BURKINA FASO: The murder trial of Revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s iconic “father of the revolution”, is due to open on Monday, 34 years after his assassination. Fourteen people, including the country’s ex-president, Blaise Compaoré, will stand trial.
In one of Africa’s most eagerly awaited trials for years, 14 people will be tried on October 11 at 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 fans – who say he championed national sovereignty by rejecting aid from the International Monetary Fund and point to his advancement of women’s rights, banning forced marriages, polygamy and female genital mutilation.
Sankara’s detractors say he was an authoritarian leader, alleging human rights violations including arbitrary arrests of political opponents and extrajudicial killings.
Sankara was killed four years after taking power, when commando troops stormed the headquarters of his National Revolutionary Council and shot him dead – bringing to power Blaise Compaoré, hitherto Sankara’s close friend and right-hand man.
The charismatic Pan-Africanist was shot dead aged 37 by soldiers during a coup on 15 October 1987, which saw his close friend, Blaise Compaoré, come to power.
Four years previously, the pair had staged the takeover which saw Sankara become president.
Mr Compaoré is among the 14 accused but he is currently in exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast, where he fled after being forced to resign during mass protests in 2014. He has repeatedly denied involvement in Sankara’s death and is boycotting the trial.
Why is Sankara seen as such a hero?
“For us, Sankara was a patriot. He loved his people. He loved his country. He loved Africa. He gave his life for us,” said Luc Damiba, secretary general of the Thomas Sankara Memorial Committee.
It was under his rule that the country was renamed – from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning “Land of Upright People”.
Sankara himself led an austere lifestyle. He reduced his own salary, and that of all public servants. He also banned the use of government chauffeurs and first-class airline tickets.
Education was a key priority – while he was in power, the literacy rate increased from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987, and he also oversaw a massive national vaccination campaign.
He also redistributed land from feudal landlords and gave it directly to poor farmers, which led to a huge increase in wheat production.
A man holds flowers next to an image of Thomas Sankara, in front of the headquarters of the National Council of the Revolution (CNR), in Ouagadougou in 2019. The former leader was killed at the site in 1987.
Sankara called for a united Africa to stand against what he called the “neo-colonialism” of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
He was once quoted as saying: “He who feeds you, controls you.”
He adopted an anti-imperialist foreign policy which challenged the dominance of France, which retained huge influence in many of its former colonies in Africa, such as Burkina Faso. His widow Mariam has accused France of masterminding his assassination.
“He remains my president. What he did for the population encourages us young people to do as he did,” a student at the Thomas Sankara University in Ouagadougou told the BBC.
An imposing six-metre high bronze statue at the Thomas Sankara Memorial Park in the capital, Ouagadougou, was unveiled in 2019, and then reworked last year following complaints about the first version.
Mr Damiba says that plans are underway to expand the park, including an 87-metre high tower overlooking Ouagadougou.
There will also be a mausoleum for Sankara, a cinema hall and a media library named after him. These facilities are expected to pass on Sankara’s revolutionary ideas to future generations.