Burkina Faso’s ex-president Compaoré sentenced to life over pan-African folk hero Sankara’s murder
Burkina Faso's iconic former leader Thomas Sankara is sometimes described as "Africa's Che Guevara". © Dominique Faget, AFP

Burkina Faso's former president Blaise Compaoré was sentenced in absentia to life in jail over his role in the 1987 murder of the country's revolutionary folk hero Thomas Sankara, a military court ruled on Wednesday, wrapping up a long-awaited trial that was disrupted by a coup.

An iconic figure sometimes dubbed the “African Che Guevara”, Sankara was just 33 when he came to power in 1983, setting in motion a revolution that pledged to “decolonise African minds” and continues to inspire followers across the continent.

The short-lived experiment came to a brutal end on October 15, 1987, when he and 12 colleagues were gunned down by a hit squad during a meeting at the presidential palace in Ouagadougou. The massacre coincided with a coup that took Sankara's erstwhile comrade Compaoré to power.

On Wednesday, a special military tribunal ruled that Compaoré was guilty of complicity in Sankara’s murder, sentencing him and his former head of security, Hyacinthe Kafando, to life in jail. General Gilbert Diendéré, one of the commanders of the army during the 1987 coup and the main defendant present at the trial, was also sentenced to life.

Prosecutors had demanded a 30-year jail term for Compaoré, who was deposed in a 2014 popular uprising and has lived in exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast ever since. The former president, who denounced a “political trial”, was tried in absentia on counts of attacking state security, concealing a corpse and complicity in a murder.

Throughout his 27-year reign, Compaoré clamped a tight lid on the circumstances of Sankara's demise, fuelling speculation that he was the mastermind. It was only after his ouster that Sankara’s remains were finally exhumed, paving the way for the long-waited trial.

International ‘conspiracy’

One of the world's poorest countries, Burkina Faso has a long history of political turmoil and is battling a jihadist insurgency that has claimed some 2,000 lives and displaced up to 1.8 million people.

Reflecting the turmoil, the trial was briefly suspended after a coup on January 24 that deposed the elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. It resumed after a new military strongman, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, restored the constitution and swore an oath.

Tensions between Sankara and his erstwhile ally Compaoré were described in detail during the six-month proceedings, with several witnesses pointing to an “international conspiracy” to remove a troublesome leader who was not afraid to challenge the world order and rebuke France, the former colonial power.

“The tragedy of October 15, 1987 was a result of pressure exerted by a number of heads of state, including Félix Houphouët Boigny,” said Abdoul Salam Kaboré, a sports minister under Sankara, referring to Ivory Coast’s former ruler and a key French ally.

Speaking via video-link from France, Sankara’s former close aide Moussa Diallo said there was no doubt the assassination “was premeditated” and that Houphouët Boigny “was at the heart of the plot”.

The longtime Ivorian leader once told Sankara, “You have to change, and if you don’t, we will change you,” Serge Théophile Balima, a former head of Burkina Faso’s state TV, testified in court.

In its closing statement, the prosecution recounted in grim detail the day Sankara was murdered by a hit squad that burst into a meeting of his National Revolutionary Council meeting, killing his guards.

“The squad then ordered president Sankara and his colleagues to leave the room,” the prosecution said. “They would then be killed one by one.”

Ballistics experts told the trial Sankara had been shot in the chest at least seven times by assassins using tracer rounds. At least one bullet was fired in his back.

The defendants had claimed the victims died in a botched attempt to arrest Sankara after he and Compaoré fell out over the direction the country's revolution was taking.

During the trial, “None of the accused confessed or repented – not a single one!” said Prosper Farama, a lawyer representing the Sankara family, adding that the family wanted “justice, not revenge”.

‘Pride of Africa’

While Sankara’s death put an end to his revolution, the premature and brutal manner of his demise would help cement the legend of a progressive leader who sought to empower the people in a continent blighted by colonial plunder and mismanagement.

Sankara followed in the footsteps of previous pan-African icons, including the likes of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, historian Amzat Boukari-Yabara told FRANCE 24 at the start of the trial.

“His originality was to defend the principle of people’s emancipation, rather than the emancipation of states. He called on the people of Africa to join forces around regional struggles, such as fighting desertification, and around continental challenges, like ending debt bondage,” Boukari-Yabara explained.

“On matters of governance, women’s rights, fighting forced marriage and female genital mutilation, climate and culture, he was a pioneer,” he added. “His assassination clearly marked the end of revolutionary pan-Africanism.”

The man who renamed the former French colony of Haute-Volta as Burkina Faso – meaning the “Land of the Honest”, or “Upright” – was ahead of his time in recognizing climate change and desertification as the single biggest threat to the well-being of its people.

“The desert is at our gates, it’s already upon us, ready to engulf us,” he warned as he launched a massive tree-planting drive to “re-green” the country, halt soil erosion and foster sustainable agriculture. More than three decades after his death, his vision of a “wall of trees” holding back the encroaching desert has taken root in a pan-African project of breathtaking scale, a cross-continental barrier stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

None of this was possible without the liberation of women, Sankara would stress in his fiery speeches up and down the country, pointing out that women “carry the other half of the sky” – on top of the wood that fuels stoves and cookers and the water that feeds their families, their crops and their livestock.

“May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence,” he once said. “I hear the roar of women’s silence. I sense the rumble of their storm and feel the fury of their revolt.”

That spirit has outlived Burkina Faso’s revolutionary captain, said Serge Ouédraogo, a high-school teacher in the capital, Ouagadougou – outshining the darker aspects of Sankara’s legacy, including his efforts to silence dissenters.

“Sankara is a whole philosophy, a way of thinking and living. He’s the pride of Africa,” Ouédraogo told AFP. “Today we can say that Sankara is a compass for the people of Burkina Faso. He’s a guide, the one who charts a path of hope for the people.”