The murder trial of ‘African Che Guevera’ Thomas Sankara finally begins

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The murder trial of Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s iconic “father of the revolution,” will open on Monday, 34 years after his murder. Fourteen people, including the country’s former president, Blaise Compaoré, will stand trial. Jowharexamines 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 for years, 14 people will stand trial on October 11 in 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 fanatics, who say he defended national sovereignty by rejecting help from the International Monetary Fund and signaling his advancement of rights to women, 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 executions.

Sankara died four years after taking power, when commando troops stormed the headquarters of his National Revolutionary Council and shot him dead, bringing Blaise Compaoré, until now Sankara’s close friend and right-hand man, to power.

Compaoré ruled Burkina Faso for nearly three decades, before a popular uprising toppled him in 2014 and he fled to neighboring Ivory Coast. The former strongman is the main defendant in the upcoming trial, but he will not go to Ouagadougou to stand on the dock, his lawyers said on Thursday.

Despite Compaoré’s absence, the trial is highly anticipated, with more than 200 journalists from around the world accredited to cover the process.

What does Sankara represent?

Sankara left an indelible mark on her country and became a pan-African icon in the process.

In an important symbolic move, he changed the name of the country from Upper Volta, given by France, to Burkina Faso, which means “the land of honest men.”

Sankara broke with the former colonial power France, which maintained clientelistic relationships with its former African colonies in an approach known as Françafrique.

“Sankara developed complete independence in his country giving his people self-confidence,” said Bruno Jaffré, author of L’insurrection inachevée: Burkina 2014 (“The Unfinished Rebellion: Burkina 2014”) who runs a website dedicated to Sankara. , thomassankara. net. “Outside of Burkina Faso, he is seen as an anti-imperialist revolutionary who spoke out for the oppressed and reinforced the sovereignty of his nation against France.”

In this context, the legend of Sankara continues to grow, especially among young people who worship him despite not remembering his rule in Burkina Faso.

Why did it take 34 years for a trial to take place?

The announcement of the trial in August was a great shock, Jaffré noted, as the 1987 murder had long been a taboo subject in Burkina Faso: “When the trial was announced, Burkinabés did not even dare to believe it,” he said.

“The Compaoré regime did everything possible to prevent the criminal justice process from doing its job for Sankara’s death, and it wasn’t until [Compaoré was ousted in] fall 2014 the ball started rolling, ”continued Jaffré.

In fact, it was the government established for Burkina Faso’s democratic transition that initiated the judicial process in March 2015. An international arrest warrant was issued against Compaoré in December of the same year. Finally, the first reconstruction of Sankara’s murder 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 that would begin on Monday.

But filibuster delayed this historic trial. Compaoré’s defense attorneys did “everything they could to delay or even cancel it,” Jaffré said. In particular, they profited greatly by saying that Compaoré’s international arrest warrant was “canceled” by Burkina Faso’s highest court in 2016. Compaoré’s defense attorneys also said that their client “had never been summoned for questioning” and that he “had never been summoned for questioning.” he has been notified ”of any proceeding by the Burkinabé criminal justice system, except his“ final summons ”to stand trial. Defense attorneys have also argued that Compaoré benefits from immunity as a former head of state.

In April 2016, Burkina Faso’s highest court attorney general did announce a cancellation due to a technicality in the international arrest warrant against Compaoré. But a month later, the government commissioner in the military court denied reports that the trial was canceled, clarifying that the canceled orders only related to a September 2015 coup case against the transitional government.

Given that the former president has always denied responsibility for anything that has gone wrong in Burkina Faso, “it is not surprising” that Compaoré is not in court to face the accusations against him, Guy Hervé Kam, the lawyer representing the civil part. in the case against Compaoré, he told AFP.

Who are the accused?

Compaoré is one of 14 people charged. General Gilbert Diendéré, one of Burkina Faso’s top 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 jailed for 20 years for attempted murder in the 2015 coup attempt. At the next trial, both he and Compoaré will be charged with “ complicity in murder ”,“ concealment of corpses ”and“ attack against the security of the State ”.

Soldiers from Compaoré’s former presidential guard, in particular Hyacinthe Kafondo, who is accused of leading the commando group that murdered Sankara and is currently on the run, are also among those accused.

Initially, it was expected that more people would be tried. 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, the Ivory Coast, Liberia and Libya, in the murder of Sankara. But the trial will focus exclusively on the Burkinabé people involved in his murder.

The focus will be on Compaoré, according to Jaffré. “His absence is regrettable; however, the question of his responsibility for the murder will be at the center of the trial, “he said.

The investigating judge was able to question all surviving witnesses present on the day of the murder who had never spoken before.

These witnesses have already clarified some important issues, in particular, they have established that “the command force came from Compaoré’s house” and that “Diendéré was present to direct the operations,” observed Jaffré.

In addition to trying to understand the exact sequence of the murder, the trial will also seek to hold people accountable for their complicity in the attempted cover-up of Sankara’s murder. For example, the doctor Jean Christophe Diébré said that he died a “natural death”; Diébré is being prosecuted for “forgery of a public document.”

Will the alleged role of France be addressed?

While the focus is on the role of Burkina Faso actors, France will remain relevant to the trial.

“The investigation established that French agents were present in Burkina Faso the day after the assassination to destroy the wiretaps against Blaise Compaoré and Jean-Pierre Palm, a gendarmerie officer implicated for their alleged role in the Sankara assassination,” Jaffré said.

Many observers note that the Sankara government opposed Françafrique’s operation, rejecting his country’s long-standing alliance with France. He also enraged Paris by calling for New Caledonia, a French overseas territory, to be included on the UN list of places to be decolonized.

During a 2017 trip to Burkina Faso, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to raise the “national defense secret” classification of all French archives related to the Sankara assassination. 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 trace, 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 did not keep his word shows a certain degree of shame, “said Jaffré.