Who Killed African Icon Thomas Sankara? Trial Opens, 34 Years After His Death

Who Killed African Icon Thomas Sankara? Trial Opens, 34 Years After His Death

The president of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, an anticolonial leader celebrated across the continent, was assassinated in 1987. Now 14 men, including the president who took his place, are on trial.

By Ruth Maclean
Oct. 11, 2021
DAKAR, Senegal — One of the most highly anticipated trials ever to take place in Africa opened on Monday in the capital of Burkina Faso, aiming to establish who killed Thomas Sankara, the country’s former president and a revolutionary leader renowned across the continent.

Mr. Sankara was assassinated 34 years ago, with 12 others, by a hit squad in the capital, Ouagadougou, after only four years in power.

Now, 14 men accused of plotting his death are on trial in the capital. Among them is a man once known as his close friend, Blaise Compaoré, who went on to succeed Mr. Sankara as president — and stayed in power for 27 years. Mr. Compaoré is being tried in absentia; attempts by the government of Burkina Faso to extradite him from Ivory Coast, where he lives in exile, have been unsuccessful.

Most of the accused arrived at the court on Monday in a white bus. Besides Mr. Compaoré, the man suspected of leading the team that killed Mr. Sankara, Hyacinthe Kafando, was also absent, his whereabouts unknown.

“We have been waiting for this moment,” said Mariam Sankara, Mr. Sankara’s widow, arriving at the trial on Monday from her home in the south of France. She had pressed for years to bring his killers to justice.

Mr. Sankara was president of Burkina Faso, a landlocked and diverse country in West Africa, from 1983, when he took power in a coup, to 1987. He was 37 when he was killed, and already revered in many African countries for speaking out against the vestiges of colonialism and the impact of Western financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“The revolution’s main objective,” Mr. Sankara said not long after taking power, “is to destroy imperialist domination and exploitation.”

He renamed the country, changing it from Upper Volta, as labeled by France, to Burkina Faso, which means “the land of upright people” in Moore, the language of the country’s largest ethnic group.

He redistributed land, expanded access to education and initiated vaccination campaigns and social reforms with the goal of ending female genital mutilation and polygamy. He insisted that government officials give up perks, like first-class airline tickets.

But his tenure was also characterized by political repression, with many of his critics going into exile, and human rights groups alleging that prisoners were tortured.

The trial, which is expected to last several months, is a military tribunal presided over both by civilian and military officials.

The most anticipated testimony could be that of Gilbert Diendéré, who was the only accused man to attend the trial in military uniform. A former general and the right-hand man of Mr. Compaoré, he is accused of attacking state security, complicity to murder, concealing corpses and bribing witnesses.

At the time of Mr. Sankara’s death, Mr. Compaoré was serving as minister of state at the presidency. Mr. Compaoré said then that his commandos had heard that Mr. Sankara planned to have him killed. The commandos went immediately to the presidential palace, Mr. Compaoré said, where without asking him first, they shot Mr. Sankara and 12 of his aides.

Mr. Compaoré said at the time that his men had intended to arrest Mr. Sankara, but, “He answered firing.”

Mr. Compaoré had his old friend buried in a commoner’s grave.

During his tenure, Mr. Compaoré was known as a pillar of “Françafrique,” an arrangement where even after colonialism had officially ended, France continued to pull the political strings of its former African colonies.

For years, there have been allegations that France was involved in the assassination. President Emmanuel Macron of France said in 2017 that he would lift the secret classification of all documents relating to the Sankara case, and so far, three batches of documents have been sent to Burkina Faso. But none are from the office of François Mitterrand, the French president at the time.

After 27 years in power, Mr. Compaoré tried to amend the Constitution to allow him to extend his rule even longer. But the country erupted in protest and he was forced to resign in 2014, and then to leave Burkina Faso.

After a year of political turmoil, the current president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, was elected in 2015. He was re-elected in 2020. He had a statue erected of Mr. Sankara, and a mausoleum, cinema and media library honoring him are in the works.

But on Mr. Kaboré’s watch, life has become increasingly desperate for millions in Burkina Faso. Violence caused by bandits, vigilantes and terrorists who claim to be affiliated with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State — and military abuses — has left thousands dead and over one million displaced. A country that prided itself on tolerance and cooperation has become increasingly polarized.

cc: Joseph M Bengeh

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