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Burkina Faso salutes "Africa's Che"

OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Burkina Faso has been reliving mixed memories this week of slain former leader Thomas Sankara, a charismatic Marxist revolutionary who gained a reputation as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.

Thousands of young people gathered in the small cemetery of Daghnoen in Ouagadougou earlier this week to mark the 20th anniversary of his assassination during an 1987 uprising led by his friend Blaise Compaore, who remains in power to this day.

“When he died I was no more than a baby, but I learned about him with my friends at university and I am convinced he is the type of leader which Africa needs,” said student Kader Traore.

Part of Africa’s pantheon of post-independence martyrs, alongside Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and South Africa’s Steve Biko, Sankara seized power in a 1983 coup at the age of 33 to tackle corruption and the dominance of former colonial powers.

In four flamboyant years as president, the former fighter pilot became the first African leader to denounce the menace of AIDS, took a stand against the IMF and World Bank, and promoted women’s rights by opposing female circumcision and polygamy.

A charismatic speaker, Sankara won popular support and foreign media attention with eye-catching schemes such as selling the government’s official fleet of Mercedes and ordering ministers to use Renault 5s, then the smallest car on the market.

Unlike many African leaders, Sankara lived modestly. As information minister in a previous government, he rode to work on a bicycle and resigned in 1982 with the words “Misfortune to those who gag the people!”

As president, he converted the army’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket and forced well-off civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects.

Sankara cut a dashing figure, jogging unaccompanied through Ouagadougou in his track suit or posing in his tailored military fatigues, with his mother-of-pearl pistol.

“He was handsome and charismatic,” said Awa Ouedraogo, 30, a hairdresser. “All the women were a little bit in love with him.”


To mark his first year in office, Sankara changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning “the land of the upright people”. An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.

“Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through will power, courage, honesty and work,” his widow, Mariam Sankara, told Jeune Afrique magazine.

“What remains above all of my husband is his integrity.”

Explaining his 1987 uprising, Compaore said Sankara jeopardized foreign relations with former colonial power France and with neighboring Ivory Coast, and accused his former comrade of plotting to assassinate opponents.

Compaore reversed nationalizations and returned to the IMF fold, spurning Sankara’s legacy. Today, landlocked Burkina still ranks as the third least developed country in the world.

Sankara’s supporters have organized separate memorials to rival what they say are hypocritical government ceremonies.

“When I see young people mobilizing, I can see his reputation has remained intact,” said Fidele Toe, a former companion of Sankara’s who spoke to him just before his death. “This youth is going to take up the challenge.”

Loved by many ordinary people, Sankara’s policies alienated the small but powerful middle class and tribal leaders, whom he stripped of the right to forced labor and tribute payments.

Critics said his reforms curtailed freedoms and left ordinary people little better off. An admirer of Fidel Castro’s left-wing revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style committees for the defense of the revolution, often accused of thuggery.

“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas,” he said a week before his death.