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An army captain who seized power in the West African state of Upper Volta, instituted an idealistic revolution, changed the country's name to Burkina Faso, and was betrayed and killed by one of his closest allies.

Born in 1949, Captain Sankara was imprisoned under the government of Saye Zerbo, in which he had been secretary of state for information and then (from January to May 1983) prime minister. The army staged a coup in Ouagadougou on 4 August 1983 and freed Sankara, who declared himself chairperson of the National Revolutionary Council. On the first anniversary of his accession he changed the colonial name of the country to Burkina Faso and brought in a new flag. He was a radical and inspiring figure for young revolutionary groups across Africa.

On 15 October 1987 his faithful lieutenant and friend Blaise Compaoré took part in a coup in which Thomas Sankara was killed.

< Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo - Burkina Faso - Blaise Compaoré >

Alice Walker writes very highly of Burkina Faso's late president Thomas Sankara in her book Warrior Marks, calling him "a brave, compassionate, and brilliant leader, in the style of Patrice Lumumba" and comparing him to famous assasinated U.S. civil rights leaders and activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She notes that the Marxist Lumumba was especially radical in his attitudes towards women: "Before his death, he made one of the strongest statements against female genital mutilation of any African leader."

One of Walker's journal entries in Warrior Marks describes the political atmosphere surrounding a 1993 west African film festival showing of a documentary about the life and death of Thomas Sankara:

The day it showed, the theater was surrounded by soldiers. The place was packed. There was an announcement that the film had not arrived. People were unhappy to hear this. Eventually, after two films about the unfamiliar courting customs of a Berber tribe in a remote corner of northern Algeria, it was shown. The filmmaker did his best, but the final words of the film are those of the present president, Sankara's alleged murderer, and the assasination is not dealt with at all. It was still wonderful to see Thomas Sankara, so vibrant and confident, and his mother and father and wife. And to hear his voice, fearless and strong. And well-educated. What would happen if every well-educated person put his or her skills to the service of all? When you lose someone like Sankara, as when Egypt loses someone like Nawal El Sadaawi, or we lose Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, or Bolivia (and Argentina) loses Che, or Grenada loses Maurice Bishop, or Mozambique loses Samora Machel, it sets the country and the people back a hundred years, if not more. But only if the people agree to be set back. Maybe we should learn to accept the deaths of our beloved leaders as an opportunity to develop our own self-leadership qualities.

Warrior Marks, pp. 77-81

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