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The historic trial of a former president and 14 others began in Burkina Faso for the assassination of Thomas Sankara, a much-revered revolutionary leader who was killed in a coup in 1987.

Sankara, a Marxist icon of Pan-Africanism widely hailed across Africa and beyond, was killed alongside 12 others by a squad. His death led his former friend Blaise Compaoré to seize power – denying any role in his assassination. Compaoré ruled for the next 27 years before being deposed by mass protests in 2014 and fleeing to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, where he is tried in absentia.

The former president and his former security chief, General Gilbert Diendéré, are accused of complicity in murder, endangering state security and complicity in concealing corpses. Compaoré’s lawyers denounced the “political trial” and claimed that he enjoyed immunity as a former head of state.

Yet the case was supported by many people in Burkina Faso eager to shed light on the murky circumstances of Sankara’s death. It also comes after a 34-year fight for justice, led by Sankara’s family and his widow, Mariam Sankara, who attended the trial.

“What the victims and I expect from this trial is truth and justice,” said Prosper Farama, one of the lawyers for the victims killed. “So far there are conflicting versions of what really happened.”

While in power, Compaoré rejected persistent calls for the exhumation of Sankara’s remains, but the country’s transitional government reopened the investigation in 2015. In 2016, Burkinabè authorities issued a warrant for international judgment against Compaoré, but Ivorian authorities rejected requests for extradition of the 70-year-old, who has since become an Ivorian citizen.

One of the personalities accused is Diendéré, the former right-hand man and military general of Compaoré, who headed the elite presidential security regiment at the time of the coup. Diendéré is in prison in Burkina Faso and is serving a 20-year sentence.

Another prominent figure among the defendants but currently at large is Hyacinthe Kafando, a former chief warrant officer of the presidential guard, who is accused of leading the killer squad.

Sankara, often referred to as the African Che Guevara, came to power in 1983 after an internal power struggle at the end of a coup. At 33, he was one of the youngest leaders in modern African history and has become an iconic figure among a generation of post-independence African leaders.

His socialist program of nationalization, land redistribution and mass social protection has been hailed as transformative, during a four-year reign of one of the world’s poorest countries – now in the throes of a jihadist insurgency active throughout the Sahel region and in a humanitarian crisis.

Sankara’s government has been credited with advances in education and health care, social reforms aimed at ending polygamy and female genital mutilation. His ardent support for independence from colonial domination in Africa, his disavowal of the “France-Africa” operation of French relations in its former colonies and its position against aid from Western financial institutions such as the IMF have made the government popular. 37 year old young man with many on the continent.

But his administration also faced mounting criticism for restricting press freedoms and political opposition in the country before he was killed. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said France would declassify government documents regarding Sankara’s murder, after years of criticism of the role played by the former colonial ruler.

Three batches of declassified documents have been sent to the government of Burkina Faso but details have not yet been made public.

“The trial will mark the end of all lies – we will get some form of truth. But the trial will not be able to restore our dream, ”said Alouna Traoré, comrade of Sankara and survivor of the 1987 coup, in a television interview.


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