The Land of the Upright Man: A Review of Jude Idada’s Sankara

By Timi Odueso


  • Title: Sankara
  • Author: Jude Idada
  • Publisher: Parrésia Publishers Ltd
  • Number of pages: 114
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Category: Drama

‘There is no guarantee that those who have children would be remembered. What matters is that while you lived, you lived for something, and while you could, you helped to make a change’.

Although acted out daily, both on stage and in real life, drama can be seen as the least indulged of the literary forms. Unlike prose, it falls within stringent parameters, such as in its use of dialogue and characterisation. To captivate the reader, drama requires of the playwright not only skill but experience. Jude Idada’s Sankara earns its place alongside works by leading Nigerian playwrights like Femi Osofisan, Wole Soyinka and J P Clark, but it also raises the question of just how far fiction can be woven into the factional.

Set in 1987, during the last days of renowned African revolutionist, Thomas Sankara, Sankara reenacts historical events, with fictional interpolations. While the interconnected themes of pan-Africanism, Afrocentrism, nationalism and communism background the play, the playwright is more concerned with what he sees as the tragic flaw in the character of his hero: Sankara’s almost Christ-like sense of burden and redemption, most clearly expressed in his conversations with his deputy, Blaise Compaoré, and his wife, Mariam. Only he, it seems, can midwife the revolution that will save Burkina Faso. And while Sankara, in real life and in this play, was unlike most African coupists who sought power for its own sake, Idada portrays a man who shares their vices: secrecy and arbitrary acts after coming to power, a messiah complex and, most importantly, an outright dislike of being bested intellectually.

A subtle but recurring motif in the play is the notion that Africans are apparently born with a self-destructive nature as a result of the colonial experience. While people on other continents strive to develop their territories, Sankara insists that Africans only pay lip service to the notion; they never translate words into action. Through the characters of Blaise Compaoré and Gilbert Diendéré, military officers, Idada explores the twin themes of greed and corruption. On the one hand, there is Diendéré’s gloating rapacity which almost endears him to the reader, given that such honest thievery is itself rare. Compaoré, on the other hand, represents the sophistry of African politics and militancy, the lie that leaders tell themselves and the world that they are without avarice and really do care about developing their nations. While Sankara continuously tries to eradicate the lingering effects of imperialism, his subordinates and the Burkinabe people in general – albeit initially congenial to the revolution – slowly begin to revert to the dream of a time when the challenges of national development was obscured by the facile ease and plenty that imperialism harboured.

Imperialism as a contending force against African development is another theme present in the play. From the opening scene, the playwright focuses on imperialism, which he considers an impediment to development. He also has Sankara explain this to Compaoré in the final scene. Compaoré and Diendéré, themselves, hint at the involvement of not only France but also Ivory Coast in Sankara’s assassination, the fallen leader having earlier been told by Valerie Giroud (the only fictional character in the play) that France will only do business with Upper Volta, not Burkina Faso, which is to say with people who have not yet begun to think for themselves. The character of Giroud further underscores the imperial narrative that the truth can only be told by a white French person. Even Sankara’s disbelief that Compaoré could organise a coup without French help points to the lingering effects of imperialism.

Another interesting theme explored is the way in which the colonisers themselves become the ironic victims of colonialism and imperialism. Although the reverse is often considered the case, Idada demonstrates that it is the French who have shown that they cannot survive without Africa’s natural resources. Part of the dialogue between Giroud and Sankara shows that even though the French gained immense wealth through colonialism, they unwittingly became hopelessly dependent, which bodes ill for future generations, who have lost the knowledge of self-sufficiency.

Rumours of a speech which Sankara is slated to give pops up in every scene in the play. It could even be said that the true reason for Sankara’s assassination is not because the imperialists want to take over but because they want to silence him. They know the power of words from the lips of a charismatic man. While the speech itself never actually surfaces in Idada’s play, Sankara is repeatedly asked by everyone, including his wife, to abandon it in order to save his life, which is ironical when it becomes evident that there never was any such speech. Instead, his death is itself the speech that will ensure the victory of the revolution. Sankara, who believes himself to be destined for martyrdom, deliberately uses the mythical speech to taunt his enemies into killing him, thereby ensuring that his death, and therefore his eternal silence, will galvanise the people into a spontaneous rebellion which will end imperialism once and for all, and with it the corruption that is its handmaiden.

The play ends with Sankara’s death and a rendition of the national anthem, composed by Sankara himself. Perhaps the playwright intends to mock with this ending, given that Sankara not only failed to overcome death but also that thirty-one years on, it is clear that Burkina Faso was the land of the upright man and not the land of the upright men.


Photograph: ‘We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85’ by C-Monster


Comments should be sent to comments@wawabookreview.com. Please use the appropriate review title in the email subject line.

Timi Odueso is a law student who enjoys literature as much as he does the culinary arts. His stories have been published in Crossroads, a publication of the US Diplomatic Mission, Nigeria, and by The Single Story Foundation as well as in On the Premises, an online magazine. He is a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.

You must be logged in to post a comment.