The murder trial of Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s emblematic “father of the revolution”, is due to open on Monday, 34 years after his assassination. Fourteen people, including the country’s former president, Blaise Compaoré, will be tried. FRANCE 24 examines why Sankara is such a heroic figure in Africa and what to expect from this long-awaited court case.
In one of the most anticipated trials in Africa in years, 14 people will be tried on October 11 at a military tribunal in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for the murder of the country’s former president, Thomas Sankara, and of 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 defended national sovereignty by rejecting aid from the Fund. monetary policy and underline its promotion of women’s rights, prohibiting forced marriages, polygamy and female genital mutilation. Critics of Sankara 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 commandos stormed the headquarters of his National Revolutionary Council and shot it down, bringing to power Blaise Compaoré, until then a close friend and right-hand man of Sankara.
Compaoré then ruled Burkina Faso for nearly three decades, before a popular uprising toppled him in 2014 and he fled to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. The ex-strongman is the main defendant in the next trial – but he will not go to Ouagadougou to appear in the dock, his lawyers said Thursday.
Despite Compaoré’s absence, the trial is eagerly awaited – with more than 200 hundred journalists from around the world accredited to cover the proceedings.
What does Sankara represent?
Sankara has left an indelible mark on his country and has become a Pan-African icon in the process.
In a major symbolic gesture, he changed the name of the country of Upper Volta, given by France, to Burkina Faso, meaning “the land of upright men”.
Sankara broke with the former colonial power France, which maintained clientelist relations with its former African colonies in an approach known as Françafrique.
“Sankara has developed complete independence in his country by giving its inhabitants self-confidence,” said Bruno Jaffré, author of L’insurrection unachevée: Burkina 2014 (“La rébellion unachevée: Burkina 2014”) who runs a dedicated website. at Sankara, thomassankara.net. “Outside of Burkina Faso, he is seen as an anti-imperialist revolutionary who spoke on behalf of the oppressed and strengthened his nation’s sovereignty over France.
In this context, the Sankara legend continues to grow, especially among young people who venerate him while they have no memory of his reign in Burkina Faso.
Why did it take 34 years for a trial to take place?
The announcement of the trial in August was a huge shock, Jaffré said, because the 1987 assassination had long been a taboo subject in Burkina Faso: “When the trial was announced, the Burkinabés did not even dare to believe it. “, did he declare.
“The Compaoré regime did everything to prevent the criminal justice process from doing its job on Sankara’s death – and only after [Compaoré was ousted in] in the fall of 2014 that the ball started, ”continued Jaffré.
Indeed, it is the government set up for the democratic transition of Burkina Faso that launched the judicial process in March 2015. An international arrest warrant was issued against Compaoré in December of the same year. Finally, the first reenactment of Sankara’s assassination took place at the crime scene in February 2020. The judge presiding over the investigation then transferred her to a military court in October – paving the way for the trial which begins on Monday.
But obstructionism delayed this historic trial. Compaoré’s defense lawyers have done “everything they can to delay or even cancel it,” Jaffré noted. In particular, they had great difficulty in saying that Compaoré’s international arrest warrant had been “canceled” by Burkina Faso’s highest court in 2016. Compaoré’s defense lawyers also said that their client did not ‘had “never been summoned for questioning” and that he had “never been notified” of any Burkinabé criminal justice procedure except for his “final summons” to stand trial. Defense lawyers also argued that Compaoré enjoyed immunity as a former head of state.
In April 2016, the Attorney General of Burkina Faso’s highest court had indeed announced an annulment due to technicalities of the international arrest warrant targeting Compaoré. But a month later, the government commissioner at the military court denied reports that the trial had been canceled, saying the quashed warrants only concerned a September 2015 coup case against the transitional government.
Given that the ex-president has always denied any responsibility for everything that went wrong in Burkina Faso, “it is not surprising” that Compaoré is not in court to face the charges 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 the 14 people accused. General Gilbert Diendéré – one of the main leaders of the Burkinabé army at the time of the 1987 coup – is the other main accused. After serving as Compaoré’s chief of staff during the latter’s long presidency, Diendéré was jailed for 20 years for attempted murder during the 2015 coup attempt. In the next trial, he and Compoaré are both accused of “complicity in murder”, “concealment of corpses” and “endangering state security”.
Soldiers from Compaoré’s former presidential guard – notably Hyacinthe Kafondo, who is accused of having led the commando group that assassinated Sankara and who is currently on the run – are also among the defendants.
Initially, it was expected that more people would be tried. However, “many defendants have died”, according to civil party lawyers.
What to expect from the trial?
There has been a lot of speculation about the possible role of foreign countries – including France, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Libya – in the murder of Sankara. But the trial will focus exclusively on the Burkinabés 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 murder will be at the heart of the trial, ”he noted.
The investigating judge was able to question all the surviving witnesses present on the day of the assassination who had never spoken.
These witnesses have already clarified some important questions – in particular, they established that the “commando force came from the house of Compaoré” and that “Diendéré was present to direct the operations”, observed Jaffré.
In addition to trying to understand the exact sequence of the assassination, the trial will also seek to hold individuals responsible for complicity in the attempted cover-up of Sankara’s murder. For example, Doctor Jean Christophe Diébré said that he died of “natural death”; Diébré is being prosecuted for “falsifying a public document”.
Will France’s alleged role be discussed?
Although the emphasis is on the role of Burkinabé actors, France will still be relevant for the trial.
“The investigation established that French agents were present in Burkina Faso the day after the assassination to destroy the wiretaps targeting Blaise Compaoré and Jean-Pierre Palm, a gendarmerie officer implicated for his alleged role in the assassination of Sankara “said Jaffré.
Many observers note that Sankara’s government opposed the Françafrique operation, rejecting its country’s long-standing alliance with France. He also angered Paris by calling for the inclusion of New Caledonia, a French overseas territory, on the UN list of places to be decolonized.
During a trip to Burkina Faso in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to lift the “national defense secret” classification of all French archives concerning the assassination of Sankara. Since then, three batches of declassified documents have been sent to Ouagadougou. But these only contain 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 to date, of a French presence in Ouagadougou in the aftermath of the assassination. But these documents must exist – and the fact that Macron did not keep his word shows a certain degree of embarrassment, ”he added. said Jaffré.
This article has been translated from the original into French.