– “…The history of Africa in the second half of the twentieth century is strewn with dead revolutionaries. Lumumba in the Congo, Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, Biko in South Africa, Mondlane in Mozambique:..Their fervour, their energy, and the love they inspired in their people would prove insufficient defence against the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the old guard, those grim-faced, calculating rivals who were still in cahoots with the hated colonial masters”:
(Africa’s Che Guevara – Slain Burkina Faso Leader Thomas Sankara)
Sankara was killed in a 1987 military coup, which brought his rival Blaise Compaore to power.Compaore – Sankara’s former comrade-turned-rival, who seized power in the coup – has long been implicated in the assassination.Following Compaore’s ouster in October, calls for justice have mounted, with the revolutionary hero’s France-based widow, Mariam Sankara, telling FRANCE 24 last month that she hoped the fall of the former Burkinabe strongman would pave the way for an investigation into his death.
On Sunday, protesters gathered at the Dagnoen cemetery, east of the capital Ouagadougou, demanding a closure into one of Africa’s most controversial political assassinations.
“The broom has a symbolic meaning for some ethic groups, asking the dead person to point out who killed them,” said the rapper Smockey, one of the founders of “Balai Citoyen” (Citizen’s Broom) group, which helped organise the protests that led to Compaore’s downfall.
“It’s an appeal for the reopening of the Sankara case,” he added.
“We succeeded in winning a first step towards victory (with the fall of Compaore). Now we are at the second step — for justice. The third will be the rehabilitation (of Sankara) and the spreading of his ideas,” Smockey told some 300 people gathered around the grave of Sankara and 12 of his comrades killed in the coup.
Interim president promises justice – at last
A pan-Africanist revolutionary, Sankara transformed what was then the former French colony of Upper Volta into Burkina Faso, or, the “Land of the Upright Men”. His spirit loomed large during the recent anti-Compaore protests.
Twenty-seven years after his murder, the circumstances around his death – especially as to who exactly killed him and who ordered it – remains a mystery.
As Sankara’s stature as a legendary figure grew across the continent, with fans adopting his signature red beret and protesters across Africa waving his photograph, the mystery and intrigue behind Sankara’s assassination has only increased.
Interim president Michel Kafando, who took over from Compaore after torturous talks between the military and civilian leaders, promised to investigate whether the remains in the grave were actually those of Sankara. His family have been asking in vain since 1997 for an investigation amid claims that the corpse buried there was not his.
The Sankara case “will be entirely reopened and justice will be done”, Kafando said in early December.
Many in the crowd at the Dagnoen cemetery, including political leaders, demanded that the authorities turn their words into deeds.
“We want to know what happened on October 15, 1987. Why did you cut off our hope?” asked reggae musician Sams’K le Jah, another co-founder of Balai Citoyen.
Widow of ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’ still seeks truth of his death
Nearly three decades after the assassination of Burkina Faso’s iconic ex-president Thomas Sankara, his widow Mariam is still campaigning to shed full light on his 1987 death…
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The history of Africa in the second half of the twentieth century is strewn with dead revolutionaries. Lumumba in the Congo, Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, Biko in South Africa, Mondlane in Mozambique: all were feted as the saviours of their people; all were felled by colder, worldlier foes. These idealists, these visionaries with plans for the improvement of their countries were snuffed out before they could see their projects through. Their fervour, their energy, and the love they inspired in their people would prove insufficient defence against the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the old guard, those grim-faced, calculating rivals who were still in cahoots with the hated colonial masters.
In Burkina Faso the revolutionary torch was taken up by Thomas Sankara. A charismatic, handsome army officer with an intense gaze and a burning zeal for change, it is he who lies here before us, beneath the headstone whose inscription reminds us of his humble rank of “Capitaine”. Dynamic, impulsive and passionate for his country to be free, this ill-fated young firebrand is seen by many as Africa’s Che Guevara, and still inspires adulation a quarter of a century after his death.
Sankara becomes president of Burkina Faso in 1983, after ousting the repressive military government in a bloodless coup d’état. He takes over a people whose hopes have been muzzled. Independence, that great eruption of optimism and joy, has been and gone, and Burkinabes are no better off, no freer. Two decades of corrupt and incompetent leadership have left their country penniless and indebted; to stay afloat it has been forced to beg for loans, first from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and then, most humiliatingly, from France, the former colonial power.
Sankara, who sees these moneylenders as neo-colonialists engaged in a “reconquest” of Africa, dreams of throwing off the chains. Although he is just thirty-three years old and has no experience of high office, he tackles the task with relish. As soon as he comes to power he launches his revolution. He promises to bring development to all Burkinabes, and not just to the elites who are in league with the French. His people will no longer need foreign handouts or be fleeced by their own leaders. ‘We do not want this aid that turns us into beggars and dependents,’ he thunders, pumping his fist in the air. Peasants, women, the working classes and the young will break free and lead their continent to a self-sufficient, dignified future. ‘Down with imperialism!’ he cries as he rallies his spellbound followers. ‘Down with the embezzlers of public funds! Down with toadies and thieving rats! Down with the ravenous jackals!’
The young leader has revolution in his bones. As a child he had celebrated independence by lowering his village’s French tricolour and raising the new flag of Upper Volta; as president he replaces his ministers’ Mercedes with the humble Renault 5, the cheapest car on the market. While other African leaders stash millions in foreign bank accounts, Sankara, whose cheques often bounce, draws a monthly salary of less than five hundred dollars and needs a mortgage to buy a home. While other African leaders buy private jets and lounge on luxury yachts, Sankara’s most valuable possessions are a refrigerator, three guitars and the battered old bicycle he rides around Ouagadougou. And while other African leaders wear the finest suits flown in from Paris and Milan, Sankara, echoing Gandhi, dresses his ministerial team in homespun Burkinabe cotton. The youth of Africa lap it up.
It is Sankara who gives the country its name. The French had called their colony Upper Volta, a dry, geographical description taken from the three rivers that rise to the west of the capital. Sankara renames it Burkina Faso, the Land of the Honourable People. He wipes the colonial stain from the map and puts his countrymen proudly in its place. Burkinabes revel in their new-found importance, thrilled that one of their own sons is daring to stand up to Africa’s historic oppressors, amazed that they, humble peasants, are in the vanguard of a movement that will transform the entire continent.
But the Revolution is not only about symbols. The corrupt institutions of power must be brought to heel, and Sankara is fearless in his choice of targets. He takes on tribal leaders by abolishing the tribute payments and forced labour they exact from their subjects. He takes on the political classes by cutting civil servants’ salaries and launching an anti-corruption drive. He tells haughty army officials that they must ‘live among the people,’ and drags ambassadors out into the countryside to explain their raison d’être to mystified villagers. And he rattles foreign donors, and in particular the French, by telling them his country does not want their help and cannot afford to pay back its debts. ‘Those who lent to us were playing a game of chance,’ he explains unapologetically. ‘As long as they were winning there was no problem, but now they’ve lost they squeal “unfair”. They played, they lost. Those are the rules of the game. Life goes on.’
Having torn down, he sets about building up. Burkinabes lack the skills and physical strength to carry the Revolution forward, so Sankara builds schools and invests in healthcare, vaccinating millions of children against killer diseases. To boost agricultural productivity he breaks up feudal landlords’ estates and parcels them out among the peasants. He plants trees to hold back the encroaching Sahara. Lithe and fit and rarely seen out of military fatigues, he darts around, full of energy, driving his people on and exhorting them to work harder, to produce more, to haul their country out of poverty. ‘Consommons Burkinabe!’ he cries, and backs his words by slapping a ban on fruit imports.
There is room on the revolutionary juggernaut for women, too. Africa will never develop, Sankara says, if half its people are treated like chattels. He promotes women to key government positions, reforms inheritance laws to give equal rights to male and female children, bans polygamy, and rails against female circumcision, a painful rite of passage for girls that can lead to fatal complications during childbirth. He instigates a national day for husbands to do the family shopping, and takes an all-female presidential motorcade with him when he tours upcountry. Already bewitched by his youthful good looks, the women of Burkina swoon.
We sit with Maurice on a rock by the grave, buffeted by dust, the only sounds the wind and the rustling of the flying plastic bags. A brown goat walks across one of the whitewashed tombs. People cycle past from time to time, wearing masks to keep out the dust and toxic fumes from the tip. There is a strong smell of burning plastic. A young mother walks by with a baby on her back, seemingly unaware of her proximity to history. ‘She knows about him,’ says Maurice when I wonder aloud whether today’s younger generation are still interested. ‘Everyone loves him except those who killed him.’ I have heard many similar sentiments. ‘He was unique,’ Maurice continues, staring wistfully at the gaudily-painted grave. ‘He was the only African leader who worked for his people and not for himself. He was a martyr.’ Back in Bobo-Dioulasso, Abdoulaye had given a similar endorsement. ‘All African leaders are the same, except one,’ he told me. ‘Thomas Sankara wanted people to work, to prosper, to make Burkina Faso and Africa better. He was loved not just here but all over Africa, and even in Europe. But he was the last one.’