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Reflection on African leadership as we remember Burkinabé revolutionary, Thomas Sankara

As we remember the Burkinabe leader Thomas Sankara who was assassinated in 1987, we reflect on governance on the continent. We look at some exemplary African leaders, while appealing to others in power to draw inspiration from Sankara’s selfless leadership.



In 1987, Burkina Faso’s leader Captain Thomas Sankara was assassinated. This was 14 years after Guinean leader Amilcar Cabral was assassinated in Conakry, Guinea. These two leaders would not be the only African leaders who would fall be killed by assassins paid by western imperialists, notably the French, implicated in numerous plots. The assassination of young and promising leaders around the continent became a method France used to install and keep its stooges in power, and wreck the economy of such countries, maintaining a stronghold on the leadership and resources of such countries.

Of all the coups that have taken place in Africa, most of them took place in former French colonies. This method of resource control did not end with colonialism. It extended after colonialism, a new and more complex form of control. Western might became a tool used to remove Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Beyond this, it showed the weakness of the African Union and the leadership crisis Africa is plagued with.

The Nobel Prize for Peace awarded to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, for many was much deserved. PM Ahmed got into power and within 100 days showed dynamism in leadership by implementing reforms around the country. He escaped an assassination, and breathed fresh air into what capable and determined political leadership could do to a country.

Read: Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed wins Nobel Peace Prize


Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki re-opening the Eritrean embassy in Addis Ababa. EPA-EFE/Stringer

PM Ahmed’s strong will in leadership also saw him visit Sudan seeking to establish peace between the military junta and protesters who demanded for democratic reforms. Sankara and Cabral were both dynamic leaders who understood that the essence of leadership rested on the freedom of their people, an understanding that PM Ahmed has incorporated into Ethiopia’s political space. At a time when leadership positions on the continent are filled with greedy non-visionary men who have no sight into making the future better for their people, in remembering and reflecting on Sankara’s assassination today, PM Ahmed stands as a relief, and points to the possibility of good leadership on the continent.

Read: Abiy Ahmed has won the Nobel Peace Prize : but big challenges still await Ethiopia

What PM Ahmed might not espouse totally ideologically, can be found in Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame who himself has shown and continued to agitate for African states to find their own solutions to their own problems. On several occasions Kagame has said that Africans should not outsource the solution to their problems. The result of such rhetoric by President Kagame has been a hate filled western media response, questioning Kagame’s leadership.

What really is good African leadership and can it be free from western definition? The major problem stems from Africans themselves who have failed to see beyond the demerits of the west’s definition of leadership and democracy for Africa, which is based on dependence on the west for progress on the terms and conditions set and dictated by western countries and institutions. While Africans don’t bother poking holes on leadership and corruption in the west, vice versa is the case. This is not to say that criticism is not welcome, but from whose lens is it coming from, and with which intentions? It matters who is seeing what as wrong in a society.

As we reflect on the assassination of Sankara, the great Burkinabé president who spoke truth to power and against power, challenging global powers while still maintaining the dignity of his people and making life easier for them, we hope that African leaders would emulate Captain Sankara and govern better.