Burkina Faso: Coup general faces prosecution in Sankara death

A military tribunal in Burkina Faso, in West Africa, announced charges Dec. 7 against General Gilbert Diendéré, the former commander of the special presidential guard, the Regiment of Presidential Secdurity, who led an abortive coup against the transitional government earlier this year. Earlier charges relate to that coup attempt, but others go back to the assassination in October 1987 of the charismatic left-wing President Thomas Sankara. 

Sankara, sometimes called the Che Guevara of Africa, had himself taken power in the aftermath of a coup in 1983. Ironically, that coup was led by Blaise Compaore, an army officer who was behind the 1987 coup which ousted and killed Sankara.

During Sankara’s short time in power, Burkina Faso took promising steps to deal with the country’s extreme poverty.   It was Sankara who changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright People”) from its colonial name of Upper Volta.

Sankara undertook an ambitious program of land reform, nationalization of mineral wealth, and of the development of health care, schools, housing and other services for the Burkinabe (as the people of Burkina Faso are called), which had a tangible impact in such things as sharply reduced infant mortality and increased literacy. There was a sharp increase in women’s rights and, even today, 28 years after his death, Sankara’s memory is revered across the country.

He was a strong opponent of the “debt trap” which affected, and still affects, so many poor countries, and eschewed foreign aid while demanding debt reductions for his and other poor countries. Sankara, though, also became a figure of hatred for people whose privileges he curtailed. His opponents included  local traditional rulers who had been accustomed, under French colonial rule, and subsequently, to receiving tribute in labor and goods from their subjects.

Also antagonized were army officers, who resented Sankara’s efforts to empower grassroots organizations among the people. The French government too worried about his efforts to bring  the country out from French economic domination, his links to Libya and his stated admiration for socialist Cuba.

Some politicians in neighboring countries, including Ivory Coast and Liberia, worried about the example Sankara might set for their own people when Sankara’s government began to put corrupt officials on trial.

The coup against Sankara was carried out by a group of twelve officers of which Compaore and Deindéré, considered Compaore’s right hand man. Surviving members of this group are also to be put on trial, though for now Compaore is out of reach, in exile in Ivory Coast.

The reason given for the coup by the plotters was that Sankara had antagonized France and Burkina Faso’s neighboring  countries. At the time, the Burkinabe public was aware that Sankara and some of his colleagues had, in fact, been killed, but the new government claimed he had died of “natural causes” at age 38. There was a brief effort by Sankara supporters to offer armed resistance to the coup, but it was crushed.

Compaore went on to rule as dictator for 27 years, reversing most of Sankara’s progressive policies, until he was overthrown amid massive street protests a year ago.  Burkina Faso was ruled by a transitional government headed by Acting President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zide from that point, except for a brief period during Diendérés abortive coup in September of this year.  The coup was carried out by Compaore supporters, but fell apart due to popular opposition and also opposition by units of the army other than the Compaore loyal special guards unit which had backed it. 

Sankara’s family, however, especially his widow Miriam, and a strong core of followers have never forgotten Sankara and the four inspirational years of his government. They have continued to agitate and in 2013 got the French parliament, on the initiative of the French Communist Party, to open an inquiry into possible French complicity in Sankara’s overthrow. So as soon as Compaore was overthrown, they began agitation for Sankara’s body to be exhumed and for the persons responsible for his overthrow and death to be brought to book.

A new investigation was begun in March of 2015. The exhumation and examination of the remains of Sankara and his friends revealed that, as everybody already suspected, the former president had not died of “natural” causes but had been “riddled” with bullets. 

Meanwhile, after a short delay caused by the coup, Burkina Faso held presidential elections on Nov.29 of this year.  The victory went to former prime minister and President of the National Assembly Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, the candidate of the People’s Movement for Progress, who got a 53.9 percent majority. The  party also got a plurality of legislative seats.

The party which is considered closest to Sankara’s legacy, the Union for Rebirth, trailed far behind.   Kaboré had been politically aligned with Compaore until breaking with him in January of 2014, so there were questions as to whether any further progress could be made on the investigation into Sankara’s overthrown and death.  The announcement this week that Diendéré and possibly others would be put on trial will be reassuring to Sankara supporters.

The specific charges against Diendéré relating to the death of Sankara are assault, murder and concealing a dead body, in addition to the charges stemming from the abortive coup this year. These charges had actually been placed on Nov. 12, before the election, but evidently the government will now proceed with them,

It is likely that more persons will be charged.  Whether these will include the exiled former president, Compaore, is not yet known.

Photo: Charges have finally been filed in the killing 28 years ago of Burkina Faso’s former president, Thomas Sankara (pictured).   |   AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.