Stephen W. Smith

Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, was shot dead in the presidential buildings in Ouagadougou on 15 October 1987. I was the West Africa correspondent at the time for Radio France International and Libération, based in neighbouring Ivory Coast. The day before the assassination I got a call from Sankara. This was a first. We knew each other well but, until then, his aide had always called me before putting the president on the line. This time, his lively voice took me by surprise. We were of the same generation: he was 37, I was 30. ‘Hey Stephen, how are you these days? You know it’s really getting very tense here in Ouaga. I think you should come, it’s urgent, don’t hang around.’ These were not his exact words. But the contrived levity, the hint of imminent danger and the discreet appeal for support are what I remember of that short, one-sided conversation. As always, Sankara pretended to be in control of the forces unleashed by his revolution. He was a high-spirited figure impelled by a ‘historic mission’ – Pan-Africanist, Marxist, anti-imperialist – and made light of fear and uncertainty.

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