AFTER BARELY four tumultuous years of revolutionary government, Thomas Sankara was gunned down in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, in 1987, during a coup. It was hatched by his erstwhile best friend, Blaise Compaoré, who has said that he did not order the killing, but who then ran the show until he in turn was turfed out after an uprising in 2014. Since 2015 this poor, arid country of 22m has wobbled along more or less democratically.
In the past few years, however, a wave of jihadist violence across the five countries of the Sahel (the others are Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) has washed over Burkina Faso, too, giving everyone the jitters. So what is the point of the trial, which opened on October 11th in Ouagadougou, of 14 men accused of being involved in the killing of Mr Sankara and a dozen or so of his comrades all those years ago, seeing that the chief defendant, Mr Compaoré, is snug in exile next door, in Ivory Coast?
Another leading defendant, Hyacinthe Kafando, Mr Compaoré’s security chief, is also abroad. But Mr Compaoré’s right-hand man, General Gilbert Diendéré, sat dressed in camouflage among the other 12 accused in the packed courtroom, not far from the families of the victims of the coup, including Mariam Sankara, the late president’s widow. “We are expecting justice to be done,” she says. “It is unfortunate that all the accused are not here.”
Sankara, a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist and admirer of Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddafi, is still revered in left-wing circles across Africa for his firebrand populism and fierce hostility to the West. He was especially critical of France, his country’s former ruler. Aged 33 when he took power, he promptly changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (The Land of Upright People). He expropriated feudal landholdings, promoted education and health care (with mass-vaccination programmes), opposed female genital mutilation and forced marriage, urged reforestation and rejected foreign aid (“He who feeds you, controls you”), rebuffing the IMF and railing against corruption and capitalism.
He also banned political opposition, muzzled the media, clobbered trade unions, terrified much of the country’s small, beleaguered middle class and summarily executed a clutch of figures tied to the previous regime. He set up Cuban-style “committees for the defence of the revolution” and “popular revolutionary tribunals” that sometimes chastised people for “laziness”. Pioneers of the Revolution, his youth movement, wore berets like Che Guevara. Many Africans liken Sankara to Che. Whether this is a compliment or an insult depends on one’s view of handsome, violent Marxists.
“He was dedicated to everything he did. He sacrificed everything to serve his people,” says Pierre Ouedraogo, an old friend who presides over a memorial in his name. “Most African intellectuals think first about themselves, but he thought about the people first,” he says. Sankara’s friends and fans in Ouagadougou hope the trial will expose the murky details of Mr Compaoré’s plot to oust him, punish the alleged assassins and so bring belated comfort to the families of those who were killed.
Less clear is whether details of France’s suspected involvement in Sankara’s demise will be revealed. Brian Peterson, a biographer of Sankara, doubts there will be a smoking gun implicating any foreign powers. “This will disappoint many people,” he says. If France were candid about what happened, the trial could help to redefine its relations with Burkina Faso “as a partner, not as imperialist overlord”. President Emmanuel Macron may not agree.
Some reckon the current president, Roch Kaboré, will try to use the trial to boost his own government’s popularity, which has been waning in part because of its failure to fend off the growing jihadist insurgency linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Thousands have perished and more than a million have been displaced. Moreover, Mr Compaoré still has a following in the country, especially in the army. So it is not certain that bringing him to book, even in absentia, will enhance national reconciliation, as the government claims.
The insurgency caused 335 civilian deaths in May, June, July and August, up from 80 in the previous four months. Both sides have committed atrocities. “The Sankara trial should not be made to bear the sole burden for tackling Burkina Faso’s long-held culture of impunity,” says Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The ghost of Thomas Sankara”