Analysis. Thirty-four years after the assassination of the leader of the ‘Land of Honest Men,’ a life sentence in absentia is handed down for former President Blaise Compaore.

Murder of Thomas Sankara: a historic ruling in Burkina Faso

Wednesday, April 6 was an important day for Burkina Faso: with a sentence that restored dignity to an entire people and brought a little more confidence in the justice system, the historic trial for the murder of President Thomas Sankara, killed together with 12 other people in the coup of October 1987, a trial that had been obstructed for decades, was finally concluded.

The military court of Ouagadougou sentenced Blaise Compaore in absentia to life imprisonment, who became president in the aftermath of that coup and remained so for nearly three decades. His presidency began, and continued, with bloodshed. Together with him, the commander of Compaoré’s security forces, Hyacinthe Kafando, and General Gilbert Dienderé, one of the leaders of the army during the coup, were also sentenced to life imprisonment.

Compaoré has been in exile in Côte d’Ivoire since 2014, when he was deposed by a popular uprising. Hyacinthe Kafando has been on the run since 2016. The only one of the major players who was present at the trial was General Dienderé.

The trial, which had been awaited for years, began on October 11, 2021, and the hearings have been suspended several times, in particular during the January 24 coup in which Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba deposed President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.

In February, the military prosecutor’s office had asked for a 30-year prison sentence for Blaise Compaoré and Hyacinthe Kafando, 20 years for Dienderé and 11 years with a suspended sentence for Major Colonel Jean-Pierre Palm.

Sankara was 33 years old when he took power in a coup d’état in 1983. He was beloved by the Burkinabè and other African peoples, but less so by the Western countries, starting with France and the United States, for his stance against imperialism and colonialism, his call not to pay the debts to the West and his inclusive social policies against poverty and for gender equality. He was shot dead by a hit squad on October 15, 1987 at the end of a meeting of the ruling National Revolutionary Council. The assassination coincided with the coup and the rise to power of Blaise Compaoré.

Fourteen people were charged in the trial, two of them in absentia, including Compaoré. He and Dienderé were convicted of an attack against state security, complicity in murder, concealing bodies and tampering with witnesses.

This verdict brings some light in a dark moment for the history of the country. The former President Kabore, who was deposed in January, is still being held hostage by the military, whose political direction is still unclear; but the announced transition period is a long one, which is occasioning many fears. In many ways, the country is in disarray: enormous territories have been emptied out and people are leaving for wherever they can. Northern corn is missing from the markets and prices have shot up to impossible levels.

The country saw its latest tragic episode on the night between Monday and Tuesday, when armed men attacked the religious community of the parish of Yalgo, in the diocese of Kaya, and kidnapped 83-year-old Sister Suellen Tennyson, who was taken to an unknown location. Before leaving, the terrorists ransacked the building and sabotaged vehicles.

“With today’s sentence,” said Sankara’s widow, Mariam Sankara, “Burkina Faso, the Land of Honest Men [in the local Djoula language], shows that it has listened to the will of the people.” The country needs to make some courageous choices: we hope that this verdict marks the beginning.

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