The exiled former president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, is to be tried in absentia for the murder of Thomas Sankara, one of Africa’s most revered post-independence leaders who was killed in a 1987 coup.
Sankara, a Marxist, pan-African leader, was murdered after four years in power and succeeded by his former friend Compaoré, who has repeatedly denied involvement. Compaoré went on to become one of Africa’s longest serving leaders, governing Burkina Faso for 27 years.
The former president has been in exile in Ivory Coast since 2014, when he was swept from power by mass protests triggered by his attempt to extend his tenure.
The trial is a landmark moment in a 34-year quest for justice, led by Sankara’s family and supported by many in Burkina Faso.
While in power, Compaoré denied calls for Sankara’s remains to be exhumed, but the country’s transitional government reopened the investigation in 2015. In 2016 Burkinabé authorities issued an international warrant for Compaoré’s arrest, but Ivorian authorities have rejected extradition requests for the former president who has since become a citizen of Ivory Coast.
Compaoré and 13 others face charges of complicity in murder, and concealing the body of Sankara and several aides who were killed alongside him
Guy Hervé Kam, a lawyer for the Sankara family, welcomed the news. “The time for justice has finally come. A trial can begin. It will be up to the military prosecutor to determine a date for the hearing,” he told AFP.
Among the others accused is Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s former right-hand man and military general, who headed the elite Presidential Security Regiment, at the time of the coup.
Diendere has been in prison in Burkina Faso serving a 20-year sentence for leading a coup attempt in 2015 against the country’s transitional government.
A date for the trial has not been confirmed but a lawyer for the former general said it could begin soon. Some of the suspects have since died.
Sankara, known as the African Che Guevara, came to power in 1983 after an internal power struggle following a coup. At 33, he was one of the youngest leaders in modern African history.
His radical programme of nationalisation, land redistribution and mass social welfare has been seen as transformative, over a four-year rule of one of the world’s poorest countries.
Leaps in education and healthcare provision, social reforms towards ending polygamy and female genital mutilation, his vehement support for independence from colonial rule in Africa and disavowal of aid from western financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank endeared the 37-year-old to many on the continent.
His administration was also criticised for curtailing press freedoms and political opposition in the country before he was killed. In 2017, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said France would declassify government documents concerning Sankara’s killing, after years of criticism of the role played by the former colonial ruler.
Lawyers for Sankara’s family have indicated that several documents have been sent to the Burkinabé judges, but have not revealed what they contain.
In Burkina Faso, Sankara’s reputation has only burgeoned since his death, amid widespread impoverishment. Since 2015, jihadist insurgency, spreading from Mali across the Sahel, has killed more than 1,200 people and left more than a million displaced.
He is also revered across Africa, a young continent where presidents have increasingly changed constitutions and sought to extend their stay in power.