In Burkina Faso, many hope Sankara trial will ‘shed light on his murder’

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Fourteen men, including a former president, will go on trial in Burkina Faso over the assassination in 1987 of Thomas Sankara, the country’s revolutionary leader and a pan-African icon. Near the Thomas Sankara memorial site, where he was assassinated 34 years ago, street vendors and visitors say they expect the trial “to shed light on his murder.

Dubbed Africa’s Che Guevara, Thomas Sankara wanted to “decolonise minds” in Burkina Faso and across the continent, but his revolutionary dreams were cut short when he was gunned down in a 1987 coup after just four years in power.

The trial of the alleged perpetrators of the assassination, including his former friend Blaise Compaore who succeeded him as president and went on to rule for 27 years, opens Monday in the capital Ouagadougou.

Despite his short time in power, Sankara remains for many a revered figure.

During mass protests which toppled Compaore in 2014, young people carried portraits of Sankara aloft — though many had not even been born during the Marxist–Leninist leader’s rule.

“Sankara is a whole philosophy, a way of thinking and being, a way of life. Sankara is a pride of Africa,” high-school teacher Serge Ouedraogo said.

“Today, we can say that Sankara represents a compass for the people of Burkina Faso. He is a guide, it is he who blazed the trail of hope for the people.”

– Rise to power –

Born on December 21, 1949 in Yako in the north of the poor, landlocked country, Sankara was raised in a Christian family, his father a military veteran. He was just 12 when the country gained independence from France.

After finishing high school in Ouagadougou, he underwent military training abroad. He was in Madagascar for the 1972 insurrection which overthrew President Philibert Tsiranana, considered by foes to be a lackey of former colonial power France.

Returning to his homeland in 1973, Sankara was assigned to train young recruits, and stood out while fighting in a border war with Mali in 1974-1975.

After a coup d’etat in 1980, the new leader, Colonel Saye Zerbo, appointed Sankara his secretary of state for information. But the soldier’s radical views made him quit the government a year and a half later.

Sankara was appointed prime minister in January 1983 after another military coup, which led to a quiet power struggle at the heart of the army.

He was arrested in May 1983 but was then made president in August after yet another coup — this one led by his close friend Compaore.

Aged just 33, Sankara symbolised for supporters African youth and integrity.

He changed the country’s name from the colonial-era Upper Volta to Burkina Faso — “the land of honest men”.

He moved into a rundown presidential palace with his wife and two sons, along with his guitar — he was a decent player, according to his contemporaries.

He also brought a second-hand Renault 5, and imposed the small French model as the car for all government personnel, doing away with bigger vehicles.

– Denouncing ‘imperialist’ wars –

Slender and athletic, Sankara always dressed in army fatigues, and on his belt liked to show off a pistol with a mother-of-pearl handle given to him by North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.

The priorities in his reform programme included reducing the size of the civil service, improving healthcare, nationwide literacy, food self-sufficiency, measures to help peasant farmers, vaccination campaigns and building pharmacies in villages.

He banned female genital mutilation and forced marriages, among other measures to promote women’s rights, which he oversaw with an iron fist.

The population was policed by the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and sanctioned by the Popular Revolutionary Tribunal, which antagonised traditional tribal chiefs and others wielding wealth and power.

“We must decolonise minds,” he proclaimed.

However he began to repress unions and political opposition, breaking up a teachers’ strike by sacking them.

Sankara also urged Africa to refuse to pay its debt to Western countries and spoke out at the United Nations to denounce “imperialist” wars, apartheid and poverty. He also defended the right of Palestinians to self-determination.

Relations with France and several neighbouring countries, including Felix Houphouet Boigny’s Ivory Coast and Gnassingbe Eyadema’s Togo, grew strained.

He was meanwhile considered too close to Moamer Kadhafi’s Libya and Jerry Rawlings’ Ghana.

Sankara even gave Francois Mitterrand a lesson in human rights in 1986 after the French president received Pieter Botha, the leader of the South African apartheid regime, in Paris.

“He goes further than necessary in my opinion,” the socialist Mitterrand commented.

On October 15, 1987, when called to an extraordinary cabinet session, Sankara was mown down by fellow soldiers during a putsch which left Compaore alone in power. He was only 37 years old.


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