THE BLOG
11/06/2014 03:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sankara Ghost Hangs Over Burkina Faso Turmoil

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Only seven world leaders held office longer than Burkina Faso's president Blaise Compaoré before his ouster late last week, following chaotic protests in the capital city of Ouagadougou, when protesters set the parliament on fire before the Burkinabé military, in the person of Isaac Zida, asserted control of the country.

For the entirety of Compaoré's 27-year rule in the Sahelian country, the specter of his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, hung over his reign -- the equatorial Banquo to Compaoré's Macbeth. Now, with an uncertain future, Sankara's ghost looms even stronger for a country that could face years of coups and countercoups.

Sankara took power, like every single one of his predecessors, in a coup. He did so, in 1983, with Compaoré's help, and with the charisma of a post-independence African 'Che' Guevara, promising to bring an honest and socialist government to his country, which he renamed 'Burkina Faso,' or 'the land of the honest people,' instead of the more colonial Upper Volta ('Haute-Volta').

Though Sankara was hardly democratic, he enjoyed a groundswell of genuine support, and his brutal assassination just four years later (for which most analysts blame Compaoré) ended a burst of dynamic governance through which Sankara attempted nothing less than a renaissance for Burkina Faso. With mixed roots among both the Mossi and Fulani ethnic groups, Sankara personified the two dominant peoples that comprise a majority of Burkina Faso's population.

In addition to giving the country a new name and a new national anthem (Sankara, a guitar player, wrote it himself), he turned to an ambitious program of social welfare initiatives. He vaccinated the country's children against diseases like yellow fever, started a national literacy campaign, took steps to reverse desertification through 'green' policies, redistributed land for greater crop production and, in a nod to women's rights, outlawed female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages, problems that still plague many sub-Saharan Africa countries today. He was also the first African leader to recognize publicly the health threat that HIV/AIDS could cause. Two decades later, by contrast, South African president Thabo Mbeki was still denying the scientific link between HIV and AIDS.

Known for his personal integrity, he sold the government's fleet of Mercedes and replaced them with much-cheaper Renaults. He opposed foreign aid, but simultaneously demanded debt forgiveness from France and other Western countries.

To be fair, Sankara was no saint.

He was certainly a dictator with roots in the Burkinabè military, he centralized power in the hands of his national government and increasingly restricted political expression and other freedoms. There's every indication that his radical leftist economic policies might have eventually collapsed Burkina Faso's economy.

When Compaoré succeeded Sankara, he reversed course on many of his former colleague's economic and social policies, plodding a more conventional path of orthodox economic policy, with plenty of authoritarianism and corruption along the way.

No one knows, of course, whether Sankara's government would have taken Burkina Faso to the same place it finds itself today. But Compaoré ruled Burkina Faso for nearly seven times as long as Sankara's four-year regime. In death, Sankara has become a figure of even greater proportions. As anger slowly mounted throughout 2014 in opposition to Compaoré's latest attempt to prolong his hold on power, he only suffered more from the Sankara myth.

The most populous country in the Sahel, with 17.3 million people, Burkina Faso also has the largest economy in the Sahel. But that's not as impressive as it sounds -- its GDP per capita of around $700 puts it behind many African countries.

Now that Burkina Faso rids itself of Compaoré, there's no guarantee that his successor will necessarily be as strong as Sankara -- or even Compaoré. But the next leader of Burkina Faso will still face the burden of comparison to the myth (and not the man) of Sankara.

That means that as Ouagadougou burns, the rest of the world will worry that Burkina Faso could become a magnet for Islamic jihadists. Though the country has a larger Christian population than neighboring Mali, around 60 percent of Burkina Faso's citizens practice Islam.

That means that, barely a year after French forces helped end a jihadist occupation of northern Mali, Burkina Faso could quickly become the next domino to fall to radical forces in the region, notwithstanding the 3,000 French soldiers deployed to the Sahel earlier this summer as part of 'Operation Barkhane.'