Josiah Neufeld is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg
Only days ago, the people of Burkina Faso were thronging jubilantly through the streets, honking horns and blowing whistles to celebrate the ouster of their president through the power of popular protest. On Oct. 31, president Blaise Compaoré resigned after 27 years in power and fled the country on a helicopter sent by the president of neighbouring Ivory Coast.
Since then, the military has taken control of Burkina Faso and seized major radio and television stations. Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida said Monday the military intends to help the country transition to a civilian government and democratic elections.
In the days leading up to Mr. Compaoré's resignation, tens of thousands of Burkinabè people marched in the streets and massed in the capital's central square to protest a bill introduced by Mr. Compaoré that would have changed the constitution and allowed him to seek a fifth term in office. Last Thursday, the day parliament was set to vote on the controversial bill, crowds burned tires in the streets, set fire to parliament buildings, trashed a luxury hotel and stormed the house of the president's brother. The people of Burkina Faso had had enough of Mr. Compaoré, who has kept a tight grip on the reins of power for nearly three decades.
Almost exactly 27 years ago, on Oct. 15, 1987, Burkina Faso's previous president, Thomas Sankara, was ambushed during a meeting with his cabinet and shot dead along with several of his ministers. Mr. Sankara was a Marxist revolutionary, often referred to as Africa's Che Guevara. He was determined to build a proud African nation that was independent of Western aid. "The one who feeds you also controls you," he declared, wearing his trademark military fatigues and red beret. "Our country produces enough to feed us all. Alas, for lack of organization, we are forced to beg for food aid. It's this aid that instills in our spirits the attitude of beggars."
Mr. Sankara wore clothing made from Burkina-grown cotton, frequently rode his bicycle to work and ordered his ministers to give up their expensive Mercedes Benzes and drive Renault 5 mini-cars. He replaced the country's colonial name, Upper Volta, with Burkina Faso, meaning "land of the upright people" in two of Burkina's indigenous languages. During his four years in power, crop production increased, thousands of children were enrolled in school and a massive tree-planting campaign was started to fight desertification. A fierce advocate for the "emancipation of women," Mr. Sankara appointed women to key cabinet positions and declared one day a year on which men were required to cook, go to the market and do the work traditionally assigned to women.
Mr. Sankara was a controversial figure. He paid visits to Cuba's Fidel Castro and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi while snubbing French and American leaders. At a summit of African nations in 1987, he challenged his fellow African heads of state to refuse to pay their debts to western nations. "If Burkina Faso is the only one to refuse, I won't be at the next conference," he said. "But with the support of everyone, we can make peace at home and we can use Africa's full potential to develop."
Mr. Sankara's words proved prescient. Less than three months later he was killed in a coup led by his friend and collaborator Blaise Compaoré. Mr. Compaoré succeeded Mr. Sankara with the support of the French government and immediately set to work overturning many of Mr. Sankara's reforms and signing his country up for the debt relief programs of the IMF and World Bank. But in the decades since, Burkina Faso has not risen out of poverty. Unemployment remains high and many people are frustrated by rising costs of food and fuel.
I grew up in Burkina Faso as the child of Canadian Mennonite missionaries. For those people fed up with Mr. Compaoré's semi-authoritarian rule, Thomas Sankara remained a martyr and an icon. Mr. Sankara's name was invoked whenever someone complained about the current regime. I remember my friends watching video clips of Mr. Sankara's provocative speeches on their cellphones, delighting in his revolutionary spirit and his belief in the power of African people to feed and govern themselves.
None of us imagined that Blaise Compaoré could be replaced without another bloody military intervention. But the people of Burkina Faso have spoken. Some are calling it the "Black Spring," in the spirit of the Arab Spring. It's heartening to see the citizens of one of the poorest countries in Africa bring about a change of government by popular protest.
No one knows what's going to happen next, but if Burkina Faso can transition relatively peaceably, it will be a victory for the people, an example for the continent, and a measure of justice for those who remember Thomas Sankara.