For those who are familiar with it, the life of Thomas Sankara has a certain Shakespearean quality. He was a genuine and dynamic leader who came to power on a continent that’s mostly known for kleptocrats and entrenched dictators. Sankara set ambitious goals to reduce poverty in Burkina Faso and championed women’s rights. He fought against corruption and stood up to the old colonial power. Ultimately though, he was betrayed and murdered by his close friend, Blaise Compaoré. And as president, Compaoré went on to become the very antithesis of his predecessor – a corrupt tyrant winning rigged elections year after year in a country mired in poverty.
But decades after his death, people continue to remember Thomas Sankara, while other leaders have become little more than a footnote. Today, he’s known as the African Che Guevara and the man who turned Upper Volta into Burkina Faso. While his death in 1987 might seem like ancient history to Americans, Blaise Compaoré was only overthrown in late 2014 as rioters burned down parliament to prevent him from extending his presidency any further. In the aftermath, there’s renewed interest in Sankara’s legacy and today I’m speaking with Sankara biographer, Ernest Harsch. Harsch is a Columbia University professor and formerly a journalist in Africa during Sankara’s rule. His recent book, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, is an engaging and approachable portrait of this historical figure. It also happens to be the first-ever English language biography of the man.
David Newstead: You actually knew Thomas Sankara in the 1980s, how would you describe his personality and his behavior towards others?
Ernest Harsch: Well, I observed him both directly face-to-face and at public events. How he spoke to crowds and with colleagues. I first met him in 1984 when he came to the U.S. to speak in front of the United Nations. Immediately, you could tell he was kind of different. Very direct. Very frank. Not liking the general pomp that came with the office. That he was interested in ideas. He’d think for a while, then respond to your questions. In terms of public events, he really knew how to talk to people. He was great orator. He loved to joke. He often played with the French language and coined new terms. And often puns. So, he had a sense of humor. In Burkina Faso, you’d see him riding around the capital on a bicycle or walking around on foot without an entourage. Talking to some of his aides, he was not an easy person to work for. He really pushed people. There was this sense of urgency concerning health, education, the efficiency of the state apparatus. He insisted on people making decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions. He came across as someone who was genuinely committed to the development of his people. He wasn’t in it either for the glory or for the money. Definitely not the money. After he became president, his children stayed in the public schools. His parents stayed in their old house. And his wife kept her job as an accountant. He turned away relatives who showed up asking for patronage jobs. And that was so untypical around Africa. One of the lasting images of him was his incorruptibility and he insisted on fighting corruption. And that may have been one of the factors that fed into the coup against him.
David Newstead: In your view, what was his greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a leader?
Ernest Harsch: He had great self-confidence, not blindly so. He felt strongly that if you believed in an idea that it was possible. In his case, building up a nation basically from scratch. He had confidence in himself, in those around him, and in ordinary people. He brought a certain energy. One weakness I think is the same thing. He had a lot of faith in ordinary people, but that couldn’t overcome the weakness of the political circles in Burkina Faso. A lot of ordinary young people admired him and the work of the revolution. But when he was killed, most of that collapsed. And Compaoré took over. But many felt Sankara was not just the father of the revolution, but also the father of Burkina Faso.
David Newstead: Did you also have any interactions with Blaise Compaoré at the time? And if so, what were your impressions of him?
Ernest Harsch: Uh, no. There were occasions I might have, but it just didn’t work out. I was invited to interview him after Sankara was killed. I turned it down. Probably, I was too upset by the coup. Let other journalists do that. Maybe I spoke with him in large press settings, but not one-on-one. Compaoré became very close to conservative elites in Burkina Faso and around the region as well as some really unsavory people: Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Charles Taylor in Liberia. Compaoré went back to the old way with him as supreme patron, ruling by dispensing favors. So, a lot of corruption. And when corruption didn’t work, there was the heavy hand of repression like with the death of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. By 2014, the only way to keep Compaoré in power would have been a major bloodbath.
David Newstead: In the book, you detail Sankara’s death in 1987 along with 12 of his staff members. They were shot to death, except for one man who managed to survive his wounds and provide an eyewitness account. In May of this year, their bodies were finally exhumed after 27 years as part of an on-going investigation. What are your feelings on this effort and what do you think authorities might discover?
Ernest Harsch: This is the first real movement to finally come to grips with Sankara’s assassination. The new transitional government promised to open judicial investigations into the death of Norbert Zongo and Thomas Sankara. Older Zongo investigations had been stalled in the past, but there had never been an investigation into Sankara’s death for obvious reasons. So, a military judge has been assigned to the case and this can be extremely politically explosive. In 1987, some people bragged after the coup that they killed him. Some of those people are dead now. Some are still alive. General Gilbert Diendéré is the most notable person. He’s still very powerful and very dangerous. The investigation could point towards him as well as other officials. And there’s so much sentiment to get at the truth now. Hundreds of people came to the scene, while the bodies were being exhumed. People want to know the truth. What happened? Who ordered it? Many think there’s a chance of charges being brought against Blaise Compaoré himself. And it’s been discussed in the UN Human Rights Committee. A case needs to be brought, because this is a wider issue than just for Burkina Faso. What happens with this case matters for other cases. For those killed or unjustly imprisoned like with Zongo and many others. Whether this goes far before the elections in October 2015, we don’t know. It could be a very good instance of coming to terms with the ghosts of the past. For the last quarter century, the truth has either been ignored or buried and people want answers.
David Newstead: I just want to clarify something. Recently, I saw an interview with Sankara’s younger brother, Paul. He said that the cause of death was listed on official documents in 1987 as “natural causes“. Is that actually true?
Ernest Harsch: Yeah, I saw that at the time. That’s part of the reason exhuming the bodies is important. Identify whose remains are in which grave, because the families want to know. And the other thing is to examine how they actually died.
David Newstead: Yeah. But hypothetically even if Sankara had died from natural causes, I’m not quite sure how the 12 people around him would have spontaneously died from natural causes as well. How does the former colonial power, France, fit into all this?
Ernest Harsch: There’s been a request of opening up the French security archives to see if there’s any documentary evidence of French involvement in the 1987 coup. That’s one thing the French could do. But right as Compaoré was fleeing the country last year, President Hollande openly admitted that they sent in French Special Forces to assist in his departure. If Burkina Faso ever requests his extradition that should be taken seriously. France pledged support to the transitional government, but I would say the French government doesn’t seem too keen about doing mea culpa’s.
David Newstead: You know, there have been a lot of African leaders over the years. Why do you think people should care who Thomas Sankara was?
Ernest Harsch: Partly, because it’s a rare instance of a leader who had a real rapport with his people, who was genuinely interested in improving their conditions, and at least trying to organize ordinary people to improve their conditions. Here we’re in an era where most African leaders go through elections – however genuine they are. But it’s still all too often that an African leader is in power either for his own benefit or that for his family or party or a particular ethnic group. So, Sankara is really an example that something can be done, even in one of the poorest countries in the world.
David Newstead: Ultimately, how do you think Sankara’s legacy will compare to leaders like Blaise Compaoré?
Ernest Harsch: It’s already starkly different. I read the Burkinabé press daily. Sankara is seen as a hero. A variety of political parties rally behind him. So, Sankara’s legacy is there. Compaoré didn’t really leave much of a legacy. That wasn’t really the kind of presidency he had unless you count foreign bank accounts. Maybe there were some donor investments and some improvements in the capital. But when Sankara was killed, he was mourned across Africa. Some countries lowered their flags to half-mast. I don’t see anybody having any regrets of Compaoré’s departure. Also, Sankara was certainly ahead of his time among African leaders in terms of promoting women’s rights and putting it on the agenda, trying to tackle difficult social development issues. And he promoted women into the cabinet, which was quite unusual in African countries at the time. Important posts, too. One of his ministers is the Justice Minister in Burkina Faso today in the transitional government. And he was a male leader who really took seriously women’s rights as best you could in a country like that at the time.
David Newstead: Now that the biography is done, what’s your next project?
Ernest Harsch: I’m writing sort of a political history for Burkina Faso through the colonial era up to the election in October 2015. I’m also working on a piece about the bodies being exhumed now.
David Newstead: Important, but very fluid developments to keep an eye on as the elections approach.