On August 4, 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara and Captain Blaise Compaore staged a coup in the Republic of Upper Volta. Compaore led his men to take over key parts of Ouagadougou, the capital. Thomas Sankara was released from house arrest that the neo-colonial president Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo of the Republic of Upper Volta had placed him under. This coup is known as the August Revolution. The leaders of the coup, Sankara, Compaore, and other young radical soldiers seized power of the country and appointed Sankara as president for his charismatic leadership and “ability to match action with rhetoric”. Sankara called for a Marxist anti-colonial revolution. His anti-colonial revolutionary program consisted of independence from foreign imports, political reforms to fight corruption, environmental justice, and placed a huge emphasis on a women’s liberation movement.
Before Sankara changed the name on the first anniversary of his coup, Burkina Faso was known as the Republic of Upper Volta and before that Upper Volta. Upper Volta was a French colony that remained underdeveloped because it provided a migrant labor force to other nearby French colonies on the coast such as Côte d'Ivoire and Mali. After decades under colonial control, Upper Volta won its independence in 1960 and changed its name to the Republic of Upper Volta. After the French military left, the leaders of the revolution created a bureaucracy that did not involve civilian control. The bureaucracy also welcomed foreign investments from France and other colonial powers, thus making the Republic of Upper Volta a neocolonial state.
The people of the Republic of Upper Volta consisted of many rival ethnicities. Sixty percent of the country was made up of Gurunsi, Senufo, Lobi, Bobo, Mande, and Fulani people. Forty percent of the country were Mossi people, most of the revolutionary leaders were Mossi. The Mossi people had a lot of internal conflicts between their traditional leaders which mostly concerned of power and the jurisdiction of their power. Before French colonialism, the Mossi leaders ran the countries through a system of chieftains. The French colonizers saw the Mossi people as being superior to the rest of the ethnicities and worked to form a bond with the Mossi people. After the French colonizers were kicked out, the Mossi leaders maintained their bonds with the French capitalist class and welcomed other foreign capitalists to invest in the Republic of Upper Volta.
Between winning independence in 1960 and Thomas Sankara’s August Revolution, five coups took place in just over two decades. The coups were done by Mossi leaders against Mossi leaders for a series of power grabs. The focus of the leaders of the Republic of Upper Volta were still on pleasing foreign investors instead of local development and maintaining the civilian’s right to self-determination. The country was split by its ethnic groups but defined by devotion to neo-colonialism. It was not until the sixth regime change (August Revolution) after French occupation that colonial ties were finally severed.
Sankara was born on December 21, 1949 in what is now Burkina Faso. His full name was Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara. His mother’s name was Marguerite Sankara and his father was Sambo Joseph Sankara. His father was a soldier in the French Army who had fought in World War II and detained by the Nazis. Because of his father being in the army, the Sankara family moved often from base to base in France’s West African colonies. Thomas Sankara was radicalized by seeing the stark contrast of the suffering of the majority and the luxury of the minority of people throughout the colonies. Marguerite Sankara was of Fulani ethnicity and Sambo Joseph Sankara was of Mossi ethnicity. This made Thomas Sankara a Silmi-Mossi, half Fulani and half Mossi, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy within the Mossi people.
Thomas Sankara enlisted in the Republic of Upper Volta’s military when he turned 19 years old. He was exposed to popular movements in Madagascar during his officer’s trainings and was taught Marxist-Leninist theory by other soldiers. The Sankara family was devout Catholic and although Thomas Sankara became a Marxist he never lost his Catholic faith. Today, Burkina Faso is 60.5% Muslim and 19% Catholic, at the time that Sankara took power in 1983, Burkina Faso was 90% Muslim. Understanding the importance of the people he wanted to lead into liberation he studied the Qu’ran alongside studying Marxist–Leninist theory.
During the fifth neo-colonial regime change in 1983, Thomas Sankara was a well known charismatic leader with a large following of youth, women, and radical elements of the military. This forced the conservative President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo to appoint Sankara as Prime Minister to maintain peace with the left. As Prime Minister, Sankara pushed for diplomatic relations with Cuba, Nicaragua, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Palestine, Ghana, Algeria, and Libya, citing their “shared experiences of colonialism”. As Sankara used his new position to form international ties to move the country away from neo-colonialism and towards self-reliance, President Ouédraogo used his power to maintain neo-colonialism and by pleasing foreign investors and Mossi chieftains. On May 17, 1983, just a few months after Sankara’s appointment, Ouédraogo notice his plan to appease the left while moving the country to his direction had backfired. Sankara had used his position to unify the workers, women, youth, and military against the neo-colonial establishment. Ouédraogo responded by sentencing Sankara to house arrest. On August 4, 1983, the people of the Republic of Upper Volta protested Sankara’s release. Later that day Blaise Compaore, Thomas Sankara’s best friend and fellow soldier, seized many key buildings in the capital. Ouédraogo released Sankara and it was later announced that Sankara would be president and architect the Marxist anti-colonial revolution.
Sankara used Marxist theory to understand that the only way to fight colonialism was through relying on the resources of the country and not relying on foreign imports and investments. Sankara still understood that the country could not survive without imports. He broke ties with Côte d'Ivoire, France, and other colonial powers and opted to not create ties with the Soviet Bloc. He instead decided to join the Non-Aligned Movement in an effort to unify the third world and other post-colonial countries. To maintain the country’s direction into a post-colonial socialist state, Sankara focused on three key points. The first was centralizing the government to eradicate corruption and take power away from the traditional Mossi leader and therefore unify all ethnicities. The second was improving environmental conditions through planting trees to avoid desertification, which was part of his agrarian reform initiative. Lastly, the hallmark of his program was a strong women’s liberation movement, which would unify the population in a way that would transcend class and ethnicity. Women also made up over half the population of the country.
Sankara’s focus on a women’s liberation movement is unique to Sankara and Burkina Faso. Sankara was always a big admirer of Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. In Cuba, Castro and Che and the 26th of July Movement understood that the peasants were the revolutionary class through armed struggle and not the Communist Party’s alliance with a coalition of unions as a vanguard party. ‘The Movement’ saw that there had to be a force with credibility in the colonial society that could ally itself with the most oppressed group of people, that was armed struggle through guerrilla warfare tactics and the peasant class. Thomas Sankara saw the radical elements of the military as the societally-credible force and women as the most oppressed group of people. As Sankara saw gender equality as the core of any revolutionary movement in Burkina Faso he followed his rhetoric with action. He appointed women into positions within the government and into the revolutionary army. He created the Ministry of Family Development and the Union of Burkina Women (UFB) and amended the constitution to require that the president have at least five women in their ministry. After the restructuring, several reforms took place. Polygamy and forced marriages were banned, education programs were set up to teach home economics, parenting, and how to stop the spread of AIDS. Sankara was the first African leader to acknowledge the threat of AIDS. Sankara also established International Women’s Day (March 8) as a day to swap gender roles. He also turned the whole week into the Week of the Women to celebrate Burkinabe women. He also forced husbands to give their wives half of their paycheck. His most remarkable achievement towards gender equality was banning female genital cutting and setting up educational programs on why it was banned. This was remarkable for a few of reasons. The first, was that he was able to ban the Islamic practice without disrupting relations with the 90% Islamic population in Burkina Faso at the time. Second, it was a power grab, it was a way of asserting the authority of the revolution while taking power away from the country’s traditional leaders, mostly the Mossi people. Third, it was a way to appease the imperialist powers of the world by complying with the United Nation’s standards on gender equality.