faso was led by an interim government made up of military officers, pending elections. Back in 1987, Mr. Compaore had led an uprising that toppled and killed the populist president, Thomas Sankara. After his murder, Sankara was hastily buried in a simple grave without any public ceremony.
Facing pressure from the family and others, the military government recently agreed to permit the exhumation of Mr. Sankara’s body to prove that the body is indeed that of Mr. Sankara, a revolutionary leader held in high esteem by the people of Burkina Faso and many others in Africa and beyond.
President Sankara’s legendary rule over Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987 has attained iconic status, similar to that of Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara; both leaders’ legacies and popularity are visible even today – from coffee mugs to T-shirts. The fascination over Mr. Sankara as a revolutionary leader to both the young and older generations is now explored in a short book: “Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary,” written by Ernest Harsch.
In the book, Mr. Harsch, a former managing editor of Africa Renewal, explores Mr. Sankara’s early childhood and the disillusionment he felt with the economic conditions imposed on the country’s poor and the rampant corruption in the West African country. His despair over the country’s unfortunate development trajectory led him to speak out against injustice and to spearhead a revolution against the government. He took control within his party, the National Council of the Revolution, and assumed the presidency in 1983.
In one of his early acts, he changed his country’s name from the colonial-given Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning “land of the upright people.” Indeed, this motto of being ethically upright is just what Mr. Sankara wanted his compatriots to emulate.
During his rule, Mr. Sankara established a culture of self-reliant development and moved the country away from dependency on foreign aid. In doing so, he distanced the nation from its colonial ruler, France. Summarizing this relationship with France, Mr. Sankara stated that he wanted “to develop a relationship of equals, mutually beneficial, without paternalism on one side or an inferiority complex on the other”. Mr. Sankara spent a lot of energy fighting illiteracy, hunger and the oppression of women. He was also very critical of men who oppressed women especially in their own families, arguing that “the new kind of woman must not live with the old kind of man”.
Mr. Sankara exemplified a humble leadership style that included sharing flights with other African heads of state instead of using private jets; and sleeping on mattresses on the floor at Burkina’s embassies around the world rather than spending money on hotels. Money, he felt, should not be squandered on unnecessary expenses, but instead put towards better use such as education and other social projects.
“Such lack of ostentation in Burkinabé officials’ travel did not diminish the power of their messages. For some observers, it even enhanced their impact,” Mr. Harsch writes. “Sankara left a mark beyond his own country. During visits elsewhere in Africa or at international meetings, his speeches struck listeners with their forcefulness and clarity. His frank criticisms of the policies of some of the world’s most powerful nations were all the more notable coming from a representative of a small, poor landlocked state that few had previously heard of.”
The 163-page biography has nine chapters that include interviews with the late revolutionary leader. It is a fascinating read about a leader who not only led a revolution to free his people from French colonization, but also lived a simple and humble life, uncorrupted by the power of the office he held.
Mr. Harsch’s book is part of the Ohio Short Histories of Africa series of “informative and concise guides, lively biographies, and succinct introductions to important topics in African history perfectly suited for the classroom.”