What the Sankara Assassination Trial Means for West Africa
from Africa Program

What the Sankara Assassination Trial Means for West Africa

People attend the opening of the trial against alleged perpetrators of the assassination of former President Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
People attend the opening of the trial against alleged perpetrators of the assassination of former President Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Olympia de Maismont/AFP/Getty Images

The trial against Burkina Faso’s exiled former leader for a decades-old assassination case could signal progress on accountability at a time of coups and upheaval regionwide.

March 9, 2022 4:30 pm (EST)

People attend the opening of the trial against alleged perpetrators of the assassination of former President Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
People attend the opening of the trial against alleged perpetrators of the assassination of former President Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Olympia de Maismont/AFP/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Why are prosecutors trying the former leader of Burkina Faso?

Former President Blaise Compaore and thirteen other defendants are facing charges in connection with the assassination of President Thomas Sankara in October 1987. Sankara and a dozen others were gunned down during a meeting of his National Revolutionary Council. Compaore, a close friend and associate of Sankara who took over the reins of government after Sankara’s death, is believed to have orchestrated the killings—though he has continually denied any involvement. Additionally, media reports cite long-standing suspicions that outside actors, including France, backed the attack on Sankara, who was outspoken in his anti-imperialist rhetoric.

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Burkinabe authorities suppressed all information about the shooting and instead reported that Sankara died of natural causes, but human rights groups and the victims’ families have consistently claimed to know the true details. It was not until Compaore, after twenty-seven years in power, was overthrown and fled into exile in neighboring Ivory Coast in 2014 that the opportunity arose to mount a serious investigation. Prosecutors are seeking information about the assassination and a conviction that will deliver a firm message against rights abuses.

How relevant is the Compaore case to the recent turbulence in Burkina Faso?

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Compaore’s trial is taking place in a military court amid instability in Burkina Faso and the rest of the region following a spate of military takeovers. Last month, military commander Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba led the overthrow of Burkina Faso’s democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore. This has renewed fears of a return to an era of strongman rule, and that anxiety has been aggravated by seeming public support for the soldiers’ action. While the anxiety is understandable, the Compaore trial offers a timely reassurance that the Burkinabe public has a long memory, and that the current crop of soldiers can count on being held accountable for their actions in office. (It’s worth noting that although the trial was begun under Kabore, the current military rulers have so far allowed it to proceed.) During his nearly three decades in power, Compaore dominated the country’s politics through authoritarian means while seeking to bury the memory of his former friend. No matter the outcome of the ongoing trial, that it is taking place at all is a symbolic victory.    

What’s behind the continued push for truth and reconciliation initiatives in the region?

While Compaore is being tried in absentia in Burkina Faso, Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC), established in 2017, has recommended the prosecution of former President Yahya Jammeh and others for “very serious crimes against the people.” Jammeh was in power for twenty-two years after overthrowing Sir Dawda Jawara in 1994 and is now in exile in Equatorial Guinea. The TRRC is holding Jammeh responsible for attacks on political rivals and the rape or sexual abuse of three women, among other crimes.

The push for truth, justice, and reconciliation has been enabled by the expansion of democratic space following Compaore’s and Jammeh’s ousters. For as long as both were in power, chasing real and perceived enemies from pillar to post, it was difficult to mobilize against them. Their exits from power gave witnesses the courage to come forward. For Sankara specifically, the ardor for him and for what many of his young admirers believe he represented has never dimmed. At the start of Compaore’s trial last year, the prosecution submitted a list of sixty witnesses who agreed to testify against him. In Gambia, the TRRC’s final report drew on some four hundred witness testimonies.

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Truth and justice efforts are also likely inspired by antecedents in other African countries. In Nigeria, the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (also known as the Oputa Panel) was established in 1999 to investigate gross human rights abuses across previous dispensations. More famously, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was instituted in 1996 to investigate human rights abuses during the apartheid era.

What do these initiatives signify for democracy in the region?

Though there is still a long way to go in both Burkina Faso and Gambia, these initiatives represent a symbolic victory for the rule of law and the pursuit of justice. Even if Compaore’s trial ends with an acquittal or, less likely, a dismissal of all charges, it will still send a message to human rights violators—military or civilian—that it is no longer business as usual in the region. And while the recommendations of the TRRC in Gambia are just that, legal advocates across the region have called for Jammeh to be extradited to Senegal to face the Extraordinary African Chambers, a tribunal established by the African Union and Senegal in 2013. The initiatives in Burkina Faso and Gambia underscore the need for an independent public sphere to rein in the state and hold it to account.       

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What should the United States and other Western countries do?

Western partners should give material and other forms of support to the initiatives in both countries. The United States can lean on Equatorial Guinea to agree to extradite Jammeh, who has been accused of stealing $1 billion from his country. French President Emmanuel Macron should redeem the promise he made during a 2017 trip to Burkina Faso to declassify documents pertaining to Sankara’s assassination.

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