Who is the African revolutionary whose murder took over 30 years to stand trial?

It took more than three decades for the assassins of Thomas Sankara, one of the main African revolutionaries, to achieve justice in Burkina Faso.

It was not until April 13 that the case against the former dictator Blaise Campaoré, his chief of staff, General Gilbert Diendéré, and the soldiers involved in the case, was brought before the military court of Ouagadougou, the capital of the country.

Then president of Burkina Faso, Sankara was killed by six soldiers on October 15, 1987, along with 12 collaborators. The crime was the trigger for the coup led by Campaoré, until then his right hand and number two in the government.

Now in exile in Côte d’Ivoire, where he obtained citizenship – he will not therefore be extradited to be tried – Campaoré spent 27 years in power and was only overthrown by a popular uprising in 2014.

It was in this uprising, motivated mainly by young people who called for an end to impunity and an immediate change of power, that the name of Sankara resurfaced with force in Burkina Faso.

Father of the Burkinabè revolution, he became known under the name of “African Che”, in homage to the Argentinian Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution – Sankara even wore a cap with a star.

According to Sankara’s family lawyer, Guy Hervé Kam, with the progress of the process, it will finally be possible to know the details of what happened. “Today, Justice will give a voice so that these families can perform their rites,” he said, of the fact that the bodies were buried in an abandoned cemetery.

With them, Campaoré buried any investigation while in command of the country. “The witnesses were afraid to speak and many of them were killed,” Kam says.

Now the trial against 23 people will finally be launched. The list of defendants includes the former dictator – accused of endangering state security, kidnapping, terrorism and crimes against humanity – and Hyacinthe Kafando, leader of the six soldiers who killed Sankara.

The trial has not yet been scheduled, but it should take place within a maximum of six months, according to Kam.

The lawyer explains that Campaoré was the executor of a policy aimed at removing the revolutionary leader from power. “It was used to achieve this goal and then to manage power for the benefit of those who placed it on this mission.”

In addition to the former dictator, foreign powers troubled by Sankara’s policies were also involved in the case, says the lawyer.

The revolutionary was a defender of Pan-Africanism and fought to end France’s colonialist influence in Burkina Faso.

Captain of the army, Sankara came to power in a coup d’état, carried out on August 4, 1983, which also included the participation of Diendéré and Campaoré.

A major symbol of its break with France was the renaming of the country, which since its independence in 1960 has been called the Republic of Upper Volta. A year after the coup d’état, the revolutionary renamed the African nation to its current name, which means “land of upright men”, in Moré and Dioula, mother tongues.

The “African Che” had already shown his discomfort during the two previous governments – which also came to power through coups d’état. In 1980 and then occupying the post of secretary for information in an authoritarian regime, Sankara resigned live on television, when he pronounced his famous sentence: “Woe to those who gag the people”.

Only two years later came the second coup and with it a split between the group that wanted continuity and the revolutionary officers led by the captain. Despite this division, Sankara reached the post of prime minister and, in power, criticized what he called imperialism.

In response, he was arrested in May 1983, during the visit of an envoy of the then French President, François Miterrand, who opposed the economic nationalism defended by Sankara.

Left groups then organized a movement to demand his release and the actions won the support of the military, who distrusted the government. After being released, he joined all these forces and seized power. Right-hand man and long-time friend of the leader, Campaoré is captain of the military commands which left Po, in the south of the country, and marched towards the capital, on August 4, 1983.

The political vision of “African Che” was largely shaped by the period during which he attended the Antisrabé military school in Madagascar. There, he witnessed in 1972 the left turn of Didier Rasiraka, which put an end to the neocolonial regime of Philibert Tsiranana in the country.

Thus, Sankara began to develop a revolutionary project for Burkina Faso, which was reinforced during his stay in Morocco, where he got closer to Campaoré.

Once in power, the “African Che” clearly expressed his inspiration in the Cuban revolution. One of the pillars was education, and Sankara urged the Burkinabè to build schools in their communities.

Another was health, illustrated by a mass vaccination campaign to reduce the number of infant mortality, which fell from 227.7 per thousand live births in 1982 to 205.6 per thousand live births in 1987.

Nationalism was another hallmark of his government, especially economically – Sankara wanted to reduce the country’s dependence on France and international organizations. To this end, it has strengthened the cotton sector by imposing the use of clothing with the faso dan fani fabric, traditional in the country. He also imposed mass sports, closed clubs linked to the elite and created popular dances.

“It was a real break with the patronage scheme of the time,” historian Amzat Boukari-Yabara explained in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde.

The changes, however, quickly found enemies. Towards its end, the then leader was increasingly contested, and even at the head of the regime, there was a climate of mistrust. The rejection of the former colony then displeased President Mitterrand, against whom Sankara adopted a lively tone.

“People informed Sankara that Campaoré wanted to strike him a blow,” Kam explains. “He always said it wasn’t true.”

Today, almost 34 years later, former allies occupy opposing places in the country’s history. “The one who is dead has become more alive and the one who is alive is as if he was dead”, defines the lawyer.

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