On 15 October, 1987, the world was coldly greeted with the sudden and horrendous news of Thomas Sankara's gruesome assassination in another ‘expected’ West African military coup.
Given the political isolation he was subjected to in the months preceding his death - perhaps, and rightly so, a counter-revolution - Sankara’s murder shocked the civil comfort bubbles of nascent African democracy and ‘governance’.
The charismatic revolutionary leader - affectionately and reverently referred to as ‘Africa's Che Guevara’ - was mercilessly sprayed with several bullets during his National Revolutionary Council meeting in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. A dozen others who were with Sankara were also killed. Sankara’s grisly murder marked the grinding halt of a promising chapter in Africa’s pursuit for holistic liberation.
What ensued after this tragedy - Blaise Compaoré’s autocratic and pro-Western regime - ostensibly goes down as one of the most repressive decades not only for Burkina Faso's history but Africa's at large.
Brother Turned Enemy
When Compaore immediately assumed power after Sankara’s death, he asserted that the departed leftist leader had put Burkina Faso’s relations with France at grave risk. He subjugated his country to the whims and caprices of France, the World Bank, and the IMF - effectively negating all progressively people-centred values that Sankara had earnestly sought to bring to fruition.
The dreadful, cowardly assassination of Sankara, who had ushered in an emancipatory revolution four years earlier, dimmed the torch of such a revolution just when it presented the potential to take off towards a holistic and solidaristic trajectory. One can only wonder what it could have portended not only for West Africa and the Sahel but the whole continent.
35 years have lapsed since Sankara's demise, but his incitive revolutionary seeds - a point he once made (that you may kill the revolutionary but you cannot kill the ideas) - haunt the nation with an urgent but patient quest for answers.
A Trial Dedicated to Truth-Finding
This delicate exercise, worsened by the key defendant in this matter, Blaise Compaoré, being tried in absentia, has opened fresh wounds of lies, deception, cover-ups, treacherous betrayal, counter-revolution, and collective trauma.
In this web the progressive masses of Burkina Faso - who are growing weary with extremist insurgency in West Africa - hold their breath in the spirited hope that the answers to Sankara’s assassination will come to light.
More crucially, Sankara’s family and fellow revolutionaries caught in the storm of the 1987 coup by Compaoré equally demand the truth for long-awaited closure.
For radicals, the intelligentsia and even liberals in Africa and across the world, the trial is expected to bring respite to a subject that was once taboo in Burkina Faso - the legacy of Thomas Sankara and what he had started in the impoverished nation; the revolutionary action in putting a defensive stand against imperialism and neocolonialism for the greater good of Burkina Faso’s masses.
In October 2021 the murder trial of Thomas Sankara began in Ouagadougou and it is being heard in a military court. Blaise Compaoré and thirteen other defendants are facing charges relating to the murder of Sankara in October 1987.
Although a wave of political instability rocked the West African nation following a military coup (which resulted in the temporary suspension of trial proceedings), the trial has resumed. The ever-elusive search for the truth goes on with Compaoré being labelled the main orchestrator of Sankara’s assassinations. Claims of external influence - notably the role of France - equally demand their attention as the trial goes on.
In February, military prosecutors advanced their request for Compaore to be put behind bars for 30 years. They asked the court to convict the Ivorian-based political exile in absentia, the charges being an “attack on state security”, “concealment of a corpse” and “complicity in a murder”.
The state also requested 30 years imprisonment for Hyacinth Kafando, the commander of Compaoré’s guard. It is suspected that it was Kafando who was at the forefront of the hit squad that ended the lives of Sankara and his aides.
Prosecution further asked the court to hand a 20-year prison sentence for the former head of security Gen Gilbert Diendéré. The former general is the main defendant at the trial since he is already serving another 20-year sentence for involvement in a 2015 coup attempt.
The Flimsy Legal Defence of an Unrepentant Autocrat
When the trial commenced, Compaoré’s French legal defence argued that it was a sham and borderline a nullity because as a former head of state, Compaoré is entitled to immunity. His Paris-based lawyer, Pierre-Olivier Sur, with the typical arrogance of capitalist legal practitioners, stated that his client had refused to participate in the trial because it lacked “international recognition” - adding that the trial is a “parody.” (When Compaoré was ousted from power in 2014 through a mass popular uprising, he was assisted by France when he fled to Ivory Coast.)
Given the pressing need that grips Sankara’s family, Burkinabes, and all other global citizens to find closure following the murky demise of Sankara, the military prosecution has fervently proceeded with the case - in a bold attempt to set a precedence that impunity has no place in the terrain of African political dynamics and all its contradictions.
The Fight for Sankara’s Justice - A Statement Against Impunity
Mariam Sankara (Thomas Sankara’s widow) has relentlessly championed the fight for justice these past 35 years - without hesitating to confront this haunting question, “Who killed Thomas Sankara?” And even though most of the defendants are in self-imposed political exile or dead, Burkina Faso’s uncompromising resolve to send a clear statement to imperial predators and elites should be rightly lauded. It is also a statement addressed to the local comprador and petit bourgeoisie who selfishly abet the greedy, sinister plots of foreign private capital.
The Sankara murder trial is an attestation of positive political permutations; a stern warning to incumbent African leaders that one day they will have to answer for their atrocities in the full glare of the world - the genuine pursuit of truth, accountability, and justice.
For the first time, witnesses have an emboldened will to come forward. The trial is not characterized by a crude desire for vengeance, but the genuine search for the truth.
The Fragile Nature of the Murder Trial
Such uncompromising political and moral positions, expressed through legal proceedings in which the contradictions of international law - inherently rooted in unequal power relations between the global north and south, do not mean the case is a walk in the park. Rather, this trial is a thorny journey. Even if the court will impose a jail sentence, it is likely that Compaoré and other defendants will not spend the remainder of their lives in prison cells. Most importantly, the elusive nature of evidence directly linking France to the assassination poses critical challenges.
In 2013, a French Communist lawmaker, André Chassaigne, made his intention clear in relation to the 1987 murders - he announced plans to press the French National Assembly to set up a commission of inquiry in order to get to the truth about Sankara’s murder. His was an incendiary demand, “France, to an as-yet unknown extent, is responsible for this assassination…I believe that France, which today claims to behave differently towards Africa under what I personally would call a virtuous circle, must tell the truth…We cannot leave the people of Burkina Faso, and more broadly speaking, the peoples of Africa in the dark about what really happened.”
In 2016, an investigating judge from Burkina Faso requested France to avail declassified military documents about Sankara’s assassination. The real truth as to what actually took place is frustratingly sketchy. Sankara’s death certificate declared that he had died of “natural causes”. Yet, Alouna Traoré, the only survivor from October 15, 1987, recounted the gunfire but new forensic evidence puts it that Sankara was shot seven times, that rained on the revolutionary comrades that day: “It [gunfire] sounded like a tornado on a tin roof.”
He further recalled how, shortly before Sankara was “riddled with bullets”, he resignedly remarked, “It’s me they want.” That marked the end of the 1983 revolution that had lifted Burkina Faso from the lowly status of perpetual subservience into an African nation state that was boldly marching on the trajectory of self-sufficiency, national cultural pride, and inimitable national solidarity.
Why Sankara Was Assassinated - An Undying Revolution Nonetheless
Sankara’s assassination came at a time of a frenetic Cold War in which Western liberal capitalism was getting confident in the global ubiquity of its hegemonic domination - and vociferously spread the “religion of anti-communism”. Western imperial forces have always quashed progressive people’s movements throughout history: Guatemala, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of Congo, Vietnam; the list is endless.
Given this context, France’s role should be unearthed at the trial - but the former colonial power impedes this by obstinately refusing to furnish Burkina Faso with declassified intelligence and military files.
Sankara always railed against the menace of imperialism, neo-colonialism, foreign debt, dependency, unwavering support of liberation movements, and endless foreign intervention in sovereign nations.
France’s then president, François Mitterand, passed a coarse remark when he met Sankara in 1986: “This is a somewhat troublesome man, President Sankara. He goes further than necessary.” With fierce loyalty to Pan-African unity, Sankara was a thorn in the flesh for Western imperialism.
An inference from these circumstances, heightened by Cold War animosities, is that France played a significant role in eliminating Sankara. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, “pledged” to proffer Burkina Faso all declassified intelligence files, but till now, only three batches have been sent, making the judicial work of prosecution a cumbersome exercise. American intelligence files showed that when Sankara first took power, France sought to remove him from power.
Thomas Sankara - the Immortal and Incorruptible Revolutionary
Although Compaoré actively sought to delete Sankara’s memory and legacy from Burkina Faso’s collective national psyche, his enduring influence has surged exponentially - a revolution in the after-life.
With the crises afflicting Burkina Faso, notably extremist insurgency in the Sahel, Sankara’s revolution left an indelible imprint in the world. A military leader who had been inspired by Karl Marx, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Muammar Gaddafi, and other leftist luminaries, Sankara was acutely aware that the task at hand was not easy but he dared to dream; he dared to act.
Thomas Sankara remains the enduring incorruptible figure - an opponent of corruption, a passionate advocate of women emancipation, and attached to the struggles of the Third World with compassionate, revolutionary love rooted in progressive action (praxis). He was a devoted Communist with a holistic internationalist outlook for he believed in the empowerment of all humanity.
Within four years, Sankara had radically transformed Burkina Faso despite the monstrosity of contradictions in his way - he vastly improved the country’s literacy rate, fostered solidarity and change with rural peasants, and thoroughly eschewed the concept of foreign debt under the World Bank’s and the IMF’s dictates of structural adjustment programs.
His was a Marxian-inspired revolution that professed itself as a genuine democratic and popular revolution. From 1983 to 1987, the country’s citizens developed a newfound, emancipatory cultural pride in their African roots - Sankara changed the country’s name from the colonial ‘Upper Volta’ to ‘Burkina Faso’, the latter which means “land of the upright people.”
He ensured that the government provided rural farmers with extensive agricultural inputs, increased access to education, and improved healthcare in which by 1986, about 2 million children had been vaccinated against the biggest childhood killer diseases. Social solidarity, general public welfare, social services for all, and communal work were the core principles in the nation’s determination to achieve self-sufficiency in the brutal world of exploitative and extractive capitalist markets.
A Murder Trial and a Revolution in the After-life
With the current murder trial, in which the search for the truth trumps all other ideals, the hope is that Sankara’s legacy will eternally live on. It is hoped that with such truth, his family, his nation, and the world at large find much-needed closure.
This is a statement to autocratic leaders; that one day they have to be accountable for their atrocities in the bigger picture of achieving reconciliation for global human solidarity.
Even to the unacquainted, they will not be surprised being told that the uprising that ousted Compaoré in 2014 drew massive inspiration from Sankara’s immortal ideals.