34 years after murder of Thomas Sankara, 14 men including an ex-president are going on trial

Mildred Europa Taylor October 11, 2021
Thomas Sankara photographed a year before his death in 1986. Photograph: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

After 34 years, the murder trial of Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara has opened in the West African country’s capital Ouagadougou. Fourteen people, including the country’s former president Blaise Compaoré, will stand trial on Monday. Sankara, who was not one of those African leaders to be told what to do by western nations, was murdered after four years in power in a coup led by his former friend Compaoré.

Compaoré succeeded him and ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years before being removed from power in a 2014 uprising following his decision to extend his tenure. He fled to Ivory Coast, where he has since been in exile. The ex-leader has denied involvement in Sankara’s murder.

In April this year, a military tribunal charged Compaoré with complicity in the assassination of his predecessor Sankara, undermining state security and receiving cadavers, according to a court document cited by Reuters. Compaoré’s former right-hand man and military general, Gilbert Diendere, was also charged with several crimes related to Sankara’s killing, including complicity in the murder, subornation of witnesses and concealment of corpses.

Diendere has been in prison in Burkina Faso serving a 20-year sentence after a failed coup in 2015 against the country’s transitional government. He was in court to hear the charges and will enter a plea later, CNN reported in April.

In 2015, Burkina Faso issued an arrest warrant for Compaoré, but Ivory Coast has refused to hand him over. Sankara became president in 1983 after participating in a coup that removed Col. Saye Zerbo from the presidency and subduing Maj. Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, who was also struggling to take the nation’s top position. While president, Sankara quickly became known as Africa’s Che Guevara. In addition to implementing left-wing and anti-imperialist policies, he was a staunch opponent of corruption.

Sankara’s life was however cut short on October 15, 1987, when he was murdered along with 12 soldiers and buried in an unmarked grave by military men. He was only 37 years old.

During former President Compaore’s 27-year reign, he refused to allow Sankara’s body to be exhumed. However, after Compaore was forced to step down, Sankara’s body together with the other 12 slain soldiers was exhumed in late May 2015 to unravel the mystery surrounding their death. This was done after an investigation into the death of Sankara was opened in late March 2015.

According to Sankara’s family lawyer Ambroise Farama, the autopsy findings were “mind-boggling”.

“While the soldiers who were buried with him only sustained one or two gunshots, Sankara’s alleged body was riddled with bullets.”

“…As far as Thomas Sankara was concerned, there were more than a dozen bullet holes all over the body, even below the armpits,” Farama explained.

The results of the autopsy, which was done in France to confirm the identity of Sankara and the other soldiers, could not be corroborated as the DNA results were inconclusive thereby making it impossible to fully identify the victims. This compelled Sankara’s family to request for another DNA test on his supposed remains to which a judge ordered for it to be undertaken in Spain. The results of that were also inconclusive.

According to France24, the first reconstruction of Sankara’s assassination took place at the scene of the crime in February 2020. The judge presiding over the inquiry subsequently transferred it to a military court in October, preparing the way for the trial starting on Monday.

Compaore will be tried in absentia by the military court in the capital, Ouagadougou. His lawyers said last week that he would not be attending a “political trial” flawed by irregularities, adding that he enjoyed immunity as a former head of state.

Another notable person being charged in absentia is Hyacinthe Kafando, Compaoré’s former security chief who is accused of leading the hit squad. An international arrest warrant has been issued for him. More people were expected to stand trial. However, “many defendants died”, according to France 24. Some say that it is possible that foreign countries, including France, Libya, Ivory Coast, and Liberia played a role in the killing of Sankara. However, the trial will focus exclusively on Burkinabé people involved in the killing of the iconic leader.

President Roch Marc Kaboré hopes the historic trial will “ease tensions and boost national reconciliation,” BBC reported.

Last Edited by:Francis Akhalbey Updated: October 11, 2021


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