Lessons from Thomas Sankara on Daring to Invent the Future

Timeless relevance of Africa’s Che Guevara

Published 2 months ago in Africa and Politics

africa future freedom

Sankara painting

Image credit: Jona Ras Tarzan, independent artist

Sankara said, “We must dare to invent the future.”

By simply looking at this quote, it is very possible to ask yourself why should I dare? Of course, everyone is on a path they are taking for themselves based on their own convictions, values and interests. Thus, it seems like everyone is inventing their own futures. But Sankara is saying we must dare.

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 mad men of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those mad men. … We must dare to invent the future.” – Thomas Sankara, excerpted from an interview with Swiss Journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp in 1985. 

We all hope for a better world, but our conception of what a “better world” means is subjective The word “better,” seems to relatively imply that this desired world is one that is more advanced. However, this “better” world looks more Utopian than it actually is. This is as a result of the natural instinct of humans to resist change. Yet, change is constant. Our journey as humans to ensure a safe, peaceful and progressive world starts with every single one of us daring to be better in our thoughts, conversations and interactions in general. It comes with daring to see and think through things differently. It comes with being comfortable having a spotlight shone on our values and mindsets, and being open to constructive criticism and re-evaluation no matter how painful that process can be. Whether you are pioneering a new invention that will change how education is being delivered,  speaking out on the rights of minority groups in your locality, or actively speaking out for more religious tolerance, you are daring to think differently. You are daring to challenge the status quo. All these, I believe can be extracted from the life of a man who I believe to be the greatest African president ever: Thomas Sankara.

Thomas Sankara was the young and dynamic Pan-African leader of Burkina Faso’s revolutionary government from 1983 to 1987. Immediately he came into power, he renamed the country from “Upper Volta” to “Burkina Faso” which means “Land of Upright Men” in Moré and Dyula, the two major languages of the country, to embody the new sovereignty and rebirth of the country. Many of his inspiring speeches were centered around anti-imperialist ideals, independence of African states from western dominance and economic advancement for African nations. 

<em>Sankara addressing the UN General Assembly in New York

Oct 6th 1984



Known for his gumption and anti-imperialist views, he urged other African leaders not to pay the “colonial debt” the price imposed on newly liberated African countries in return for their independence. He stood up to the former colonial powers stating that this “debt of freedom”, one of the final acts of exploitation, would result in an economic death to African Nations, leaving them forever at the mercy of the colonialists’ pockets. Making such an argument in those days was crazy; no one (except a few leaders) ever dared come up with such statements. It was treacherous to colonizers, absurd to the hearings of people and wrong to the core. But Sankara made that statement because he was challenging the norm of his days: the norm of perpetual dependence of African states on western countries. He also challenged other norms: the norm of constant subservience and subjugation of women; the norm of economic retrogression, war, famine and malnutrition; the norm of environmental degradation. 

Sankara stood out in the midst of the African leaders of that time not because he was younger than many of his counterparts, but because he dared to speak out and challenge the status quo. Only governing Burkina Faso for 4 years (until his assassination by an armed group with twelve other officials in a coup d'état organized by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré), he led a powerful revolutionary movement in the country in which Burkina Faso became economically independent. Burkina Faso started producing her own food while dependency on trading with the West was the norm for other African countries, and fostered women empowerment in the country while many other African countries didn’t have women on their agenda. All these happened through a man who said “no” to the status quo at that time and dared to dream of a better future for his country and for the African continent.

While my detest for politics is glaring because of the depressing realities that our current African political leaders have plunged us into, Sankara, by far, has been the limelight in the dark and the foremost political leader that continues to inspire me daily and has greatly influenced my growth while at university. Reflecting on the life of Sankara, and indeed, his quote above made me begin to think about what we all call “the norm” today and how we must dare to be different. Daring to invent the future means continually asking questions about what the norm is or about the conventional way of thinking and pushing our thoughts beyond that so as to deconstruct and then reconstruct notions, ideas and even structures. It also means staying true to our values as long as we are fully convinced that those values have a place in contributing to a better world we all hope for. Thus, taking a bold and brave step in staying true to, or changing what the conventional narrative is based on our uniquely forged values.

At this point, you must be asking why should we dare? Why is it necessary? We would be delusional if we say our world today (regardless of powerful organisations like the UN leading the charge in creating a better i.e more sustainable world), is “better.” We live in a world where the norm is gloomy and ugly; where the norm is distressing; where the norm is orthodox and irrelevant; where the norm deliberately subjugates people; where the norm promotes the agenda of either the minority at the extent of the majority or vice versa. We must be bold in our convictions and stand our ground in the ideals we believe in as long as our conscience validates them as humane and logical. Asking questions and active open-mindedness are two important variables in the quest to achieve that better world we all hope for. We must dare to invent the future regardless of obstacles and powers that be, challenging our thoughts and ideas. Sankara did the same.



A week before his assassination, Sankara declared: "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas". Sankara was betrayed and killed by a friend at the age of 37 but his legacy lives on because he dared. This is why over three decades on, a young Nigerian like me can read about him and be impacted through his personality and his philosophies. We all must dare to invent the future, regardless of what the norm is or what society or the structure calls or agrees as the norm. Whether it is creating an innovative higher learning environment that prepares students for jobs of this century or speaking out for the rights of minority groups in your area or being a freedom activist in your society, be it freedom of expression and religion, I dare you to invent your own future by challenging your thoughts, speaking out where necessary in activism, embracing new ideas, being innovative and in other ways that you think you can contribute your small quota in achieving that “better” world we all hope for.

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