34 years after the death of Thomas Sankara, the Burkina Faso leader affectionately known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”, 14 men are going on trial for complicity in orchestrating his assassination. Sankara (with the help of close ally Blaise Compaore), who came to power via a coup backed by the popular masses, was president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.
He was killed on 15 October 1987 by Burkina Faso’s soldiers and his close friend Blaise Compaore assumed power after his death.
The fiery Pan-African iconoclast was killed with 12 others in the 1987 coup and Burkina Faso’s military prosecution in Ouagadougou has commenced proceedings for the trial of his murder. Sankara’s assassination in 1987 should be gleaned in the context of the Cold War where Western imperial forces were hell-bent on thwarting his revolutionary ideas that entailed a clear-eyed rejection of capitalism in favour of people-centred economic moves.
His ideas were a thorn in the flesh for the West, embodied in his firm rejection of Western financial aid which he asserted was a well-calculated ploy to entrench neocolonialism on the continent.
Sankara has set his eyes on the total economic emancipation of Burkina Faso and because of that he had to be assassinated. Sankara considered Blaise Compaore his brother – but the latter could not resist the allure of Western capital for his private aggrandizement and never hesitated to lead the coup in which the former was ruthlessly slain, and his memory was made a taboo subject in the “land of the upright men”. But after 34 years, it is right to answer the question – who killed Thomas Sankara?
Blaise Compaore has repeatedly denied any involvement in the murder of Sankara, and he is currently in exile in Ivory Coast. He fled to Ivory Coast in the wake of the 2014 mass protests that ousted him from power. And expectedly, Compaore is boycotting the trial through his status as a political refugee in Ivory Coast.
Former head of security Gen Gilbert Diendéré, alongside Compaore, are facing charges of “complicity in murder, harming state security and complicity in the concealment of corpses”. Compaore’s legal defence postulate that the trial is a sham and that Compaore, who was president of Burkina Faso for 27 years, enjoys immunity as a former head of state. Given how the masses in Burkina Faso are demanding answers for the murder of the popular Marxist revolutionary, this defence (as compared with most jurisdictions) holds no water because after a head of state has served their tenure their immunity falls away and they are subject to prosecution.
Now that the trial has started, people in Burkina Faso seek closure given the “murky” circumstances in which Sankara lost his life. He was only 37 when he was murdered. Mariam Sankara (Thomas Sankara’s widow) has led the fight for justice these past 34 years and here is the chance to bring closure not only for Burkina Faso but for the rest of the international community.
Prosper Farama, who is one of the legal counsel for those killed during the coup remarked, “What the victims and I are expecting to gain in this trial is truth and justice. So far there are contradictory versions about what really happened.” Such contradictions are what the trial is expected to resolve. Some “form of truth” and an “end to the lying” is what Burkinabes are yearning for – and the trial is expected to be the vehicle for this.
The military court will thus put Compaore on trial in absentia. The enforcement of whatever judgment that will come from this is of interest – his lawyers insist such a “political trial” is flawed by “irregularities”.
Sankara’s Marxist background gave him rock-solid Pan-African credentials as evidenced by his policies – he pushed a socialist program of nationalisations, advocated for self-sufficiency, pushed back against foreign debt sponsored by the IMF and World Bank, made education and health widely accessible for all, and he banned female genital mutilations, polygamy and forced marriages.