Thomas Sankara, often called the African Che Guevara, was president of Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa, until his assassination during the military coup that brought down his government. Although his tenure in office was relatively short, Sankara left an indelible mark on his country’s history and development. An avowed Marxist, he outspokenly asserted his country’s independence from France and other Western powers while at the same time seeking to build a genuine pan-African unity.
Ernest Harsch traces Sankara’s life from his student days to his recruitment into the military, early political awakening, and increasing dismay with his country’s extreme poverty and political corruption. As he rose to higher leadership positions, he used those offices to mobilize people for change and to counter the influence of the old, corrupt elites. Sankara and his colleagues initiated economic and social policies that shifted away from dependence on foreign aid and toward a greater use of the country’s own resources to build schools, health clinics, and public works. Although Sankara’s sweeping vision and practical reforms won him admirers both in Burkina Faso and across Africa, a combination of domestic opposition groups and factions within his own government and the army finally led to his assassination in 1987.
This is the first English-language book to tell the story of Sankara’s life and struggles, drawing on the author’s extensive firsthand research and reporting on Burkina Faso, including interviews with the late leader. Decades after his death, Sankara remains an inspiration to young people throughout Africa for his integrity, idealism, and dedication to independence and self-determination.
This volume in the Ohio Short Histories of Africa series is the first biography in English of Sankara, who ruled Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, though it is not an ideal introduction to his life. Harsch, a research scholar at Columbia University's Institute for African Studies, knew Sankara and prefaces his work by stating that while he does not "apologize for his sympathies" towards his subject, "he wishes to alert the reader that my interpretations may differ from those of scholars who were less favorable to Sankara's revolutionary outlook." Harsch traces Sankara's rise to power, his efforts to involve his countrymen in the work of government, and his challenges to world powers, such as the U.S., whose policies he opposed. While Harsch is generally positive in his depiction, he does note failings, such as Sankara's choice not to allow "elections to representative parliamentary bodies." Perhaps the book's biggest shortcoming is the absence of meaningful context; lay readers will have difficulties understanding Sankara's historical legacy or why he is relevant to understanding both contemporary sub-Saharan Africa and modern revolutionary movements. Illus.