Thomas Sankara, known by many as “Africa’s Che Guevara”, was born December 21, 1949 in what was then known as Upper Volta. His family’s wish was for him to become a priest, but he became a soldier instead. Sankara began his military career at the age of 19 in 1966, going afterwards to Madagascar and coming into contact for the first time with radical students, who introduced him to the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He returned to Upper Volta and became a war hero, fighting in the “stupid and useless” border war with Mali by 1974. By the 1980s, Sankara had cut his teeth in government administration as well, serving as Secretary of State for Information under the military government and in a myriad of other positions.
Sankara became President of Upper Volta (which he renamed Burkina Faso, which means “land of upright men”) after a revolution on August 4, 1983. He was 33 years old. His administration immediately began carrying out revolution, expanding rights for women, developing self-sufficiency in agriculture, launching a mass vaccination program, and a great number of other measures that concretely improved the lives of the Burkinabé masses. He also cultivated a disciplined lifestyle, selling the lavish fleet of government cars, refusing to use air conditioning in the summer, calling it a frivolous luxury, forbade the use of chauffeurs and first class airline tickets, and limited his possessions to a few guitars, a refrigerator, a freezer, a few bikes, his uniforms, and a cheap car. His salary was $450 per month.
Sankara was assassinated by enemies of the revolution and the Burkinabé masses in 1987, leaving a grieving nation and a traitor dictator named Blaise Compaoré in the Presidential palace.