Boniface Mwangi

When I landed in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, last week, the first thing I saw at the airport was a passenger bribing a Customs official.

Ouagadougou airport looked like a village bus stop. Driving into the city, the level of poverty l saw all around shocked me. Yet 30 years ago, this country was a beacon of hope for all of Africa.

In 1983, Captain Thomas Sankara became the president of Burkina Faso at the age of 33. His first order of business was to eliminate corruption and foreign domination.

He embarked on some of the most ambitious programmes ever implemented on the continent, including vaccinating 2.5 million children and increasing literacy from 13 per to 73 per within five years.

He ordered that civil servants should not use air-conditioners in their offices to save money. If you have ever been to Burkina Faso, you’ll know that the weather is extremely hot and being in a room without an air-conditioner feels like you’re being roasted alive.

But Sankara, held the view that civil servants shouldn’t enjoy air-conditioned offices while wananchi suffer in the heat.  

During his presidency, ten million trees were planted, and roads and railways built without any foreign aid. He was a feminist before it became a cool word and he outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy in support of women’s rights.

He sold off luxurious government Mercedes cars and made the cheapest car available in the market, a Renault 5, the official car for all government officers. He also carried out fair land distribution to Burkinabes.

To promote the local clothing industries, he ordered that civil servants should wear locally made clothes. He took a pay cut, reduced salaries of all civil servants and banned them from flying first-class.

He went to the African Union and denounced foreign interference, uttering these famous words, “He who feeds you, controls you.” He did many revolutionary things and transformed Burkina Faso in just five years.

As a motorcyclist, himself, he helped popularize the use of motorbikes and bicycles and, today in Burkina Faso, there are more bikes and motorcycles than cars.

They have dedicated lanes in Ouagadougou for bicycles and motorbikes. Sadly, that’s the only part of Sankara’s legacy that remains.

His pro-people approach wasn’t approved by everyone and, on October 15, 1987, he was killed by his close friend, Blaise Compaoré, in a bloody coup. Sankara’s presidency made the wealthy elite, who were benefitting at the expense of the poor, very uncomfortable and they, together with their colonial masters, ensured that Sankara was eliminated.

So, Burkina Faso is in worse shape today than when Sankara was alive. Compaoré was President for 27 years and he worked to undo everything that Sankara had done.

Today, Africa is governed from Europe and China. That’s where our leaders shop for loans.  We consume what we don’t produce. Our decisions aren’t made in Africa because as Sankara memorably said, he who feeds you controls you.

After 27years of bad leadership, President Compaore tried to amend the constitution, in 2014, to extend his time in power. The corrupt MPs sided with the president, but thousands of Burkinabe stormed their Parliament and burnt it down.  In October 2014, Compaore resigned and fled Burkina Faso.

Today, their new president Roch Marc Christian Kabore is trying to reclaim the dream Sankara had for Burkina Faso, but its 30 years too late. The effects of bad leadership are felt for generations.

Sankara said, “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” But our greatest tragedy as a nation is that our politicians are only fascinated with wealth because they are incapable of toying with an idea.

— The writer is an award winning photojournalist and human rights activist