Thomas Sankara murder 28 years ago at centre of Burkina Faso's long wait for democracy

Since Blaise Compaore fled after almost three decades in power, the interim government has reopened leader's murder case ahead of October election.

As mass protests ousted Burkina Faso’s ruler in October, Blandine Sankara hoped that the 1987 murder of her brother, military leader Thomas Sankara, would finally be solved.

Since Blaise Compaore fled the country after almost three decades in power, the interim government reopened the murder case to show it’s committed to ending impunity and restoring justice before elections in October.

“We’re at a crucial stage in the history of Burkina Faso,” Blandine, 47, said at the family home made of mud bricks in the capital, Ouagadougou. “We need to know what happened.”

Compaore, who seized power after Sankara’s death, blocked all attempts to investigate the killing of his one-time comrade. Even as Compaore led the expansion of the country’s gold industry into Africa’s fourth-biggest producer of bullion, he was criticised for jailing opponents and extending his rule.

Sankara is still admired in West Africa for his ideas, such as promoting women, and held up as an example of a leader by a generation of Burkinabe born after he died. Critics, including Amnesty International, say he abused military rule by imprisoning union leaders without trial.

He “embodied leadership with integrity,” said Hamidou Valian, a 30-year-old artist who is part of the Balai Citoyen movement that was instrumental in organising last year’s demonstrations. “He is the kind of leader we need. He dedicated himself to his country, and it cost him his life.”

‘Will revolt again’
Young Burkinabe will revolt again if politicians return to the repression used by Compaore’s regime, Valian said. Balai Citoyen, which means citizen’s broom in French, collaborate with peers in Senegal and Tunisia. The organisation stages rap concerts telling youth to refuse bribes when voting in the upcoming election in Burkina Faso.

Activists from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Burundi have cited the youth in Burkina Faso, where three-quarters of the population is under 30, as inspiration.

Posters and videos with images of a smiling Sankara wearing a red beret appeared in Ougadougou after the revolution last year. Sankara was 36 years old when he was killed.

Sankara moved quickly to implement changes, drawing praise for cutting costs and fighting corruption. The guitar-playing army captain challenged dependence on foreign aid and led agricultural and economic reforms that favoured women and the poor.

An advocate of austerity, he sold the government fleet of luxury vehicles and drove the cheapest car available in Burkina Faso at the time, a small Renault 5.

One year after seizing power from Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo in a 1983 military coup, Sankara changed the country’s name from French colonial Haute-Volta to Burkina Faso. It means the land of honest men in a combination of two local languages, More and Dioula.

Living conditions improved
His government issued a weekly flurry of decrees, from requiring state workers to dress in locally woven cotton cloth to a ban on female genital mutilation. Rice farming thrived and access to health care improved.

Sankara, who often travelled across town without bodyguards, was shot dead at a government meeting on Oct. 15, 1987. At least 10 others were killed.

Sankara’s parents were never officially told where he was buried. They found out their son’s body was in an unmarked grave at the main city cemetery by following up gossip, Blandine said. They never saw his corpse.

“There are many young people who didn’t experience the 1980s,” Blandine said, “What are we going to tell them? Or are we just going to keep guessing?”

With Compaore gone, the interim cabinet gave the family permission to exhume the grave if it wants to test Sankara’s remains. But Blandine Sankara said they don’t want the body exhumed right now. The priority should be identifying the killers, she said.

“Men in military fatigues came to our house and took away the family photo albums and other things that reminded of him,” she said. “Did they want to erase all trace of him?

Justice blocked
In 1988, the army arrested and tortured students who urged the authorities to shed light on Sankara’s assassination, according to Saran Sereme, a female politician who spent several years in self-imposed exile in Mali.

‘‘We just wanted them to give Sankara a memorial, and I was thrown in jail for months because they labelled me as the leader of the student march,’’ Sereme said.

The state prosecutor repeatedly rejected a 1997 request from Sankara’s widow to probe the murder and said the civil court system wasn’t equipped to handle it. French lawmakers have tried to open an inquiry in France twice.

The secrecy surrounding Sankara’s death ‘‘has fuelled protest marches and demonstrations for almost 30 years,” Abdoulaye Soma, a law professor at the University of Ouagadougou, said by phone.

“It’s very important that we resolve this once and for all,” Soma said. “We need to show that we’re turning the page.”

—With assistance from Simon Gongo in Ouagadougou.

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