The upright man: 10 lessons from Burkinabe leader Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara decreed that his portrait should not be displayed all over the country in official buildings as is the norm in Africa. He saw no need to develop a cult of personality around him. Despite his high station he identified with commoners. He was secure enough in his position to be humble.

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(FILES) A file picture taken on February 7, 1986 shows Captain Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, giving a press conference in Paris. An autopsy on the supposed remains of Burkina Faso's iconic ex-president Thomas Sankara, who was killed in a 1987 coup, showed he was 'riddled with bullets", a lawyer for his family said October 13, 2015. Lawyer Ambroise Farama emphasised she was still waiting for the results of DNA tests to confirm the body was that of the revolutionary former army captain but said "there is every reason to believe" the remains exhumed from a cemetery in the capital Ouagadougou in May were his. AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GEORGE

Where did all the genuine African revolutionaries go? They were either assassinated; Patrice Lumumba, Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko, John Garang, Muammar Gadaffi  or fell under siege from their own legacies- Kwame Nkrumah.

It has been decades since we saw a visionary leader who inspired the Pan African idealism of the revolutionary 60s.

Look around. Africa is facing a leadership crisis. From South Africa to Egypt, Kenya to Senegal, there is a clear sense of ‘we deserve better’. As African men, stifling under the stereotype of rogue males in power, there are not many examples around to deliver a much needed inspirational leadership wake up call. The only standard for leadership presently is wealth and influence. Simple men with solid characters, sincere intentions and grand visions are consigned to the pages of African history.

Therefore, it is with deep nostalgia that I remember an iconic African revolutionary, a pragmatic visionary and an upright man, Thomas Isidore Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso. It is 31 years, since his brutal assassination on October 15 1987. As far as African leadership goes, Thomas Sankara was cut from a different piece of cloth.

In his short life, the charismatic military leader set about creating an enduring legacy for conscious African citizens that is more relevant today than ever before. Progressive forces fighting economic domination and ideological slavery of Africa can draw inspiration from Sankara’s life journey.

Sankara came to power on August 4th 1983 through a popular revolution at the age of 33. In the four years that ensured, he embarked on a revolutionary paradigm shift, bringing real power down to the people, advocating for policies on African self-reliance, food security, gender parity and the dismantling of the neo-colonial development structure that continues to render African states beholden to foreign masters for survival.

His solidarity and sincere commitment to the plight of all suffering people, irrespective of their location in the world is why Sankara is fondly referred to as Africa’s “Che Gueverra”. The Burkinabe revolution remains a relevant ideological model in Africa for raising mass consciousness and battling poverty.

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Thomas Sankara is hailed as arguably Africa’s greatest leader of all time. PHOTO/COURTESY

1.   Acknowledge your roots and find yourself

When Sankara came to power he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, “The land of Upright Men”. He stressed Burkinabe culture and pride. During a famous OAU assembly address, in Addis Ababa , July 1987 he made a powerful statement on African self reliance by proudly showing off his traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen.

Until one acknowledges their roots, there can be no true understanding of who they are.

Identity is a nagging issue for many African men. Who am I? Where do I belong? Many of us are disconnected from the ethnic origins and cultures of our parents and view ethnic pride as retrogressive.

We oscillate between the notion of modern liberal men touting grafted western principles and the old cherished ideals of African manhood as organized by our patriarchal structures.

So class identity is often used to fill the gap of tribal disconnect and patriotism is reduced to a slogan. Only by looking deeply into our past and understanding our history, can we evolve new insight to help define ourselves.

2.   Life is fleeting, stop procrastinating

Sankara was one of Africa’s youngest leaders at only 33 years old when he seized power in a popular coup. In four years his contribution to African consciousness was enormous.

He was assassinated at the age of 38 but by then he had lived like a man on borrowed time and the impact of his life still reverberates through out the world today.

We keep on waiting for outside forces to intervene in our personal circumstances yet the solutions to a large part our problems are within ourselves. We require tenacity to face failure and fear many times over because success is all about getting up one more time like a baby determined to walk.

For, if we do not take these calculated risks and stay focused, our lives will be very small.

3.   Frugality is not poverty, live within your means

Too many men try to keep pace with peer expectations. Manhood is defined by the value of our possessions and frugal living is associated with poverty. Our consumer culture has sanitized greed by creating a heightened sense of lack.

This thinking motivates unchecked consumption for the better part of our lives as willing prisoners of addiction or envy, never knowing the peace of mind that contentment offers.

Sankara was different. He did not amass wealth or create a cult of personality around him. His life was marked by frugality. At the time of his death he was earning a salary of KSh 45, 000 a month; he did not own much in terms of personal possessions.

The most prized item was a car and four motorbikes.

By Kenyan Member of Parliament standards, he was dirt broke but at the end of his life he continues to be remembered as a man of substance whose time on earth left millions enriched.

4.   Perseverance requires courage

It is easy to shout in a crowd. But to hold a different opinion that goes against the sanctioned grain takes courage. To stay true to your conviction until your vision comes to fruition requires perseverance.

Sankara’s achievements on the battle front and his personal charisma earned him the popular support required to become president of Burkina Faso. But he was soon to realize that not everyone wanted change.

The intellectual petty bourgeoisie had interests to protect in cahoots with foreign powers and they hit back but Sankara’s commitment to change rooted in solid personal values were unshakeable. In the end he paid for his values with his life but his legacy lived on.

In the same regard, in our different engagements of livelihood, it sometimes seems like no progress is made. Work becomes mechanical, distractions are frequent and our goals look unattainable.  That is the time to cultivate patience and remember perseverance as we work diligently towards our goals. The old African hunter said, “Don’t lose sight of the antelope when a squirrel darts across your path”.

Sankara Thomas

ThomasSankara at his prime. PHOTO/COURTESY

5.   When the trees go, man will follow soon after

Burkina Faso continues to be under threat from the advancing Sahara desert. During his tenure, Sankara introduced a reforestation initiative that saw 10 million trees planted.

His legacy survived and tree planting is now a Burkinabe custom in times of celebrations to commemorate birthdays, weddings and graduations.

Our natural environment is getting systematically destroyed to make room for the aspirations of modern life. As individuals we have to be a little more conscious of how our lives are entwined with the natural world and the consequences that will be visited upon the lives of our children in the near future as a direct result of our present day mindless mass destruction of trees and the natural environment.

6.   Women empowerment

Sankara understood women’s place in Africa’s empowerment long before gender activism came into vogue. He was not reactionary, and he understood that the disempowerment of women was linked to male economic dominance by other men who lashed out to compensate for their inadequacies.

He started a campaign to restore the dignity of women and return them to their rightful place in society. He studied the roots of patriarchal dominance, tracing it to the advent of private property where women were consigned to a man’s possessions.

During Sankara’s reign, several women were appointed to government positions and his most powerful gesture was the day of solidarity with women.

On that day, roles were reversed and men walked a day in women’s shoes, going to the market and taking care of household chores.

Too often men blame their state of emasculation on the advancement of women. Male disempowerment in Africa can be traced back to the slave trade and colonialism. The effects of centuries of degradation are real.

The disempowerment plays out as violence towards women and children, delinquent habits and recklessness. But with awareness, change is possible. African men must be more proactive in creating safer communities for women and children.

It starts with self examination to determine the triggers behind our insecurities and why we overreact when our position is threatened as the first step towards healing and self empowerment.

7.   To lead is to serve

Sankara’s was a perfect example of servant leadership. The symbols of opulence all but disappeared under his watch. His down-to-earth attitude was baffling. He got rid of the presidential fleet of Mercedes and opted for the boxy fuel efficient Renault 5.

He refused to use the air conditioning in his office because he did not feel he earned the privilege. These small gestures were necessary for fiscal discipline. Burkina Faso was one of Africa’s poorest nations and he understood the injustice of the one percent living off the fat of the land while the great masses wallowed in poverty.

Sankara’s brand of leadership was about elevating the collective through organizing and example which he used as a reflection of his individual worth.

I read somewhere that leadership is the ability to motivate and inspire others to take positive and sustainable action. This principle is not pegged to the number of followers. It can just as easily apply to a household or a relationship.

The underlying objective is not merely to lead but how well we lead that counts. At the most basic level, a true leader must live by example. All talk and no action won’t cut it.

8. Don’t believe the hype

Thomas Sankara decreed that his portrait should not be displayed all over the country in official buildings as is the norm in Africa. He saw no need to develop a cult of personality around him.

Despite his high station he identified with commoners. He was secure enough in his position to be humble.

Success can be overwhelming. It takes a steady hand to ride the waves without sinking into the depths of self delusion. No matter how great the accomplishment, one must not get too attached to the noise it generates.

Sooner or later, the hype will pass and it is important to remember the man you were before success came knocking.

9.   Cultivate your personal style

Sankara’s style was pragmatic. He preferred tailored military fatigues drawing inspiration from Fidel Castro and like Che’ he wore a beret. He loved motorcycles and dressed appropriately for the bike.

He promoted Burkinabe tradition as an expression of belonging.

Style essentially is about knowing who you are and how to express your individuality. It is also about comfort in your own skin. Fashion fades. Do not be a slave to trends or you will end with suitcases of clothes you detest.

10. Fitness is for life

Sankara’s commitment to personal fitness was total. He was regularly seen jogging unaccompanied in the streets of Ouagadougou so it’s no surprise that he was never overweight. He initiated fitness programs around the country and always seemed energized.

These days as soon as man makes a little money, it is reflected on his waistline. The more prosperous one gets, the bigger the belly grows. By the time fortune descends, he will have arrived at full term pregnancy.

Physical fitness is not a priority and all about vanity with the advent of surgical short cuts. But an unhealthy lifestyle is expensive because medical cover is not getting cheaper. 

Most of ailments plaguing society are attributed to careless lifestyle choices and are preventable.  The human body was not designed to be sedentary, so get off your butt and make exercise a regular activity.

Kurunzi news - Sankara
PHOTO/COURTESY

Inspiring Thomas Sankara quotes

“I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity.”
“We have to make every effort to see that our actions live up to our words and be vigilant in regards to our behavior”.
“He who does not feed you can demand nothing of you”.
“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”.
“Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women”.
“Women’s fate is bound up with that of an exploited male. However, this solidarity must not blind us in looking at the specific situation faced by womenfolk in our society. It is true that the woman worker and simple man are exploited economically, but the worker wife is also condemned further to silence by her worker husband. This is the same method used by men to dominate other men! The idea was crafted that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by ‘divine rights’, were superior to others”.

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