Thomas Sankara: 14 on trial over killing of 'Africa's Che Guevara'

Former president among men in court over assassination of left-wing leader 34 years ago

A military court in Burkina Faso has begun a long-awaited trial of 14 men, including one former president, accused over the assassination of left-wing leader Thomas Sankara 34 years ago.

The killing of Mr Sankara, a pan-Africanist icon known as “Africa's Che Guevara”, has fuelled the reputation of the poor Sahel state for turbulence and bloodshed for many years.

Mr Sankara and 12 others were shot by a hit squad on October 15, 1987, during a putsch that brought his friend and comrade-in-arms Blaise Compaore to power. Mr Compaore, the chief accused, announced through his lawyers last week that he would boycott the trial in capital Ouagadougou.

He ruled the country for 27 years before being deposed in a popular uprising in 2014 and fleeing to neighbouring Ivory Coast, which granted him citizenship. He and his former right-hand man, General Gilbert Diendere, who once headed the elite Presidential Security Regiment, face charges of complicity in murder, harming state security and complicity in the concealment of corpses.

Diendere, 61, is already serving a 20-year sentence for masterminding a plot in 2015 against the transitional government that followed Mr Compaore's ousting. He appeared in court dressed in military uniform and looked relaxed.

Another prominent figure among the accused is Hyacinthe Kafando, a former chief warrant officer in Mr Compaore's presidential guard, who is accused of leading the gunmen. He is on the run.

Mr Compaore has always rejected suspicions he orchestrated the killing. His lawyers announced last week that he would not be attending a “political trial” they said was flawed by irregularities, and insisted he had immunity as a former head of state.

A young army captain and Marxist-Leninist, Mr Sankara came to power in a coup in 1983 aged just 33. He tossed out the country's name of Upper Volta, a legacy of the French colonial era, and renamed it Burkina Faso, which means “the land of honest men".

He pushed ahead with a socialist agenda of nationalisations and banned female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages. Like Ghana's former leader Jerry Rawlings, he became an idol in left-wing circles in Africa, lauded for his radical policies and defiance of the big powers.

Burkina Faso has long been burdened by silence over the assassination and many are angry that the killers have gone unpunished. During Mr Compaore's long rule, the question of Mr Sankara's bloody death was taboo. After his ousting, the interim government in 2015 launched an investigation into the episode and the following year issued an international arrest warrant for him.

Mr Sankara's widow Mariam, who lives in southern France, came to Ouagadougou for the opening of the trial.

“This is a day of truth for me, my family and all Burkinabe,” she said, referring to the name of Burkina citizens.

The family's lawyer, Stanislas Benewende Sankara — who shares the same name but is not a relative — said Mr Compaore's absence was a “slap in the face” to Burkina Faso's justice system.

He said the trial “may not be the end of the tunnel, but we are reaching a very important phase, judicially speaking.”

One of the world's most impoverished countries, Burkina Faso has also been battling an extremist insurgency since 2015. It has claimed more than 1,400 lives and forced 1.3 million people from their homes.

Updated: October 11th 2021, 12:12 PM