The exiled former president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore, will be tried for the 1987 murder of Thomas Sankara, court declared.
On Tuesday, a military tribunal charged Compaoré with complicity in the assassination of his predecessor Sankara, undermining state security and receiving cadavers. Campoure, however, will be tried in absentia.
Sankara was murdered after four years in power in a coup led by his former friend Compaoré. Compaoré succeeded him and ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years before being removed from power in a 2014 uprising following his decision to extend his tenure. He then fled to Ivory Coast, where he has since been in exile. The ex-leader has denied involvement in Sankara’s murder.
Compaoré’s former right-hand man and military general, Gilbert Diendere, was also charged with several crimes related to Sankara’s killing, including complicity in the murder, subornation of witnesses and concealment of corpses.
Diendere has been in prison in Burkina Faso serving a 20-year sentence after a failed coup in 2015 against the country’s transitional government. He was in court to hear the charges and will enter a plea later, CNN reported.
Sankara became president in 1983 after participating in a coup that removed Col. Saye Zerbo from the presidency and subduing Maj. Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, who was also struggling to take the nation’s top position. While president, Sankara quickly became known as Africa’s Che Guevara. In addition to implementing left-wing and anti-imperialist policies, he was a staunch opponent of corruption.
As only 37 years, Sankara’s life was cut short on October 15, 1987, when he was murdered along with 12 soldiers and buried in an unmarked grave by military men.
During former President Compaore’s 27-year reign, he refused to allow Sankara’s body to be exhumed. However, after Compaore was forced to step down, Sankara’s body together with the other 12 slain soldiers was exhumed in late May 2015 to unravel the mystery surrounding their death. This was done after an investigation into the death of Sankara was opened in late March 2015.
According to Sankara’s family lawyer Ambroise Farama, the autopsy findings were “mind-boggling”.
“While the soldiers who were buried with him only sustained one or two gunshots, Sankara’s alleged body was riddled with bullets.”
“…As far as Thomas Sankara was concerned, there were more than a dozen bullet holes all over the body, even below the armpits,” Farama explained.
Many Burkinabes regard Sankara as a national hero. A prominent pan-Africanist, he is sometimes also referred to as the continent’s “Che Guevera”, in reference to the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary who led a number of armed struggles, including in Cuba.
Sankara’s relatives initially brought the case to the courts in 1997. It was closed soon after, before being reopened by the country’s then-transitional government in 2015 after authorities exhumed what are thought to be Sankara’s remains from a grave in Dagnoen, on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. Sankara’s widow said an autopsy revealed his body was “riddled with more than a dozen bullets”.
More about Thomas Sankara:
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. He was viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution and “Africa’s Che Guevara”
Sankara seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Man”). His foreign policies were centered on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nationwide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles.
Other components of his national agenda included planting over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together”. On the localized level Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour. Moreover, his commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.
In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation, eventually banning unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, “counter-revolutionaries” and “lazy workers” in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs).
His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s impoverished citizens. However his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of an array of groups, which included the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labour and tribute payments, and France and its ally the Ivory Coast. As a result, he was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré on October 15, 1987. A week before his murder, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed by an armed group with twelve other officials in a coup d’état organised by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. Deterioration in relations with neighbouring countries was one of the reasons given, with Compaoré stating that Sankara jeopardised foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast. Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord allied to Charles Taylor, told Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that it was engineered by Charles Taylor. After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days.
Sankara’s body was dismembered and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave, while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation. Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalizations, overturned nearly all of Sankara’s policies, rejoined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to bring in “desperately needed” funds to restore the “shattered” economy, and ultimately spurned most of Sankara’s legacy. Compaoré’s dictatorship remained in power for 27 years until overthrown by popular protests in 2014.
A transformational leader
Sankara’s visionary leadership turned his country from a sleepy West African nation with the colonial designation of Upper Volta to a dynamo of progress under the proud name of Burkina Faso (“Land of the Honorable People”). He led one of the most ambitious programs of sweeping reforms ever seen in Africa. It sought to fundamentally reverse the structural social inequities inherited from the French colonial order.
Sankara focused the state’s limited resources on the marginalized majority in the countryside. When most African countries depended on imported food and external assistance for development, Sankara championed local production and the consumption of locally-made goods. He firmly believed that it was possible for the Burkinabè, with hard work and collective social mobilization, to solve their problems: chiefly scarce food and drinking water.
In Sankara’s Burkina, no one was above farm work, or graveling roads–not even the president, government ministers or army officers. Intellectual and civic education were systematically integrated with military training and soldiers were required to work in local community development projects.
Sankara disdained formal pomp and banned any cult of his personality. He could be seen casually walking the streets, jogging or conspicuously slipping into the crowd at a public event. He was a rousing orator who spoke with uncommon candor and clarity and did not hesitate to publicly admit mistakes, chastise comrades or express moral objections to heads of powerful nations, even if it imperiled him. For example, he famously criticized French president François Mitterand during a state dinner for hosting the leader of Apartheid South Africa.