In what appeared to be a “cold case” after a standstill of over 30 years, a military tribunal has finally ruled in the case of Thomas Sankara, one of the youngest presidents in modern African history, whose life was brutally ended in 1987 by a one-time close friend and ally.
Blaise Compaoré, who grabbed power upon Sankara’s death, was sentenced for the killing in absentia. Toppled by public protests in 2014, he fled to the Ivory Coast where it is believed he continues to hide out. The tribunal found him guilty of an attack on state security, complicity in murder and concealment of a corpse after Sankara’s body was found buried in an unmarked grave.
As the verdict was read, the heavily protected courtroom in the capital, Ouagadougou, erupted in applause, bringing an end to the six-month trial that came after years of campaigning for justice by his family and supporters, BBC West Africa correspondent Lalla Sy reported.
Sankara’s widow, Mariam Sankara, who attended the trial throughout, said the verdict represented “justice and truth” after a 35-year wait.
A firebrand Marxist revolutionary in a military red beret, Sankara was known to many as the African “Che Guevara.” He led the nation for four years from 1983, campaigning against corruption while authorizing huge increases in education and health spending.
He cut his own salary and that of top civil servants and sold off a range of luxury cars.
He promoted pan-Africanism, self-sufficiency, real independence from former colonial power France, and gender equality by banning female circumcision, forced marriage and polygamy. He rolled out mass vaccination campaigns against polio and was one of the first African leaders to publicly recognize the growing AIDS epidemic as a threat for the continent.
Saying “he who feeds you, controls you,” he opposed foreign aid, denounced “the neocolonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance,” and called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.
He changed the name of his country from its colonial one, Upper Volta, to Burkina Faso, meaning the Land of Honest People.
In their closing statement on April 2, the prosecution recounted in grim detail how Sankara and his closest followers were ambushed at a meeting of the ruling National Revolutionary Council. His body was riddled with bullets, according to ballistics experts who testified during the trial.
Compaoré’s security chief Hyacinthe Kafando and Gilbert Diendere were also sentenced to life in prison.
Sankara’s spirit was also behind a protest movement known as “the citizens’ broom” or Le Balai Citoyen, which opposed efforts by Campaore to unlawfully extend his time in power.
Of the 14 men prosecuted, three were acquitted while the others received sentences ranging from three years to life in prison.