Thirty-four years after the assassination of former Burkinabé president Thomas Sankara, his successor, former president Blaise Compaoré and 13 others, has been charged in connection to Sankara’s murder. Among those charged with Sankara’s murder is former National Council for Democracy chairman Gilbert Diendéré, who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for his involvement in the failed 2015 coup which attempted to overthrow transitional President Michel Kafando.
Along with the murder, Compaoré and his associates have also been accused of attacking state security and concealment of corpses. Compaoré has been in exile since 2014 after an uprising forced him out of the office and ended his 27-year term as President. It is unclear if he will face his trial in person; until then, however, he is being tried in absentia.
After his election in 2015, current Burkinabé president Roch Kaboré dedicated his presidency in part to starting the path to what he describes as “national reconciliation,” relating to Burkina’s current instability as a result of the current Sahel insurgency crisis. There is currently a debate going on over what precisely national reconciliation would look like in this case, as there are those who believe that Compaoré must be convicted and sent to prison. There are those who believe that he should be pardoned, essentially allowing the past to stay in the past and promote a more positive and forward approach.
In order to discuss Burkina Faso’s path to national reconciliation, it is essential to understand and reflect on its history and the legacy of Thomas Sankara. In 1960, Burkina, then known as Upper Volta, became independent from French control, beginning with its first President, Maurice Yaméogo, leader of the Voltaic Democratic Union. At the start of his presidency, Yaméogo disbanded all political parties except the UDV. Yaméogo was widely disliked as his administration was accused of corruption and favouring neocolonialist policies, among many other things. Yaméogo would remain in office until a 1966 coup d’état forced him to resign his presidency and introduced new president Sangoulé Lamizana. A respected leader, Lamizana would remain in power for 14 years until he as well would be thrown out of power by third president Saye Zerbo in a non-fatal coup d’état in 1980, and eventually, Zerbo would find himself thrown out of power as well two years later in another coup d’état by fourth president Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo.
As a child, Thomas Sankara was known as an exceptionally bright and ambitious student. Later on, he decided to join a military academy in Kadiogo in 1966, in effect also gaining a scholarship to continue his studies. While at the academy, Sankara was introduced to progressive ideologies, being exposed to the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, which would strongly influence his political and economic values.
Sankara would begin his political career in 1981 after being appointed as Minister of Information during the Zerbo administration. He would resign a year later, as he vehemently disagreed with some of the administration’s policies and ideas. After the coup which inducted President Ouédraogo in office, Sankara became Prime Minister of Upper Volta. This was short lived, as he would be relieved of his position after a few months. Among other radicals in the government, Sankara pushed Ouédraogo’s administration to implement more progressive changes, which eventually led to his arrest. Sankara’s arrest was protested by many of the younger officers in the military. This inspired his then friend Blaise Compaoré to lead a coup d’état against Ouédraogo, effectively throwing him out of power and replacing him with Thomas Sankara as the new President of Upper Volta.
Sankara’s presidency is regarded as the beginning of the Burkinabé revolution. The Sankara administration welcomed a massive influx of progressive reforms that had not been seen before in the country and many other parts of Africa. Wanting to distance the country from its colonial past, he officially renamed the country Burkina Faso. Sankara was a revolutionary leader in women’s rights, implementing policies such as banning female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and appointing women to high government positions. Infant mortality rates in the country fell significantly during his time in office; he became the first African President to recognize AIDS as a public health threat to Africa publicly. Sankara also created education programs aimed to help decrease illiteracy rates in the country as well. All of these just a shortlist among his many contributions during his time in office.
In 1987, Sankara, along with 12 others, would be assassinated in a violent coup led by Blaise Compaoré, who would then assume the position as President. Compaoré would accuse Sankara of jeopardizing relations with France and neighbouring countries like Ivory Coast. Since then, many of Sankara’s policies have been overturned by Compaoré. The country is among the poorest in the world in terms of GDP, and is currently plagued by violent militant insurgency.
As of now, a date has not been announced for when the Compaoré’s trial will begin. As many have differing opinions on what decision would be in the best interest of maintaining the countries goal of national reconciliation, the history and legacy of Thomas Sankara must be at the forefront of the conversation. Throughout the years, Burkina has seen history repeat itself repeatedly, with rampant government corruption and abuse of power. The impending trial should be seen as an opportunity to reflect on the mistakes of the past and potentially change the narrative to usher in a new revolution of change that will make it known that nobody is above the law and that Thomas Sankara’s sacrifice will not be in vain.