Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man is a 2006 documentary film about Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso. Sankara was known as “the African Che”, and became famous in Africa due to his innovative ideas, his devastating humor, his spirit and his altruism. With a gun in one hand and Karl Marx’s works in the other, Sankara became president at the age of 34 and served from 1983 to 1987. He immediately set out to shake the foundations of the country that he renamed from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, “Land of Upright Men.” More than a classic biography, this film sheds light on the impact that this man and his politic made on Burkina Faso and Africa in general.
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As Africa looks desperately for leaders of integrity and vision, the life and ideals of the late Thomas Sankara seem more and more relevant and exemplary with the passage of time. This new film should go a long way towards explaining why, though largely forgotten in this country, Sankara is still venerated on his own continent as the ‘African Che,’ a legendary martyr like Patrice Lumumba or Amilcar Cabral. The film recovers for the present a detailed history of Sankara’s brief four-year rule and his revolutionary program for African self-reliance as a defiant alternative to the neo-liberal development strategies imposed on Africa by the West, both then and today.
Sankara, a charismatic army captain, came to power in Burkina Faso, in 1983, in a popularly supported coup. He immediately launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this rebirth, he even renamed his country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, ‘Land of Upright Men.’ As soon as he took office, he reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and 1st class airline tickets. Like many revolutionary leaders, he banned unions, a free press, anything which might stand in the way of his plans for the immediate and radical transformation of society.
He was one of the first to recognize that key to the development of Burkina Faso and Africa was improving the status of women. He was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to recruit them actively for the military. He outlawed forced marriages and encouraged women to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant. He launched a nation-wide public health campaign vaccinating over 2 ½ million people in a week, a world record. He was also one of the first African environmentalists, planting over 10 million trees to retain soil and halt the growing desertification of the Sahel. He promoted local cotton production and even required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen. He redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it directly to the peasants. Wheat production rose in just three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the country food self-sufficient. He started an ambitious road and rail building program to tie the nation together, eschewing any foreign aid by relying on his country’s greatest resource, the energy and commitment of its own people.
Sankara’s experiment attracted intense interest far beyond Burkina Faso, posing a serious threat to the status quo, especially to France’s continued dominance of its former West African colonies and to the corrupt regimes ruling these client states. Sankara spoke eloquently and unflinching in forums like the Organization of African Unity against continued neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. He opposed foreign aid, saying that ‘he who feeds you, controls you.’ Decades before talk of cancellation of Africa’s debt became acceptable in world banking circles, Sankara called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.
While celebrating Sankara’s achievements, this film does not ignore his tragic flaws. By 1986 Sankara’s rapid, sometimes authoritarian changes had begun to alienate larger sectors of the Burkinabe population, leaving him more isolated, even from elements in his own ruling circle. Like revolutionaries as far back as the French Revolution, Sankara was so committed to achieving his ideals, he was unwilling to give them enough time to ripen in his people. As one close friend observes, ‘Sankara was an impatient man,’ driven by the desperation of his people. As opposition mounted, Sankara attempted to repress it. He established Peoples Revolutionary Tribunals in towns and workplaces around the country where people were tried without counsel for being corrupt officials, counter-revolutionaries or just lazy workers, based not on credible evidence just private grudges. He also encouraged the formation of Revolutionary Defense Committees, gangs of armed youth who terrorized ordinary citizens. When the nation’s school teachers went on strike, Sankara dismissed all of them, leaving the education system, his country’s greatest hope for progress, a shambles.
By the beginning of 1987, Sankara’s position had become more precarious. He was warned to take action but fatalistically refused on the grounds that he needed to remain true to the ideals of his revolution. He noted prophetically that Che Guevara had been executed when he was 39 as well. Clandestinely, elements in the Burkinabe leadership forged relationships with Côte d’Ivoire president Félix Houphoet-Boigny, France’s staunchest ally and an outspoken opponent of Sankara’s increasingly influential attacks on neo-colonialism. On October 15th during a staff meeting, a gang of armed military, either led or ordered by Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s closest friend and most trusted comrade throughout the revolution, assassinated him. His body was dismembered, buried in a make-shift grave and any mention of him was erased from public view. Twenty years later, Blaise Compaoré remains dictator of Burkina Faso; he has become immensely wealthy and is France’s most reliable proxy in the region.
During the current, almost unopposed wave of globalization, Sankara’s brief revolution offers an alternative or at least the possibility of another route for African development based on autonomy and local self-reliance. Despite his excesses, Sankara’s unimpeachable personal integrity, his clear, innovative ideas and tireless dedication to his people set a standard for the leadership Africa deserves and craves. This film is the perfect vehicle for passing on Sankara’s legacy, both as one of the most exceptional figures in the history of African liberation and a true visionary for Africa’s future.