By Lisa Vives
The trial of the accused killers of Thomas Sankara, revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso—including his former friend Blaise Compaore who succeeded him as president and went on to rule for 27 years— opened on October 11 in the capital Ouagadougou.
Fourteen men are being tried over the assassination in 1987. Near the Thomas Sankara memorial site, many expressed the hope that the trial would shed light on his murder.
Dubbed Africa’s Che Guevara, Sankara pledged to “decolonize minds” in Burkina Faso and across the continent, but his revolutionary dreams were cut short after just four years in power. He was 37 years of age.
Compaore is currently in exile in neighboring Ivory Coast, where he fled following a wave of popular protests in 2014. Despite Compaoré’s absence, the trial is hotly anticipated —with more than 200 hundred journalists from across the world accredited to cover the proceedings.
“For us, Sankara was a patriot. He loved his people. He loved his country. He loved Africa. He gave his life for us,” Luc Damiba, secretary general of the Thomas Sankara Memorial Committee, told the BBC.
During Sankara’s administration the country was renamed from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, meaning “Land of Upright People”.
He reduced his own salary and that of all public servants. He banned the use of government chauffeurs and first-class airline tickets. He banned female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages, among other measures to promote women’s rights.
Education was a key priority. While he was in power, the literacy rate increased from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987, and he also oversaw a massive national vaccination campaign.
Land was taken from feudal landlords and given directly to poor farmers, which led to a huge increase in wheat production.
Sankara called for a united Africa to stand against what he called the “neo-colonialism” of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. “He who feeds you, controls you,” he was quoted to say.
There has been much speculation about the possible role of foreign countries—including France, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Libya—in the killing of Sankara. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to declassify secret French files about the circumstances of Sankara’s death, however only three batches of declassified documents have been sent to Ouagadougou and do not include any documents from the offices of François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who were respectively president and prime minister of France at the time of the assassination.
“We’ve waited a long time, all along the 27 years of Blaise Compaoré’s regime,” said Paul Sankara, his brother. “Under his rule we couldn’t even dream of the possibility of a trial.”