Former Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore’s sentence of life imprisonment by an Ouagadougou military court for complicity in the murder of his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, marks an important victory for the rule of law in the country and the region as a whole.
In exile in the Ivory Coast since his ouster from power following a popular uprising in 2014, Compaore was tried in absentia. Erstwhile Presidential Security Chief Hyacinthe Kafando, currently at large and also tried in absentia, similarly received a life sentence.
Sankara and a dozen others were gunned down during a meeting of the National Revolutionary Council (CNR) in October 1987. Although at the time Burkinabe authorities suppressed all information about the shooting even as they insisted that Sankara died of natural causes, human rights groups and victims’ families have always insisted that Sankara was a victim of a plot by Compaore, his close friend and ally, who would go on to rule the country for twenty-seven years. Aged thirty-seven at the time of his assassination, Sankara was a charismatic leader whose common touch endeared him to millions within the country and beyond.
The trial of Compaore and thirteen other defendants started in October 2021 and continued amid political uncertainty—and multiple suspensions—as military commander Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba led the overthrow of the democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, in January.
While the recent spate of military takeovers has cast a pall over democratic prospects across West Africa, Compaore’s trial has been invoked as evidence that an underlying thirst for justice and the rule of law subsists within the region’s civil society. The verdict is a much-needed boost to civic forces and a welcome complement to similar efforts in Gambia where, last year, a Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) established in 2017 recommended the prosecution of former President Yahya Jammeh and others for “very serious crimes against the people.”
Military dictator for twenty-two years, Jammeh is currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea. Legal advocates across the region are demanding his extradition to Senegal to face the Extraordinary African Chambers, a tribunal established by the African Union and Senegal in 2013.
While the verdict is welcome, the significance of the trial goes beyond it.
In the first place, the symbolism of putting on trial—albeit in absentia—a former dictator who governed as if he was beyond the law cannot be overemphasized. In a region where “Big Men” ride roughshod over ordinary citizens, it is an important demonstration of a key democratic principle that no one, not even the highest placed ruler, is above the law.
Nor, furthermore, can the long-term civic value of a trial be overestimated, given its well-established capacity to strengthen the very legal and social institutions involved in the process. Over time, appropriately fortified sociolegal institutions will strengthen democratic consolidation, even as they increase public confidence in the political system.
Third, the verdict sends a clear message to military juntas across the region, including the incumbent regime in Burkina Faso, that they can count on being held accountable for their actions, no matter how long that takes. The Compaore verdict comes in nearly thirty-five years after the original crime was committed.
Whether the trial and verdict inaugurate a broader regional awakening whereby the ugly legacy of previous military regimes is reexamined remains to be seen. For the moment, social movements across the continent can celebrate an important milestone for the rule of law and citizen power.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.