Burkina Faso: A lawsuit brings to justice the assassins of Thomas Sankara

A former African president living in gilded exile, a notorious hitman on the run, and an army general serving time for his role in a failed coup.

They were among 11 men convicted last week of assassinating Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara, an incendiary Marxist revolutionary whose brutal murder in 1987 sent shockwaves across Africa.

Why we wrote this

Impunity for political crimes remains the norm in many young African nation states. The rare conviction of a former president, by a local court, is a boost for fragile justice systems across the continent.

Activists believe successful prosecutions could pave the way for accountability in a region where coups are making a comeback.

“It’s a strong message to all those dictators across Africa who kill with impunity,” said Fatie Souratié, an activist.

Mr. Sankara, who is synonymous with Pan-Africanism, died in a hail of bullets when a commando shot him and 12 of his colleagues.

In recent years, some African justice systems have begun to convict perpetrators of domestic political violence. Sankara’s verdict gives hope to trials that often seem to have little chance of succeeding. “There is a feeling of empowerment when you see people like [Mr. Sankara’s wife] Mariam Sankara and others are successful,” says Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists.

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

A former African president living in gilded exile, a notorious hitman on the run, and an army general serving time for his role in a failed coup.

They were among 11 men convicted last week of assassinating President Thomas Sankara, an incendiary Marxist revolutionary whose brutal murder sent shockwaves across Africa and remained unsolved for 35 years.

Today, campaigners believe the rare trial – and successful prosecution – for the assassination of an African president could pave the way for accountability in a region where coups are making a comeback, with three the last year.

Why we wrote this

Impunity for political crimes remains the norm in many young African nation states. The rare conviction of a former president, by a local court, is a boost for fragile justice systems across the continent.

“This is a strong message to all those dictators across Africa who kill with impunity,” said Fatie Souratié, an activist in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. “This trial is very important for the history of our nation and for future generations. Now, when we talk about our hero, we can finally say that the executioners have been punished.

Mr Sankara’s name became synonymous with Pan-Africanism, after the charismatic officer seized power in August 1983 and instituted sweeping policies that transformed the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso.

His fiercely anti-colonialist and anti-corruption rhetoric was backed by policies aimed at lifting his people out of poverty and fueling pan-African pride. But Mr. Sankara’s four-year term ended with a hail of bullets outside his office, as a commando shot him and 12 of his colleagues dead.

On April 6, a military court in Ouagadougou sentenced to life imprisonment three of the main actors among the 14 men accused of planning, covering up and carrying out the assassination of the man known as Che Guevara of Africa, as well as as a threat to state security. .

An important example

Among those condemned was Blaise Compaoré, who took power following the murder of Mr. Sankara, once his close friend. Mr Compaoré then ruled for 27 years before fleeing to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire after he himself was overthrown in a popular uprising in October 2014. He was convicted in absentia and his lawyers called the trial a ‘illegitimate’.

The case, which gripped the nation of 20 million citizens in six months, raked in much of Burkina Faso’s recent history. One of the main defendants, Hyacinthe Kafando, a notorious former security aide who allegedly led the commando, has been on the run since 2015.

Mariam Sankara, wife of President Thomas Sankara, assassinated in 1987 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, leaves the military court after the verdict of the trial for his murder, April 6, 2022.

Gilbert Diendéré, the former head of Mr Compaoré’s presidential guard, was already serving a 20-year prison sentence for a failed coup in 2015. And in January, charges were suspended as Burkina Faso was rocked by a military coup – his sixth since arriving. independence from France in 1960.

The implications of the verdict could reverberate across a continent where political violence is still far from unusual. Few senior African officials have been tried for their most serious crimes, and the few convictions that have been handed down have usually come from internationally-backed domestic ad hoc tribunals or foreign courts. More often, however, perpetrators have profited from their use of political violence.

In neighboring Liberia, the presence of former rebel warlords in the legislature is a lingering reminder of the conflict that gripped the nation for 14 years until a peace accord in 2003.

“If Burkina Faso can look back and right a wrong, it is an important example for Liberia which has yet to hold anyone accountable for… killings in the past,” says Aaron Weah, a Liberian doctor. researcher based at the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes by a United Nations special court in The Hague in 2011 and sentenced to 50 years in prison. But there is so little political will to stage a trial on the ground that justice advocates have instead contacted prosecutors in Europe and the United States to pursue the cases.

In March, Laye Sekou Karama, an accused former Liberian commander, was arrested in New York for allegedly lying on his immigration forms about his involvement in a rebel movement. Mr. Kamara could become the fourth Liberian to be prosecuted in a US court for lying on immigration documents. Meanwhile, other cases are ongoing in France, Belgium and Finland.

Budding local justice

But in recent years, some African justice systems have made concerted efforts to try perpetrators of political violence on their own soil.

In Rwanda, special courts called gacaca – from the Kinyarwanda word meaning “grass”, where communities come together to resolve disputes – were created to try crimes committed during its devastating genocide. While the main perpetrators were tried in neighboring Tanzania, village elders attempted to try cases in rural areas, where victims and perpetrators still live side by side.

The courts have left behind a mixed legacy, revealing the enormous challenge of trying to apply Western-style punitive legal systems in states where this is not the norm.

Mr. Sankara’s verdict, however, could revive hopes for trials that often seem unlikely to succeed. “There is a feeling of empowerment when you see people like [Mr. Sankara’s wife] Mariam Sankara and others are successful,” says Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists. “It shows that justice is possible.”

And the reach of this justice is slowly expanding too. Mr. Brody himself represented the victims of Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, who was found guilty by an international court in Senegal of rape, sexual slavery and the execution of 40,000 people. The trial was heralded as “a milestone for justice in Africa” ​​because it was the first to involve the trial of an African leader in another African country.

Recent prosecutions of former presidents could also bolster justice advocates in places like The Gambia, where a truth and reconciliation commission is investigating charges against former dictator Yaya Jammeh. Now in exile in Equatorial Guinea, he ruled the small West African state with iron first for 22 years, before losing elections in 2017.

never easy

For now, however, any effort at justice will face enormous obstacles.

Mr Sankara’s trial saw 100 witnesses testify and lasted 27 years, according to Ferdinand Nzepa, a France-based lawyer who played a leading role on the team representing the Sankara family. “We fought hard and couldn’t imagine there would be a trial at the end,” Mr Nzepa said.

A separate investigation is underway into possible foreign involvement in Mr. Sankara’s assassination. He was hostile to US and French Cold War economic policy, and US diplomatic cables emerged showing that US officials were considering overthrowing him.

The verdict is not yet set in stone. Later this month, lawyers for the convicted men are expected to return to the heavily guarded boardroom-turned-courtroom to appeal last week’s verdicts.

Paul Sankara, brother of the slain leader, hopes the sentences will be upheld. “Some would say it was a harsh verdict, but no – nothing can make up for his murder,” he says. “I think it was a fair verdict.”

Elna M. Lemons