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Burkina Faso: What the verdict in Sankara's slaying means

April 7, 2022

More than 34 years after Thomas Sankara's assassination, a trial to establish the facts has taken place. For some, justice that has been delayed for deceades is finally being served.

Burkina Faso | Ehemaliger Präsident | Thomas Sankara
Image: AFP/dpa/picture-alliance

Some 34 years after the killing of Burkina Faso's former leader Thomas Sankara, closure over his untimely death that ended the revolutionary's reign in 1987 appears to have begun.

A military tribunal that started sitting in October last year delivered its verdict on Wednesday, sentencing to life imprisonment some of the people who played a role in Sankara's assassination.

Key among those sentenced was Sankara's former friend, Blaise Compaore, with whom he seized power in a 1983 coup.

The former chief warrant officer in Compaore's presidential guard, Hyacinthe Kafando, who is on the run, was also given a life sentence but the two men were tried in absentia. Compoare has been living in exile in Ivory Coast.

The third high-profile defendant — who was present at the trial — was General Gilbert Diendere, who was an army commander at the time of the 1987 coup.

The tribunal found the men "guilty of attack on state security, complicity in murder and concealment of a corpse."

Mariam Sankara, the widow of Thomas Sankara, said after the verdict that the trial not only revealed "who President Thomas Sankara is, who the individual is, who the politician is and what he wanted. But also what those who murdered him wanted."   

Mariam Sankara, widow of leader Thomas Sankara, sits in the Ougadougou courtroom in October, 2021
Mariam Sankara, widow of leader Thomas Sankara, sits in the Ougadougou courtroom in October, 2021Image: Sam Mednick/AP Photo/picture alliance

Many people who waited all these years to find out what really happened on October 15, 1987, now know not just what happened — but the whole truth.

Prosper Farama, a lawyer for the families of the victims, told DW that beyond the sentences handed down, the most important thing was to establish the truth in court.

"The families wanted the truth, justice," Farama said. "What interested us was that there was a verdict that would do us justice, it was that we had brought this trial to its conclusion, that the defendants had the opportunity to defend themselves except for those who did not have the courage and honesty to face the justice of their country."

What happened on October 15, 1987?

During the trial, a lot of details emerged to confirm the long-held public opinion that the three main defendants in the case — Blaise Compaore, Hyacinthe Kafando and General Gilbert Diendere — masterminded the assassination of Sankara in order to seize power.

Yamba Elise Ilboudo, who was among the 14 people put on trial, admitted at the start of proceedings in October 2021 that he had played a role that led to the murder.

Ilboudo, who said his actions were not premeditated and that he didn't take part in the entire plot, testified that on the day of the coup on October 15, 1987, he was at Blaise Compaore's home with other soldiers.

"We were under the orders of Hyacinthe Kafando, as head of security," Ilboudo told the court. Those men would go on to become the hit squad for the murder.

Sennen Andriamirado, editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique and an acquaintance of Sankara, published in 2020  that at 4 p.m. that day, Thomas Sankara was to lead one of the three weekly meetings for his special Cabinet.

Sankara and the Cabinet, according to Andriamirado, were going to deliberate on a report from one of his advisers who had just returned from Cotonou, where he was speaking with the leaders of the Revolutionary People's Party of Benin and collecting documents on the "Beninese Code of Revolutionary Conduct" — the project to create a National Council of the Revolution (CNR) newspaper.

Ilboudo declared during the trial that he was told by Kafando to drive to the meeting that Sankara attended.

He testified that Kafando and another individual called Maiga, "who had been driving Blaise Compaore's car, got out and opened fire."

Frankreich Paris | Ehemaliger Präsident Burkina Faso | Blaise Compaore
Former Burkina Faso's president Blaise CompaoreImage: Francois Mori/AP Photo/picture alliance

According to Ilboudo's testimony, Kafando then ordered the men in the two cars to get out. Some "went to the rear of the building where President Sankara was," Ilboudo said. 

Andriamirado's account reported that Alouna Traore, one of the survivors of the coup, said Sankara arrived for the meeting at 4:30 p.m. 

Traore was reportedly briefing Sankara and other Cabinet members at the meeting on his fact-finding mission in Contonou when he stopped after hearing the sound of what was believed to be a pierced exhaust pipe from an approaching car.

Sankara was quoted in Andriamirado's publication to have asked: "What is that noise?"

There were gunshots as testified by Ilboudo, who told the tribunal he remained in the car during what happened next, and did not open fire.

But inside the meeting room, Traore was reported by Andriamirado to have said that Sankara got up, sighed loudly and ordered his counselors to, "Stay! Stay! It's me they want!"

Traore said Sankara left the meeting room with his hands in the air. "He had barely stepped out of the door before he was shot," Alouna Traore revealed.

Thomas Sankara: Africa's 'Che Guevara'

The Burkinabe dream

Alouna Traore, who was at Wednesday's military court hearing, smiled when he left the courtroom.

"They attacked our dream thinking they could kill him. Thirty-five years later, I realize that the Burkinabe dream holds water. This excites the whole continent, the lines are moving," he told DW.

 "Thomas has done useful work, his example is being followed," Traore added. "Our joy is that young people, future generations use it for better fights, so that we can make these so-called territories of misery and precariousness, territories of happiness and well-being."

Serving the rank of army captain, Thomas Sankara, born in 1949, took power during the revolution that started on August 4, 1983.

While in power, he renamed the Upper Volta, a name inherited from the French colonial power, as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Burkina Faso, which means "the land of upright men." 

Sankara tried to turn his country into an agricultural laboratory in order to achieve food self-sufficiency. He promoted products made in Burkina Faso and also attempted to boost local manufacturing and consumption.

The charismatic Marxist revolutionary widely known as "Africa's Che Guevara" also wanted to improve the health system and education in a country that was one of the poorest in the world.

In a historic speech at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa in July 1987, Sankara denounced the debt owed to the Bretton Woods Institutions — the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — which, according to him, were inherited from colonialism.

Over three decades after his death, he is still loved by many for his modest lifestyle and the emancipation of women. That love even goes beyond the shores of Burkina Faso.

General Gilbert Diendere sits in a military court in Ougadougou
General Gilbert Diendere sits in a military court in Ougadougou Image: Sam Mednick/AP Photo/picture alliance

"He stands for selflessness, somebody of course who came to power through the gun but decided to slash his own salary and then urged citizens to follow suit. That is selfless leadership and that is what Africa lacks now," Ibrahim Alhassan, who lives in the Ghanaian capital Accra, told DW.

Kobina Welsing, another Accra resident, told DW that Sankara meant a lot to him even though he isn't a Burkinabe.

"I mean if you look at his life, you can see that he meant well for his people of Burkina Faso. I mean you look at the vehicle he used, he wasn't very opulent in his lifestyle. He was down to earth, he cared about the people. He was much more about the wellbeing and the betterment of the people of Burkina Faso," Welsing said.

Looking beyond the trial

The outcome of this trial is a relief, but more importantly, a major symbolic act for posterity, according to Prosper Farama.

"The whole of Africa and perhaps the world will one day remember that a people fought for nearly 34 years for justice to be done to brave men who fell, killed by the barbarity of their comrades," Farama told DW.

"From this trial, from this verdict, it is that this kind of heinous crime never happens in Burkina Faso and perhaps nowhere in Africa. From this trial, I think that the real mourning of these families who for 34 years have suffered, will truly begin," Farama said.

Vibrant tribute

"We want this to serve as a lesson for everyone," Sankara said. "It can be educational for convicts. For those who have not been convicted, let them know that by taking the lives of others, they will not be able to enjoy their freedom." 

Burkina Faso |  Prozess Thomas Sankara | 
A statue of Thomas Sankara situated in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.Image: Katrin Gänsler/DW

Luc Damiba, secretary general of the Thomas Sankara International Memorial Committee, said it was now time to pay a vibrant tribute to Sankara, considered the leader of the Burkinabe revolution.

He believes this tribute can be paid "by building the Thomas Sankara Memorial, by having a state funeral worthy of his name."

"All of Africa is watching us. Burkinabe outside are sometimes told that they have an untapped treasure. Elsewhere just his name opens doors, but the Burkinabe neglect it. It is important that it is rehabilitated. That's why we're going to continue the fight." 

Many are happy with the outcome of the trial but Mathieu Some, one of General Gilbert Diendere's lawyers, has deplored the outcome, lamenting that the judiciary did not take into account the fact that his client cooperated with the courts.

"It is excessive from my point of view. He took the same trouble as those who were absent. I found that, without going into details, not quite right. He still came to make his contribution by explaining himself to the people," Some told DW.

And for some relatives of the victims, the verdict from the military tribunal may not be the end of the case.

"You have to know that this is not the end. As the chair said, there is a possibility of appeal. Then there is an international component that is still ongoing," Farama said.

"The fight for justice and truth never stops at a trial. While we struggle every day to make sure these things don't happen, you'll see that we're not far from the start of these unfortunate events again. It is a continuous fight that never stops, not for the lawyers, but for all the Burkinabe people."

Three of the 14 people put on trial were acquitted. Apart from Blaise Compaore, Hyacinthe Kafando and General Gilbert Diendere who received life sentences, the other defendants got terms ranging from three to 23 years in prison.

Richard Tiene in Ouagadougou contributed to this article
Edited by: Keith Walker