The murder trial of Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s iconic “father of the revolution”, is due to open on Monday, 34 years after his assassination. Fourteen people, including the country’s ex-president, Blaise Compaoré, will stand trial.
In one of Africa’s most eagerly awaited trials for years, 14 people will be tried on October 11 at a military court in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou for the murder of the country’s former president, Thomas Sankara, and 12 members of his entourage.
Nicknamed the “African Che Guevara”, Sankara came to power in a coup in 1983. He was a hero to many fans – who say he championed national sovereignty by rejecting aid from the International Monetary Fund and point to his advancement of women’s rights, banning forced marriages, polygamy and female genital mutilation. Sankara’s detractors say he was an authoritarian leader, alleging human rights violations including arbitrary arrests of political opponents and extrajudicial killings.
Sankara was killed four years after taking power, when commando troops stormed the headquarters of his National Revolutionary Council and shot him dead – bringing to power Blaise Compaoré, hitherto Sankara’s close friend and right-hand man.
Compaoré then ruled Burkina Faso for nearly three decades, before a popular uprising overthrew him in 2014 and he fled to neighbouring Ivory Coast. The ex-strongman is the main defendant in the forthcoming trial – but he will not go to Ouagadougou to stand in the dock, his lawyers said on Thursday.
Despite Compaoré’s absence, the trial is hotly anticipated – with more than 200 hundred journalists from across the world accredited to cover the proceedings.
What does Sankara represent?
Sankara left an indelible mark on his country and became a pan-African icon in the process.
In a major symbolic move, he changed the country's name from Upper Volta, given by France, to Burkina Faso, meaning “the land of upstanding men”.
Sankara made a break with former colonial power France, which maintained clientelist relationships with its former African colonies in an approach known as the Françafrique.
“Sankara developed complete independence in his country by giving its people confidence in themselves,” said Bruno Jaffré, author of L’insurrection inachevée: Burkina 2014 (“The Unfinished Rebellion: Burkina 2014”) who runs a website devoted to Sankara, thomassankara.net. “Outside of Burkina Faso, he is seen as an anti-imperialist revolutionary who spoke for the oppressed and bolstered his nation’s sovereignty in the face of France.”
In this context, the Sankara legend continues to grow, especially among young people who worship him despite having no memory of his rule in Burkina Faso.
Why did it take 34 years for a trial to take place?
The trial announcement in August was a huge shock, Jaffré pointed out, since the 1987 assassination had long been a taboo subject in Burkina Faso: “When the trial was announced, Burkinabés didn’t even dare to believe it,” he said.
“Compaoré’s regime did everything it could to prevent the criminal justice process from doing its work over Sankara’s death – and it wasn’t until [Compaoré was ousted in] autumn 2014 that the ball got rolling,” Jaffré continued.
Indeed, it was the government put in place for Burkina Faso’s democratic transition that started the justice process in March 2015. An international arrest warrant was issued for Compaoré in December of the same year. Eventually, the first reconstruction of Sankara’s assassination took place at the scene of the crime in February 2020. The judge presiding over the inquiry then transferred it to a military court in October – paving the way for the trial starting on Monday.
But obstructionism delayed this historic trial. Compaoré’s defence lawyers did “everything they could to delay or even cancel it”, Jaffré noted. In particular, they got a lot of mileage out of saying that Compaoré’s international arrest warrant was “cancelled” by Burkina Faso’s highest court in 2016. Compaoré’s defence lawyers also said their client had “never been summoned for questioning” and that he had “never been notified” of any procedure by the Burkinabé criminal justice system except for his “final summons” to stand trial. The defence lawyers have also argued that Compaoré benefits from immunity as a former head of state.
In April 2016, the attorney general of Burkina Faso’s highest court did indeed announce a cancellation due to a technicality of the international arrest warrant targeting Compaoré. But a month later, the government’s commissioner at the military court denied reports that the trial was cancelled, clarifying that the cancelled warrants only concerned a September 2015 coup case against the transitional government.
Given that the ex-president has always denied responsibility for anything that has gone wrong in Burkina Faso, “it’s not surprising” that Compaoré will not be at the court to face the accusations against him, Guy Hervé Kam, the lawyer representing the civil party in the case against Compaoré, told AFP.
Who are the accused?
Compaoré is one of 14 people who stand accused. General Gilbert Diendéré – one of the main Burkinabé army chiefs at the time of the 1987 coup – is the other main defendant. After serving as Compaoré’s chief of staff during the latter’s long presidency, Diendéré was imprisoned for 20 years for attempted murder in the 2015 coup attempt. At the forthcoming trial, he and Compoaré both stand accused of “complicity in murder”, “concealment of dead bodies” and “attacking state security”.
Soldiers in Compaoré’s former presidential guard – in particular Hyacinthe Kafondo, who is accused of leading the commando group that assassinated Sankara and who is currently on the run – are also among the defendants.
Initially, more people were expected to stand trial. However, “many defendants died”, according to lawyers for the civil party.
What should be expected from the trial?
There has been much speculation about the possible role of foreign countries – including France, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Libya – in the killing of Sankara. But the trial will focus exclusively on Burkinabé people involved in his assassination.
The focus will be on Compaoré, according to Jaffré. “His absence is regrettable; nevertheless, the question of his responsibility for the killing will be at the heart of the trial,” he noted.
The judge in charge of the inquiry was able to question all the surviving witnesses present on the day of the assassination who had never before spoken.
These witnesses have already clarified some important issues – in particular, they have established that the “commando force came from Compaoré’s house” and that “Diendéré was present to direct the operations”, Jaffré observed.
As well as trying to understand the exact sequence of the assassination, the trial will also seek to hold people responsible for complicity in the attempted cover-up of Sankara’s murder. For example, the doctor Jean Christophe Diébré said he died a “natural death”; Diébré is being prosecuted for “forging a public document”.
Will France’s alleged role be addressed?
While the focus is on the role of Burkinabé actors, France will still be relevant to the trial.
“The inquiry established that French agents were present in Burkina Faso on the day after the assassination to destroy wiretaps targeting Blaise Compaoré and Jean-Pierre Palm, a gendarmerie officer implicated for his alleged role in Sankara's killing,” Jaffré said.
Many observers note that Sankara’s government opposed the operation of Françafrique, rejecting his country’s longstanding alliance with France. He also angered Paris by calling for New Caledonia, a French overseas territory, to be included on the UN’s list of places to be decolonised.
During a 2017 trip to Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to lift the “national defence secret” classification of all French archives concerning Sankara’s killing. Since then, three batches of declassified documents have been sent to Ouagadougou. But these contain only secondary documents and do not include any documents from the offices of François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who were respectively president and prime minister of France at the time of the assassination.
“There is no sign, in the documents provided so far, of a French presence in Ouagadougou the day after the assassination. But these documents must exist – and the fact that Macron didn’t keep his word shows a certain degree of embarrassment,” said Jaffré.