Who Killed Revolutionary Leader Thomas Sankara? Trial Begins After Assassination 34 Years Ago

Who Killed Revolutionary Leader Thomas Sankara? Trial Begins After Assassination 34 Years Ago


Detail from a poster of former Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara, outside a bar in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Burkina Faso’s revered revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara wanted to “decolonize minds” in Burkina Faso and across the continent, but his revolutionary dreams were cut short when he was gunned down at age 37 and assassinated in a 1987 coup after just four years in power.

The trial started Monday for those charged with his shocking killing more than three decades ago in the capital of Ouagadougou. Many hope the trial will help shed more light on the assassination of “Africa’s Che Guevara”.

On trial are 14 men including Sankara’s former friend, Blaise Compaoré, who participated in the 1983 coup that brought Sankara to power.

Compaoré succeeded Sankara as president and went on to rule for 27 years. He currently lives in exile in neighboring Ivory Coast, where he fled after being forced to resign during mass protests in 2014.

Compaoré has repeatedly denied involvement in Sankara’s death and announced through his lawyers last week that he would boycott the trial.

The killing of Sankara, an icon of pan-Africanism, has for years cast a dark shadow over the Sahel state.

After several hours of presenting the case, the trial was adjourned until Oct. 25 when defense lawyers said they were confronted with 20,000 documents and had had little time to prepare their case.

An admirer of the Cuban Revolution, Sankara was a hero to many who say he championed national sovereignty by rejecting aid from the International Monetary Fund. Many cite his advancement of women’s rights by banning forced marriages, polygamy and female genital mutilation.

Education was a key priority for Sankara. The country’s literacy rate increased from 13 percent in 1983 to 73 percent in 1987, BBC reported. He also oversaw a massive national vaccination campaign. Sankara lived an austere life, reducing his own salary and banning the use of government chauffeurs and first-class airline tickets.

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His detractors, however, say he was an authoritarian leader who violated human rights including sanctioning arbitrary arrests of political opponents and extrajudicial killings.

Compaoré reportedly plotted the assassination after he lost faith in the revolution.

Sankara and his other comrades had been arrested and they were marched out of a meeting at Compaoré’s office before being shot at point-blank by coup plotters.

It is speculated that foreign countries including Côte d’Ivoire, France, Liberia and Libya were unhappy about Sankara’s pan-Africanism, and played a key role in his assassination.

“The inquiry into Sankara’s murder established that French agents were present in Burkina Faso the day after the assassination to destroy wiretaps targeting Blaise Compaoré and Jean-Pierre Palm, a gendarmerie officer implicated for his alleged role in Sankara’s Killing,” said Bruno Jaffré in a France24 interview. Jaffré runs a website devoted to Sankara, and is the author of “L’insurrection inachevée (The Unfinished Rebellion): Burkina 2014”.

There was no investigation or trial after Compaoré took control in a coup.

A former fighter pilot, Sankara seized power in a 1983 coup at the age of 33, promising to tackle corruption and the dominance of former colonial powers. He publicly denounced the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs.

Sankara’s modest lifestyle included riding to work on a bicycle and selling the government’s fleet of Mercedes vehicles when he was president. This won him public support.

Sankara was deeply influenced by his study of Marxist revolutions. He urged every village and city in Burkina Faso to organize into committees — local bodies that promote social welfare — for the defense of the revolution.

During his four years in power, Sankara declared war on corruption and changed the name of the former French colony from its colonial name, Upper Volta, to Burkina Faso — “Land of the Upright People.”

“Sankara developed complete independence in his country by giving its people confidence in themselves,” Jaffré said. “Outside of Burkina Faso, (Sankara) is seen as an anti-imperialist revolutionary who spoke for the oppressed and bolstered his nation’s sovereignty in the face of (former colonizer) France.”