The Trial of Thomas Sankara’s Killers

Image Source: Larrybzh – CC BY 4.0

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 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 was gunned down along with 12 colleagues in Burkina’s capital Ouagadougou.

At the conclusion of a historic trial and a decades-long pursuit of justice, Burkina’s former president Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s erstwhile comrade and friend, has been sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty, in absentia, of complicity in the murder of his predecessor Sankara.

Compaoré, who sought refuge in Ivory Coast after he was overthrown in a coup in 2014 (he had tried to change the constitution to allow him to rule in perpetuity); was tried along with his former security chief Hyacinthe Kafando (who was also tried in absentia as a fugitive from justice) and Gilbert Diendéré, one of the army commanders during the 1987 coup, already imprisoned in Burkina Faso for his part in an attempted coup in 2015.

Fourteen people were charged for Sankara’s killing in the trial, which began in October 2021. Eight other people were found guilty of a range of offences including giving false evidence, bribing potential witnesses, and complicity in undermining state security. Three were found not guilty, including the doctor accused of saying on Sankara’s death certificate that he died of natural causes. An exhumation of Sankara’s body after Compaoré was overthrown showed it to be riddled with more than a dozen bullets.

The verdict was greeted with jubilation by Sankara’s supporters in the courtroom. Seated near the front, Sankara’s widow Mariam Sankara, who lives in the south of France, said justice had finally been delivered. “The judges have done their jobs and I am satisfied. Of course, I wished the main suspects would be here before the judges”, she told the Associated Press. “It is not good that people kill other people and stop the process of development of a country without being punished”.

Throughout his 27-year rule, Compaoré thwarted attempts to investigate the circumstances of Sankara’s death, including repeated calls for his remains to be exhumed (Sankara had been buried in a commoner’s grave), adding to speculation about Compaoré’s part in the murder.

A year after Compaoré was overthrown, Burkina’s then transitional government reopened the investigation into Sankara’s death. In 2016 Burkinabé authorities issued an international warrant for Compaoré’s arrest.

The Ivorian authorities rejected extradition requests for the 70-year-old Compaoré, who was awarded Ivorian citizenship by the US-educated President Alassane Ouattara virtually from the moment he arrived there in 2014.

Ouattara is widely regarded as a French stooge, having invited the Ivory Coast’s former colonial master to send in its army to help Ouattara in a civil war against his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo. Unlike Sankara, who made a clean break with Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler, Ouattara has maintained clientelist associations with France. These associations, often involving forcible interventions by the French in its former African colonies, is part of France’s neocolonial strategy known as Françafrique.

France has long been suspected of playing a key part in Sankara’s murder.

Inquiries have established that French agents were present in Burkina Faso on the day after Sankara’s assassination to destroy wiretaps targeting Compaoré. When Compaoré had to flee in haste after he was overthrown, a French special forces helicopter airlifted him to Côte d’Ivoire.

During a 2017 visit 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. Three batches of declassified documents were sent to Ouagadougou.

It turned out that these documents were of lesser importance, and did not include indispensably 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 noteworthy documents exist – and the fact that Macron didn’t deliver on what he promised is perhaps only to be expected of the cunning and deceitful current French president.

The trial of Sankara’s killers alas did not cast light on France’s undoubted involvement in the murder. The US was probably involved as well— it trained and funded the Burkinabè army after Compaoré seized power, and it is known that the military attaché at the US embassy liaised closely with his French counterpart in Ouagadougou.

Given that Sankara is a revered figure in many parts of Africa, Blaise Compaoré’s opportunities for travel on that continent will probably be limited by the fear of arrest and extradition. Opportunities to venture further afield may also be limited to countries which don’t have reciprocal extradition treaties with Burkina Faso, though as a former French satrap he may be welcomed in Paris. Not that he is likely to mind, given that he is said to be living the high life in Côte d’Ivoire.

At his death Sankara is reported to have left his $450 salary, a modest sedan car, four bikes, 3 guitars, a fridge, and a broken freezer. Compaoré probably fled his country with a bit more than that.

In fact, one of Compaoré early acts was to buy a presidential plane to reflect his personal standing. A December 1988 World Bank report praised the remarkably high standards of financial management in Burkina Faso during Sankara’s leadership, but noted the growing prevalence of corruption since Compaoré took over.

An excellent account of the legal proceedings in Ouagadougou is to be found in The Nation. Indispensable reading on Sankara’s life and politics is to be found in Brian J. Peterson’s well-researched Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa (Indiana University Press, 2021).

There is also a website devoted to Sankara, containing many useful resources.

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