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Thomas Sankara And The Revolution In Burkina Faso History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The leadership case I will be presenting is principally concentrated on one of the ambitious and young African leaders – Thomas Sankara, the transformational leader, who made it to the highest rank in Burkina Faso (August, 1983), and was later assassinated by one of his friends (October, 1987). More specific focus will be put on leadership qualities displayed by Sankara both during the coup for taking over the government, and the launch of post revolution regime: the initial popularity of Sankara’s leadership started to shatter in the course of executing fundamental changes. On the one hand, Sanakara as a leader of his country was facing financial and economic dependency from Western countries and donor organizations, and on the other hand, his leadership was challenged by hierarchical and corrupt system deeply rooted into the society of Burkina Faso.

Sankara is known as highly charismatic and transformational leader. He had the vision to make Burkina Faso independent, which was appealing to the majority of population and therefore he quickly gained the support of many Burkinabes. Sankara was obsessed with the idea to make his country economically self-sustainable and eradicate any form of dependency. Sanakra was confronting two sided transformation: on the one hand he was dealing with social, economic, political regime, and on the other hand he had to crack social norms, moreover he wanted to do it fast.

A glimpse into the history of Burkina Faso, or in general into a commonly shared experience by most African countries reveals an on-going struggle against the yoke of Western Europe. The colonization of formerly named Upper Volta was undertaken by the French in 1890s. Colonization as a whole can be described as the state of dependency imposed by an elite, educated, strong country upon a weaker one. Upper Volta became independent in 1960, yet even after acquired independence most African countries were still under the influence and control of the Western Europe.

Leadership of Sankara through Trait Theory

Sankara’s leadership is supported by a series of leadership traits showcased in different settings and environments. Signs of leadership were observed at earlier stages: as a kid Sankara was inspired with the dream to become the savior of Upper Volta. He followed his vision by joining military forces at the age of 19. Sankara also stood out with a number of heroic acts during the war with Mali, and at later stages was rewarded with the status of captain. Sankara’s flexible style of leadership allowed him to make a shift from military sector to government, where he initially served as secretary of State for Information and later was assigned as prime-minister. Prior to becoming the president of Upper Volta, Sankara was already bearing the popularity of a leader both locally and internationally.

By further analyzing Sankara’s leadership through the lenses of trait theory we can see that Sankara possesses a high degree of all traits common to a leader, yet his visionary plan remained unfinished, since he was killed after four years of being the head of Burkina Faso.

Some leadership traits encountered in Sankara’s actions were:

Intelligence: Thomas Sankara was an intelligent captain, yet his intelligence was not limited to military affairs only: Sankara was equally knowledgeable about his country’s political, economic and social conditions. By becoming the head of one of the poorest countries in the world Sankara started sketching reforms in order to make an outmost utilization of their own resources rather than seeking financial support from international donor organizations, such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Sankara’s intelligence permitted him to think about issues that were not as intensively addressed during those times, such as gender equality and environmental issues. Sankara highly empowered women’s participation in different ministerial positions. Despite the urgency of myriad economic issues Sankara did not ignore environmental protection and during his leadership he organized series of tree plantations. Sankara also realized that for the development of healthy economy he should pay attention to proper education and health, therefore he undertook preventive actions against the spread of different diseases.

Confidence: not only quotes and comments made by people who had had direct interaction with Sankara, but also his speeches are a high evidence of confidence. The path that Sankara undertook was extremely based on confidence. To some degree Sankara was overconfident while thinking he would be able to gain sustainable and independent state without outreaching the support of external sources.

Charisma: The most common trait prescribed to this leader is charisma; it was the charisma that accelerated such a rapid transformation during 1982-83. During the short period of being a prime-minister January – May 1983 Upper Volta Sankara made rapid changes in the education system, labor market. Yet his aspiration for introducing a transformational change in Upper Volta was limited to the conservative approach adapted by the president of the country which in its turn led to another big transformation – revolution in 1983.

Determination: Sankara was ambitiously marching forth in his endeavor to radically change the prevailing system in Burkina Faso. Determination never abandoned this leader even when he was imprisoned by the former president in 1982. However, his determination was so strong on the way of his goal, that he started using power and authority against protesting masses during the post revolution period.

Sociability: despite the tense schedule during his military service Sankara was finding time to play guitar with US Peace Corps Volunteers, and engage in discussions. Some sources mention that Sankara charisma was influenced since his involvement in a music band.

Integrity: most of Sankara’s actions were based on integrity. I would even say integrity was prevailing in this leader to such a degree that the society could not absorb it: Sankara was not afraid to speak up against big countries, international donor organizations, corrupt officials, and he made it clear from the beginning that for Burkina Faso to prosper they cannot afford allocating 60 per cent of the country’s revenue at only 0.3 percent of its population, that all layers of society had to be given equal chances.

Transformational and Charismatic Leadership of Thomas Sankara

What attracted my interest in Sankara’s style of leadership was his unquestionable charisma, his visionary ideas that are current until now, his foresightedness toward the development of economically self-sustainable country, and the firm commitment to his plan. In the view of many people Sankara is embedded as a leader who in the 4th of August, 1983 successfully led his country to a long-awaited democratic revolution.

While Burkina Faso was undergoing severe distress caused by weak economy, high level of illiteracy, astronomically high rate of infant mortality and extremely low income, it was a high time for a transformation to happen, and Sankara’s charismatic personality and the solid vision allowed him to undertake the role of the change agent. Sankara’s vision was perfectly aligned with the needs of large masses in Burkina Faso: he gained popularity among young students, trade unions that were supposed to become an integral part in the forthcoming transformation, and many other individuals who appreciated Sankara’s open criticism toward corrupt officials and civil servants.

Thomas Sankara can be considered as highly transformational leader, not completely though. Sankzara had accumulated respect of many of his followers, and a bright proof of that was the readiness of young officers to demonstrate when he was imprisoned by the president. However, his salvation plan was rather result oriented and did not consider inputs, willingness, opinions of many individuals, which in its turn was raising frustration and dissatisfaction of some of his followers. For instance, when trying to foster consumption of local production, Sankara put restrictions on clothes made in China.

Leadership Style of Sankara

When analyzing leadership style of Sankara we have to keep in mind that there was a notable difference at the time when he was attempting the revolution and when he was to transform the country. Prior to the revolution his actions involved a balanced proportion of “consideration” to support his followers and “initiating structure” such as gaining the support of youth and trade unions, while the post revolution era was accompanied with application of force, orders and rules. Thus in the latter case he can be described as highly task oriented.

The major problem laid in the fact that Sanakara had put high goals in front of the country and every individual dwelling in Burkina Faso. It is also worth mentioning that Sankara was the first in Burkina Faso to undertake the burden of sacrifices for the sake of long-term success: among the decrease of public workers’ salaries he included his own, and at the moment of his death Sankara had no real property. The latter action can be described as quite participative, by serving as a change model for others. Even though most Burkinabes shared Sankara’s vision to see Burkian Faso freed from foreign dependency, not everyone was ready to such a commitment, and that was one of Sankara’s miscalculations.

Taken the limited resources Sankara had, the lack of support, the ambitious goals, and the limited amount of time for such changes, Sankara used the power of authority, and many Burkinabes started calling him a dictator.


Sankara was highly oriented at seeing Burkina Faso purified therefore his actions to introduce the new regime were too rapid for civilians to embrace. What he could have done differently as a leader, instead of thinking that people would share his patriotic ideas; he should have introduced the transformation in a more strategic manner by applying a bottom-up approach. For instance, identifying influential individuals for each group/community and trying to win their sympathy for his ideas or conveying the long-term benefits caused by short-term limitations.

Sankara as a leader was effective, yet he needed other charismatic leaders working directly with deeper levels of society. We also had to keep in mind that application of rule against well grounded norms was not going to help especially when no other benefits were offered instead. Sankara could have used incentives, not necessarily financial, rather in terms of locally produced goods, to compensate the decrease of salaries. Finally, I would have recommended Sankara slightly increasing the level of being a diplomat: sincerity and integrity was a big advantage, but in the international arena Sankara needed support of a big ally.

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