Thomas Sankara: Death of an incorruptible man

A tribute to one of Africa's most promising leaders, murdered in October last year.

Burkina Faso's gold medal for the biggest drop in infant mortality would have been joined by a medal for its commitment to the poor if news had not arrived in October of the coup d'état and the murder of its president, Thomas Sankara. Since this issue is in the business of awarding prizes, Sankara deserves a special posthumous award for his achievements over the last four years. He was one of the most creative and radical leaders that modern Africa has produced.

Sankara himself came to power by military coup in November 1983 and immediately made a dramatic impression. On the first anniversary of what he called the revolution he announced that the name of the country was to change from the old French colonial name, Upper Volta, to one drawn from two tribal languages and symbolic of a hopeful new start; Burkina Faso, the 'Land of the Incorruptible'.

But Sankara's Revolution was not just rhetoric; from the outlet it pushed through sweeping and challenging changes. One of African leaders' perennial mistakes is the tendency to favour urban élites at the expense of rural farming people who make up the majority of the population. This means, for example, that governments are reluctant to raise the price of food for fear of incurring the wrath of the townspeople. By contrast one of Sankara's first moves was to boost - by 25% - the price the Government paid to farmers for millet (the main subsistence crop). This encouraged them to grow as much of it as they could in order to sell the surplus - rather than just growing enough for themselves and using the rest of their land for cotton or another cash crop. He also increased the proportion of the national budget spent on agriculture from 2 per cent to an astonishing 40 per cent almost at a stroke.

But the Revolution also altered the structure of society. Sankara believed that ordinary people had to gain more control over their lives, so local councils, called Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), were set up as a new tier of local government. These had wide-ranging powers and responsibilities; from arbitrating in all disputes over land in the villages to making recommendations for the new Five-Year National Plan for Development. All CDRs were directly elected, the only restriction being that each had to have at least two women members, one of whom had to be either leader or deputy leader (a more radical policy than any western democracy had yet to come up with) to increase female representation on elected bodies.

I spent a month in a remote village in Burkina Faso in the summer of 1985, which gave me the chance to see how Sankara's Government was regarded by ordinary rural people. In the past government had come and gone in the capital Ougadougou without having much tangible effect on the life of the village. But this one had created a stir. Young people in particular were very hopeful about 'the Revolution': they seemed inspired with the desire to learn, both about how they could help develop their country and about how Burkina was hampered by distant international forces.

Sankara himself was popular. Ironically this was in part because he actively discouraged any cult of his personality. It is commonplace for national leaders to distribute their own photograph far and wide so that it hangs in every public place - and many private ones too. Sankara, by contrast, let it be known that he did not want his picture hung anywhere, that the Revolution was not his, but the people's. 'There are a million Thomas Sankaras' he said. This refreshing sense of personal integrity extended to other areas too. He refused, for instance, to use air-conditioning in the Presidential Office on the grounds that ordinary Burkinabes could not afford such luxury and he did not want to lose touch with them.

Early reports indicated that the coup would be welcomed in Paris, the former colonial capital. The new leader, Captain Blaise Compaoré, a boyhood friend of Sankara, is expected to follow policies that suit French interests more. Unfortunately France's interests - in free-market trading policies and pro-Western military leanings - do not coincide with those of ordinary Burkinabes.

Sankara will be mourned by the Organization for African Unity, which respected his dynamism and imagination, and by development activists the world over. Though I never met him, I felt a sense of personal loss when I heard about his death at the age of just 37: I felt that Africa had lost an inspiring example and Burkina Faso a golden opportunity.

Chris Brazier