Tribute to Captain Thomas Sankara


Bolaji Akinyemi

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
[Even] the worm has been granted sensuality,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, as His heavenly bodies fly
On their courses through the heavens,
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.
-Friedrich Schiller, Ode to Joy, 3rd verse and chorus
This is odd. Quite oxymoronic. Ode to Joy as tribute to a fallen young hero? Should this not be appropriately titled Lamentations?:
“How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!” (2 Samuel 1: 25-27)

The ancient Greeks resolved this conundrum when Perseus answered boldly: “Better to die in the flower of youth, on the chance of winning a noble name, than to live at ease like the sheep, and die unloved and unrenowned.” (Charles Kingsley: HEROES).

My own people, the Yoruba, have a similar attitude when they say: “O san k’a ku ni kekere, ju k’a d’agba, k’a d’a rugbo k’a ma ri adiye irana,” (Better to die young and be celebrated than to die at a grand old age and lack recognition). Remember Lt. Colonel Francis Fajuyi.

Yes, Captain Sankara died at the age of 38 on October 15, 1987. And yet in a book called NATIONALISTE published in October 2012 by Livres Groupe, Thomas Sankara is included, along with Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba while the names of presidents for life and other pretenders are missing.

President Thomas Sankara still occupies a special place in my heart for three reasons. Firstly, he was the eureka spark for the Technical Aid Corps scheme. Secondly, he was indirectly responsible for my first and only meeting with the irrepressible and unforgettable Fela. Yes, the same Fela. Thirdly, he occupies the high table in my own pantheon of African Heroes alongside such figures as Kings of Ancient Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Patrice Lumumba, Amicar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Samora Machel, etc.

But, first, the beginning. I had planned to spend my first Christmas as a Minister with my family. Around 2am on December 24, my phone rang and it was from our Ambassador in a neighbouring country alerting me that there were rumours that a boundary war had broken out between Mali and Burkina-Faso. There was nothing I could do at that hour as we did not have, at that time, a situation room in Dodan Barracks to call. I thought I would brief President Babangida in the morning. At 7am the following morning, the security phone rang and President Babangida was at the end of the line wanting to know what I was still doing in Nigeria when my Libyan counterpart was already shuttling between Mali and Burkina Faso. I replied that I had not secured permission to travel (a playful cheeky reply). By the end of the day, we were airborne for a five day shuttle between Mali and Burkina-Faso. That would be the first time that I would meet Sankara. This is not the place for the full story of that mediation effort. But three takeaways from that trip. The first was the professionalism of our Air Force pilots. One day, we had done four or five roundtrips between both capitals and had planned to spend the night in Burkina Faso. But President Sankara made an offer, which I had to convey to General Moussa Traore that very night and bring back a reply to Captain Sankara. By this time, it was past midnight. I turned to the Air Force officers and asked if we had exceeded their daily flying hours. They replied, “Sir, just tell us where you want to go and we’ll fly you in there and put you on the ground.” We flew into Mali, the airport lights were switched on, we drove to the Presidential Palace where the President was waiting in full General’s combat dress. I delivered the message. He stared at me for some time and asked me for my views on the proposal. This was tricky because he could react to my interpretation rather than the message itself. But in discussion during the flight, my officers and I had thought of the possibility. So after a decent diplomatic hesitation to give the impression that I was thinking about it, I said I thought it was a win-win offer. He agreed but wanted an innocuous rephrasing of two sentences. He wanted a reply by 10am. I told him his airport was shut down for the night. He replied, “no, it is waiting for you to fly out.” I asked for an extension to 12noon for a reply. He agreed. He walked our delegation to the door and as he shook my hand, he bent over and whispered in English, with a heavily French accent, “No Victor, No vanquished”. Both of us burst out in peals of laughter to the consternation of our officers (his and mine) who did not know what he had whispered in my ears.

When we got to the airport, it was a perfect takeoff and a perfect landing at the other end. Close to 15 hours of going to and fro. What brilliant Air Force guys. The best and the brightest.

The second takeaway was hilarious. On one occasion, we got to the Burkina Faso airport for urgent takeoff only for us to be told that the airport was closed down and the runway lights switched off. On further prodding, we were told that they were expecting an august visitor whose identity they would not reveal. But we were told that we could take off after the arrival of the anonymous august visitor. And so we waited in the V.I.P. lounge, which is used for both arrival and departure of V.I.Ps. After a while, there was a flurry of activities and in marched Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings, President of Ghana, in his customary flight suit. I knew him and, of course, he recognised me but there was no exchange of formalities. Then we were allowed to take off. The irony in all of that episode was that if I had been allowed to take off when I was ready, I would not have been any wiser about the visit of Jerry Rawlings.

The third takeaway was my meeting with the Libyan Foreign Minister when I landed in Burkina Faso. He told me that he was under instruction to cooperate with me and that he wanted us to jointly sponsor the Nigerian proposal, which was what we did.

I bonded with President Sankara and I found him very simple, very direct and very appreciative of Nigerian leadership. Incidentally, President Houphouet-Boigny of Cote D’Ivoire shared the same view but wanted Nigeria to be more patient in its dealings with the Francophone African countries. He was so certain that France would withdraw from Africa as she faced increasing financial burden at home. More about this but not here and not now.

Sankara had a strategic vision of African unity that was devoid of egoism or parochialism. When IBB came in, in 1985, Nigeria was occupying the Chairmanship of ECOWAS. But the Francophone West African countries had practically lost interest in attending the ECOWAS summit. Therefore, one of the objectives of the 1986 planned summit was to reenergise their interest. On the advice of President Eyadema of Togo, we headed for Cote D’ivoire to consult President Houphouet-Boigny. He promised to attend in the company of all the Francophone West African leaders. But he laid down one condition. By rotation, President Thomas Sankara was due to be elected Chairman of ECOWAS at the 1986 summit. Houphouet-Boigny insisted that this would not be acceptable. Instead, he suggested that Nigeria should be prepared to accept a second term, and he would be prepared to sponsor such candidature. Under all circumstances, this was a diplomatic blow against Sankara. How would Sankara react? Would he decide to boycott the conference? Would his ally, President Rawlings, join in the boycott?

I was dispatched to smoothen things out with Sankara. He not only accepted with grace, he personally led a 27-man delegation to the Summit. Grace under pressure: the definition of a great man.

On another official visit to Burkina Faso, President Sankara pulled me aside and made a simple request. Would Nigeria please build a primary school and staff it with English teachers, because he believed that the future in Africa belonged to the English language and he wanted the Burkinabes to become bilingual. The cost of building the school was only N60,000.00. On returning home, I received approval for the aid. More importantly, it gave me the opportunity to get President Babangida to approve in principle the concept of technical assistance instead of financial aid. Even though we gave financial assistance on this occasion, President Sankara would have had no objection to sending a Nigerian contractor to execute the project with cement and other materials sourced from Nigeria. There was no Nigerian contractor interested in the contract at that sum. But the seed of the Technical Aid Corps scheme has been planted in my mind and more importantly, in President Babangida’s mind. And we have Thomas Sankara to thank for that.

The second debt I owe Thomas Sankara was my meeting with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. When Fela was released in 1986, I sent my Personal Assistant to him at the shrine, that I would come that night to congratulate him on his release. My P. A. came back and told me that Fela said I should not come because I would not like it (diplomatic language for “you won’t fit in”). Fela said that he knew my role in securing his release and he would call on me later. I thought he had forgotten about this.

Then one day, the unthinkable happened. Normally, the Ministry of External/Foreign Affairs is the royalty of the service. The Ministry is very quiet; officers carry themselves with regal postures and deliberate steps; and voices are never raised. Then one day, there was a positive commotion like the type one encounters in a sports stadium. There were cheers like rolling thunder. There was an uproar. Over the intercom, and with no attempt to hide the alarm in my voice, I asked my Secretary what was going on. She replied that Fela was coming to see me. I rushed to the corridor and there was Fela acknowledging the cheers like a gladiator with his two hands in the air. He was accompanied by the ever protective Beko Ransome-Kuti. Not even my presence dampened the acclamation.

Having welcomed him to my office, my Secretary came in to ask him what he would like to have. He looked round at the opulence of the office and waved her away. He said he was coming from IBB with a message that I should facilitate his trip to Burkina Faso as he had accepted an invitation from Thomas Sankara to participate in a cultural festival. That was news to me and I had no idea what IBB wanted me to do. But you did not argue with Fela. I told him to give me a few days and he replied that the festival was starting in three days time. With anybody else, I would have replied that it was not possible. With Fela, I did not dare. He got up to leave and signaled to Beko who pulled something from his bag. Fela turned to me and said, “I understand you like Cuban cigars. Here is something for you.” It was the biggest cigar, wrapped, of course, that I had ever seen. It was about the size of a small bottle of bottled water. I thanked him and promised that I would do justice to it. I was going to walk him to the lift but he excused me. It would have cramped his style. Another roar greeted him and saw him on his way. Thanks to IBB, within 24 hours, we had met Fela’s requirements.

The following week, I related the whole episode to Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s eldest brother, who was the then Minister of Health. He said in a very raised alarm, “Bolaji, I hope you have not smoked that thing.” I said, “Actually no. But I smoke cigars.” Prof. said “Bolaji, that is not a cigar. It is marijuana.” I almost fainted at the irony that here we were in the Council of Ministers chambers where also the Armed Forces Ruling Council met and we were talking about marijuana. On top of it, the offending item was still on my table in the office. My God, heresy in the House of the prophet!

The final debt I owe him was reawakening my faith that Africa will continue to always have a hero, no matter how many traitors abound. I will do injustice by attempting a deconstruction of what Thomas Sankara stood for. Let his own words do justice to him:

“You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”

– Thomas Sankara

“The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

“Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence. I hear the roar of women’s silence. I sense the rumble of their storm and feel the fury of their revolt.”

“Che Guevara taught us we could dare to have confidence in ourselves; confidence in our abilities. He instilled in us the conviction that struggle is our only recourse. He was a citizen of the free world that together we are in the process of building. That is why we say that Che Guevara is also African and Burkinabe.”

“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

– Thomas Sankara

“I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity.”

“It’s really a pity that there are observers who view political events like comic strips. There has to be a Zorro, there has to be a star. No, the problem of Upper Volta is more serious than that. It was a grave mistake to have looked for a man, a star, at all costs, to the point of creating one, that is, to the point of attributing the ownership of the event to Captain Sankara, who must have been the brains, etc.”

“If you take a walk around Ouagadougou and make a list of the mansions you see, you will note that they belong to just a minority. How many of you who have been assigned to Ouagadougou from the farthest corners of the country have had to move every night because you’ve been thrown out of the house you have rented? To those who have acquired houses and land through corruption, we say: start to tremble. If you have stolen, tremble, because we will come after you.”


When he was assassinated on October 15, 1987, I prepared a very emotional tribute which President Babangida vetoed. When I offered to sign it over my personal name, he still vetoed it with the words, “You have no personal name. You are Nigerian External Affairs Minister.” It is 29 years later and the tribute is 29 years late.