Burkina Faso begins exhuming grave of Sankara; case could inspire new youth activists in Africa

The guitar-playing army captain challenged dependence on foreign aid and led agricultural and economic reforms that favoured women and the poor.

BURKINA Faso is exhuming the grave of former president Thomas Sankara as part of an investigation into his 1987 assassination.

Justice officials first exhumed the graves of two of Sankara’s aides who were killed on the same day and are buried near him in Ouagadougou, the capital, Ambroise Farama, a lawyer for Sankara’s family, said by phone on Monday.

Sankara was a left-wing army captain who seized power in a 1983 coup and led the country for four years until his murder at the age of 37. Burkina Faso’s transitional government has reopened the case of his murder, which remains unresolved.

Former ruler Blaise Compaore, who fled the country last year after three decades in power, blocked all attempts to investigate the killing of his one-time comrade.

Sankara is still admired in Africa for his policies although critics, including Amnesty International, say he abused military rule by imprisoning union leaders without trial.

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.

Youth role model

With the continent recently witnessing more protests by disaffected youth in countries like DR Congo, Burundi, and Togo, analysts say they have been largely been national, and a continental movement has not yet fully emerged in part because of the lack of a central inspirational figure or philosophy around which activists could rally.

However, it is significant that after Compaore’s ouster a youth acitivist Balai Citoyen, which means citizen’s broom in French, and said it collaborated with peers in Senegal and Tunisia, came to prominence in Burkina Faso.

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

And it will not have been lost on leaders on the continent that among those arrested on March 15 in the DR Congo protests against President Joseph Kabila’s plans to delay elections and give himself more years in office, were youth leaders and activists from Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Sankara represents the kind of figure many young protestors on the continent see as a role model, and in West Africa at least how his death is investigated and the news headlines it generates could impact activism.

While president Sankara moved quickly to implement changes, drawing praise for cutting costs and fighting corruption.

Guitar-playing captain

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. They never saw his corpse.

With Compaore gone, the interim cabinet gave the family permission to exhume the grave if it wants to test Sankara’s remains.

In 1988, the army arrested and tortured students who urged the authorities to shed light on Sankara’s assassination.

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