Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man (A documentary)

Jessica Ling

Upon being met by a group of armed men in his own office on October 15, 1987, Thomas Sankara raised his arms in surrender.

He died that same day. Official government reports from 1987 state that Sankara had passed away from natural causes, but an autopsy performed in 2015 following the exhumation of his unmarked grave tells a different tale. His body was found dismembered, with bullet wounds littering his flesh from his head to his feet to his armpits, which only could have been shot with his hands raised high. These injuries reveal the unsurprising truth: Sankara was brutally murdered, and his brief rule of Burkina Faso was quickly overturned by those who opposed his radically progressive policies.

Today, Thomas Sankara is hailed as an icon of liberation from the chains of oppressive imperialist regimes. When he came into power in 1983, he immediately embarked upon an ambitious process of social reform, working to repair the damage that 70 years of French imperialism and 20 following years of military occupation had done.

Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man is a documentary by Robin Shuffield that describes his rise to power and his short-lived rule. In it, the viewer learns about what makes his time in office so memorable: his mobilization of women, the working class, and the poor; his emphasis on the empowerment of local businesses and his goal of economic self-reliance; his determined push for national literacy and the reformation of education.

The last speech Thomas Sankara gave before his murder was delivered on October 8, 1987, exactly 20 years after Che Guevara had been killed. Sankara spoke in honor of Guevara’s life and legacy, citing their unity of mission and the struggles they shared. Poignantly, he declared that “… Che Guevara is not dead. Because throughout the world there are centers of struggle where people strive for more freedom, more dignity, more justice, and more happiness. Throughout the world, people are fighting against oppression and domination; against colonialism; neocolonialism and imperialism; and against class exploitation … you cannot kill ideas. Ideas do not die. That’s why Che Guevara, and embodiment of revolutionary ideas and self-sacrifice, is not dead.”

In this way, Thomas Sankara is not dead: he lives on in the continuance of his ideologies and in the perseverance of those who are struggling against their oppressors. And on this October 15, we aim to honor that living legacy.

A starter bibliography is included below:
Documentary: Thomas Sankara: the Upright Man by Robin Shuffield



Academic Articles:

  • Brittain, Victoria. "Introduction to Sankara & Burkina Faso." Review of African Political Economy 32 (1985): 39-47. Web.
  • Martin, Guy. "Ideology and Praxis in Thomas Sankara's Populist Revolution of 4 August 1983 in Burkina Faso." Issue: A Journal of Opinion 15 (1987): 77-90. Web.
  • Skinner, Elliott P. "Sankara and the Burkinabe Revolution: Charisma and Power, Local and External Dimensions." The Journal of Modern African Studies 26.3 (1988): 437-55. Web.
  • Wilkins, Michael. "The Death of Thomas Sankara and the Rectification of the People's Revolution in Burkina Faso." African Affairs 88.352 (1989): 375-88. Web.

Jessica Ling is an editorial intern at Warscapes.