And I Cried! In Memory of an African Hero, Sankara  

And I Cried! In Memory of an African Hero, Sankara  

Sunday, October 17, 2021 12:00 pm

Captain Thomas Sankara.jpg


Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.

– Norman Cousins


A great man does not seek applause or place; he seeks for truth; he seeks the road to happiness and what he ascertains, he gives to others.


– Robert Green Ingersoll


By Remi Oyeyemi

October 16, 1987, 0700 hours. I was trying to get to the office very early. I tried every time I could to avoid traffic any way I could. I believed that leaving the house very early would be helpful in this regard. I walked briskly out of the building that bore and still bears my father’s name as an insignia. I walked through Akata, Òkè – Ìyìn, to catch a taxi at Ayeso to take me to Lawrence Omole and Sons, Òkèshà, where my office was located.

The weather this morning was cooperative. Everything was normal as usual. There was no rain. The heat was yet to descend. The humidity was humbled by the early morning cool breeze. The sun, tearing tenaciously at the cocoon of the photogenic blue sky, strives to and for an early rise. The simplicity of the environment added to the pulsating ruddiness of the untarred road that magnanimously refused to cling to my shoes as I tramped along. Everything was copacetic.

At this particular point in my life, my greatest concern was how to convince the most beautiful lady in the world to be my wife. She had been very stubborn. More than too difficult, in fact. It had been 62 days at this point, that I had been chasing her all over the place, between Ilésà, Ìjèbú – jèshà and Ìbàdàn. I had agonized over what I could do or not do to make her say “yes” to being my wife. My cousin, Prince Adetayo Hastrup, now the distinguished Lumobi of Imobi – Ijesa, was my co-conspirator and my Special Adviser on Strategy and Planning to woo her over. He was always assuring me not to worry too much; that “we” will get her to marry “us.” He was right eventually.

As I marinated in these concerns, I jumped into the taxi. The road was already getting fairly busy at that time of the day. As we passed through the Eréjà Roundabout, I pleaded with the taxi driver to allow me to pick a newspaper, which took about a minute. The taxi driver grumbled as he asked if I was not aware that this was a peak period for his business? My pleading was accepted as he obliged me with the quickest one minute ever!

And there it was, the sad news. I let out an exclamation as my co-passengers wondered what was wrong. I was too dumbfounded to respond immediately. Repeatedly, “Ha! Ha!! Ha!!!” was what was coming out of my mouth. I was shocked and disappointed. My legs were shaking as I felt personally betrayed. I felt vanquished and could not believe that anyone who claimed to be a friend could kill his friend in that gruesome and gory manner. His friend was not contented with murdering him and taking the power from him, he had to dismember him. It was a perfect study in perfidy.

He loved his people. He was an upright man whose integrity was translucent. He was a Pan Africanist. He believed in women’s liberation as an essential vehicle of and for social, economic, and political change. He unabashedly showed his commitment to women’s rights by outlawing female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy. He appointed women to high governmental positions and encouraged them to work outside the home and stay in school, even if pregnant.

He believed in self-help and mobilized his people accordingly. He considered education as the greatest weapon of liberation from all sorts of bondage. He was an example of leadership that revelled in austerity. He sold off all the Mercedes Benz cars of his predecessors and used the Renault 5, the cheapest car in the country as official car. Most times he rode bicycle to the office. He jogged freely on the streets to meet and mix with his people. He felt comfortable in their midst. He was never afraid of his people.

He rejected the act of raising his portrait as the leader of his country. He didn’t see himself as anything special other than a catalyst and anchor of liberation of his people. He changed the colonial name of his country to “The Land of the Upright Man.” He refused and rejected IMF and World Bank aids saying “He who feeds you, controls you.” He preached against imperialism and took concrete steps to extricate his people from its aprons.

He was a committed environmentalist who spearheaded the planting of 10 million trees to wade off desertification. By the time he was assassinated, he made his people and country self-sufficient in food production. He mobilized his people to build 35,000 primary health centers across his country and “had over 350 communities build schools with their own labour.” He challenged the small but oppressive middle class, and the tribal leaders whom he “stripped of the long-held traditional rights to forced labour and tribute payment.”

Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara, popularly known as Thomas Sankara, was a true leader of his people. He was committed to their upliftment. He had a clear vision of how and where he wanted to lead his people. He was a man in a hurry. He was a revolutionary. He was a liberator. He was a dreamer who translated his dream for his people into reality on many fronts. He was determined to set them free from the stranglehold of poverty, squalor, want, disease and illiteracy. He was a courageous man on a clear mission. Honest, dignified, and principled. His integrity was stainless and peerless. He lived what he preached. And his people loved him for it.

Third of ten children, he was born on December 21, 1949, in Yako, French Upper Volta to Joseph and Marguerite Sankara. “He spent his early years in Gaoua, a town in the humid southwest to which his father was transferred as an auxiliary gendarme.” He attended primary school at Bobo – Dioulasso. He “excelled in Mathematics and French”; went to church often and was encouraged by the priests to go on to seminary school because of “his energy and eagerness to learn.”

Captain Sankara continued his education at the lycee ( French word for government owned Secondary school) Quezzin Coulibaly. “At the lycée, Sankara made close friends, including Fidèle Too, whom he later named a minister in his government; and Soumane Touré, who was in a more advanced class.” From here, he entered “the military academy of Kadiogo in Ouagadougou with the academy’s first intake of 1966 at the age of 17.”

While in this Military School, “he witnessed the first military coup d’état in Upper Volta led by Lt. Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana” on January 3rd, 1966. “In 1970, 20 year – old Sankara went on for further military studies at the military academy of Antsirabe ( Madagascar), from which he graduated as a junior officer in 1973.”

“At the Antsirabe academy, the range of instruction went beyond standard military subjects, which allowed Sankara to study agriculture, including how to raise crop yields and better the lives of farmers—themes he later took up in his own administration and country.” He was reported to have “read profusely on history and military strategy” during this period when he acquired “the concepts and analytical tools that he would later use in his reinterpretation of Burkinabe political history.”

Mid-May 1983, a group of revolutionaries seized power on behalf of Sankara who was then under house arrest. Sankara, who was also dubbed the “Africa’s Che Guevera,” at 33, became the President of his country known as Upper Volta. “He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programs for social, ecological, gender, and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Man”).

In the weeks leading to his assassination, he made an official trip to France where he was informed that there was intelligence showing that a coup d’état was in the offing to remove him from power. Blaise Compare was reportedly fingered as being behind it. Sankara responded that if Compaore was truly the man behind the coup being speculated, there was no point resisting. “He is my friend. He knows me inside out,” he had said.

One week before he was murdered, probably with the premonition of what was to come, the iconic revolutionary, Thomas Sankara had uttered the following statement:

“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”.

Thomas Noel Sankara, a charismatic young army captain dubbed “Africa’s Che Guevara”, was cut down in a hail of bullets by men led by his friend, Blaise Compaore, on October 15, 1987, while he was on his way to a special cabinet meeting. His body was dismembered by his friend and buried in an unidentified grave.

October 16, 1987, was a very sad day for me. I was very proud of him. I was inspired by him. He raised my sense of dignity to the next level. He gave me reasons to beat my chest as an African. He was hope resuscitated. He was an obvious source of dignity. He was humility personified. Like a comet, Thomas Noel Sankara came briefly, shown brightly, and was hurriedly blighted.

A sad day for the African man and the African continent. The assassination of Thomas Noel Sankara was sorrowful for me. It was and still is painful to me.

And I cried!

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

~ John Donne, Meditation XVII

*Remi Oyeyemi, journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from the United States

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