The Trial Of Thomas Sankara’s Killers

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

I come here from a country whose seven million children, women, and men refuse to die from ignorance, hunger, and thirst any longer. My aspiration is to speak on behalf of my people, on behalf of the disinherited of the world. And to state the reasons for our revolt.

– Thomas Sankara (speech at UN General Assembly 1984)

 The renowned revolutionary and anti-imperialist leader Thomas Sankara was murdered on October 15, 1987, at the age of 37.

Sankara took power in the landlocked West African state of Upper Volta after a coup in 1983, changing the name of the former French colony to Burkina Faso (“the land of upright people” in Mossi, the language of the country’s largest ethnic group) the following year.

Sankara’s government, using a synthesis of Pan-Africanism and Marxist politics, initiated a string of far-reaching economic and social reforms that included nationalizations, land redistribution, reforestation, infrastructure and public housing construction, expanded access to education, vaccination campaigns, and advancing the rights of women by banning female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages. His government, hewing to a foreign policy predicated on non-alignment, took on former colonial powers, as well as their satrap institutions, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Sankara insisted that government officials give up perks such as first-class air travel. He got rid of the government’s fleet of expensive Mercedes Benz limousines, making the cheap and economical Renault 5 the official government vehicle instead—the Renault 5 was the cheapest car in Burkina Faso at that time.

At the same time, Sankara’s rule was said to be characterized by a degree of political repression, with some of his critics going into exile, and human rights groups alleging that prisoners were tortured.

Sankara, aware of the heavy burdens imposed by anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggle– every African revolutionary has an indelible awareness of what befell Patrice Lumumbawhen the former Belgian Congo “achieved” independent in 1960 and Lumumba became the short-lived leader of the independent state– had declared that fundamental social and political change require a “certain amount of madness”.

The francophile comprador bourgeoisie of Upper Volta was certainly not going to welcome Sankara’s revolution with open arms. In fact, his blistering revolutionary pronouncements probably scared the shit out of them. For this comprador class, the neocolonial status quo was not to be disturbed, and this is precisely what Sankara set out to achieve.

Despite their popularity many of Sankara’s iconic reforms were undone soon after his assassination.

Sankara was murdered during a putsch led by Blaise Compaoré, a former friend and close associate who was minister of state at the presidency when Sankara was killed.

Compaoré maintains that his commandos had heard that Sankara planned to have him killed. The commandos went directly to the presidential palace from Compaoré’s residence, where allegedly without asking Compaoré first, they shot Sankara and 12 of his staff.

Compaoré, 70, has always denied that he ordered Sankara’s killing.

Compaoré said at the time that his men had intended to arrest Sankara, but “he answered firing”. Compaoré had his old friend buried in a commoner’s grave.

After 27 years in power, Compaoré tried to amend the constitution to allow him to rule in perpetuity. But Burkina Faso had enough of him by this time, and after massive protests he was forced to resign in 2014, leaving Burkina Faso for exile in the Ivory Coast.

After Compaoré’s fall from power, an inquiry into Sankara’s assassination was created by the transitional government, and a warrant was issued for Compaoré’s arrest.

The government exhumed what are thought to be Sankara’s remains from a grave on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. Sankara’s widow said an autopsy revealed his body was “riddled with more than a dozen bullets”.

Fourteen men, including Compaoré, are on trial for Sankara’s murder, the preliminaries of which began last week.

In addition to Compaoré, the man suspected of leading the squad that killed Sankara, Hyacinthe Kafando, will also be tried in absentia since he is currently on the run.

It was announced by his lawyers that “President [sic] Blaise Compaoré will not be attending the political trial that is being staged against him at the military court of Ouagadougou, nor will Burkinabe and French lawyers for Compaoré”.

The lawyers argued that Compaoré has “immunity (from prosecution) as a former head of state”.

Those on trial include Compaoré s former henchmen, General Gilbert Diendéré, a previous head of the elite Presidential Security Regiment (RSP). Diendéré, who attended the trial’s opening preliminary in a military uniform (shades of Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings!), faces charges of complicity in murder, undermining state security, bribing witnesses, and complicity in the concealment of corpses.

Diendéré, 61, who seems to be something of a veteran all-round plotter, is currently serving a 20-year sentence in Burkina Faso for masterminding a scheme in 2015 against the transitional government of Roch Marc Christian Kaboré that replaced Compaoré.

“We have been waiting for this moment”, said Mariam Sankara, Sankara’s widow, who arrived to attend the trial from her home in the south of France. She has campaigned for years to bring his killers to justice.

The preliminaries over, the trial proper– a military tribunal presided over both by civilian and military officials– is due to begin on October 25th and is expected to last several months. Over 200 foreign journalists have been accredited for the proceedings, which are being likened to a trial for the killers of Che Guevara in Bolivia had one been held.

Eagerly awaited at the trail is information on the part played by France in Sankara’s murder. Sankara made a clean break with Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler, which has maintained clientelist associations, often involving strong-arm methods, with its former African colonies in a strategy known as Françafrique.

So far inquiries have established that French agents were present in Burkina Faso on the day after Sankara’s assassination to destroy wiretaps targeting Compaoré.

In addition to rejecting Françafrique, Sankara annoyed Paris by calling for New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the Pacific, to be included on the UN’s list of places to be decolonized.

During a 2017 trip to Burkina Faso, the French President Emmanuel Macron said he would lift the “national defence secret” classification of all French archives concerning Sankara’s killing. Since then 3 batches of declassified documents have been sent to Ouagadougou.

However, it turns out that these contain only documents of secondary importance, and do not include vitally important files from the offices of François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who were respectively president and prime minister of France at the time of Sankara’s assassination.

Informed observers are certain that these highly significant documents exist – and the fact that Macron didn’t deliver on what he promised is something that may be highlighted in the course of the trial of Sankara’s killers. Not that anything better could have been expected of the sly and devious Macron.

Burkina Faso faces massive challenges, not least the growing Islamic State insurgency, conducted in the name of jihad, that has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 1 million in recent years.

“Dare to invent the future”, said Sankara.

Depending in part on the trial’s outcome, and of course the flux that is Burkina Faso’s post-independence history, that future may not be forestalled in its entirety.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.