Pressures from Without — and Within — Leading to Overthrow of Burkina Faso Revolution
(This is the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.)
By Ernest Harsch
Like any revolution, the one led by Thomas Sankara aroused strong opposition. Just as its example inspired activists elsewhere, it stirred animosity among established rulers who feared that their own citizens might want to emulate the Burkinabè. The US, France, and other European powers did not hide their alarm at the CNR’s radical foreign policy and its solidarity with liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Their African client states, especially in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Togo, attempted to destabilize the Sankara government by helping dissident military officers conduct bombings. In 1986 Mali even waged a brief war against Burkina Faso.
Within the country, those political and social circles that saw their interests threatened resisted the National Council of the Revolution’s (CNR) programs and policies. They included: merchants linked to illicit commercial networks or smuggling rings, senior officers and bureaucrats removed from powerful positions, corrupt personnel no longer able to pilfer state resources, and traditional chiefs who lost some of their control over land or other prerogatives to young activists in the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) .
Differences developed within the CNR over how to deal with such challenges. Sankara himself was not tender with perceived opponents. Beyond the hundreds of former political leaders and high-level bureaucrats targeted for corruption or other abuses, some ordinary civil servants also lost jobs because of incompetence or suspicions of political disloyalty. When in 1984 a primary school union aligned with an opposition current launched a strike, the CNR fired 1,380 teachers. Sankara later ordered the reinstatement of hundreds of them, but their initial dismissal was nevertheless quite shocking to many Burkinabè.
Among the military officers and leaders of civilian political groups supporting the CNR, some were exceptionally intolerant. The offices of an independent newspaper were mysteriously burned down in 1984, and no one was ever charged. Armed CDR activists sometimes used strong-arm tactics to enforce curfews or compliance with government directives.
Sankara expressed alarm over such excesses. He repeatedly urged supporters to favor persuasion toward Burkinabè who were uncertain about the revolution. In 1987, he declared: “The democratic and popular revolution needs a convinced people, not a conquered people — a convinced people not a submissive people passively enduring their fate.” Repression should be reserved strictly for “exploiters” and “enemies,” he said.
Sankara cited lessons from other revolutions. While often praising the 1917 Russian Revolution, he sometimes added that Burkinabè “learned from some terrible failures that led to tragic violations of human rights.” According to the journalist Sennen Andriamirado, who wrote two early books on Sankara, the Burkinabè leader believed that “Stalin killed Leninism by stifling the soviets and making all-powerful the Cheka [secret police], the military,” and other repressive bodies.
While a couple of political groups in the CNR generally agreed with Sankara’s more open and inclusive approach, others did not. Foremost among them was the Burkinabè Communist Union (UCB), whose leaders included academics and military officers. The UCB and several others cited as their heroes Joseph Stalin and Enver Hoxha (the avowedly Stalinist leader of Albania). Their press quoted Stalin and displayed his portrait on their mastheads. When Compaoré was minister of justice, a large portrait of Stalin hung in the main courthouse in Ouagadougou.
One telling incident highlighted the divergent approaches. In May 1987, a UCB-controlled CDR in Ouagadougou arrested several trade unionists for opposition activities. Among them was Soumane Touré, an early supporter of the CNR, leader of Burkina Faso’s largest union federation, and childhood friend of Sankara. Most provocatively, the CDR called for Touré’s execution. Sankara had to argue forcefully within the CNR to prevent the execution and secure the release of several other arrested unionists. Frédéric Kiemdé, an aide to Sankara, told me that Sankara opposed the anti-union crackdown because it would have damaged the revolution.
Aside from political differences, some of Sankara’s military and civilian critics chafed at his strong anti-corruption measures and insistence that public servants lead frugal lifestyles. During the last year of the revolution, in fact, restrictions became especially severe for those in leadership, with all top officials obliged to publicly declare their incomes and assets. Some failed to fully do so, among them Compaoré and his wife — who was an adopted daughter of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the conservative pro-French president of Côte d’Ivoire.
A planned assassination
While many Burkinabè were aware of hostility from France and its regional allies (like Houphouët-Boigny), few expected an attack from within the CNR. Some activists in Ouagadougou knew of tensions, but hardly anyone outside the central leadership grasped how sharp the rift had grown. Sankara, still hoping to resolve the differences with his comrades, was reluctant to air them publicly. I last spoke with him four days before his death, and he gave no hint of serious problems.
The afternoon of October 15, 1987, Sankara met with several aides at the Conseil de l’Entente (Council of the Entente) complex, which served as the CNR headquarters. What was previously known about subsequent events came from the eyewitness account of Alouna Traoré, an aide who survived his wounds. According to him, the meeting began around 4:15 p.m., and lasted for a short time before shooting could be heard from the small courtyard outside. Upon hearing the gunfire, everyone in the meeting room took cover.
Sankara told his aides to stay inside for their own safety. “It’s me they want.” He left the room, hands raised, to face the assailants. He was shot numerous times and died without saying anything more. The gunmen then sprayed the meeting room with automatic weapons. Aside from Sankara, twelve others were killed at the Conseil de l’Entente that day (among them Frédéric Kiemdé and Babou Paulin Bamouni, whom I also knew).
Traoré’s account contradicted an early claim by Captain Gilbert Diendéré, a commander who was soon to head Compaoré’s security. Diendéré maintained that a plot by Sankara to eliminate Compaoré was uncovered at the last minute. Then when Diendéré sent a detachment to arrest Sankara, the president shot at them and was killed in the crossfire. During the recent trial, testimony from forensic experts and some of those present during the attack confirmed Traoré’s version: that Sankara was empty-handed with raised arms when he was gunned down. A driver for Compaoré also confirmed Diendéré’s presence during the killing, although the captain claimed he only arrived later.
That driver’s testimony also exposed Compaoré’s own claim that he knew nothing of the events until they were over. The driver said that he drove a vehicle with troops and arms for the Conseil de l’Entente attack directly from Compaoré’s home, on orders from Hyacinthe Kafando, head of Compaoré’s personal security and the leader of the assassination squad.
Although not within the scope of the trial, other events further pointed to a well-prepared coup plot. Key Compaoré officers were positioned to take over at various military bases, and important Sankara loyalists were arrested or eliminated. Among the 16 pro-Sankara officers and troops killed outside Ouagadougou during the coup and its aftermath, most notable was Michel Koama, head of a rapid intervention force, assassinated that same day.
By all the evidence, Sankara’s death was not the “tragic” outcome of a gun battle, as Compaoré and Diendéré claimed. It was a pre-planned assassination at the center of a coup plot.
‘A hero never dies’
The night of the takeover, the bodies of Sankara and his slain comrades were buried in unmarked graves in Ouagadougou’s dusty Dagnoën cemetery. When word of the location got around, hundreds of people — on some days thousands — walked to the gravesites to mourn, lay flowers, and leave hand-written messages, such as: “Is it possible to forget you?” and “A hero never dies.”
Compaoré and the other conspirators did everything in their power to bury the revolution along with its leader. Youths protested against the coup, but many were beaten and arrested. Some key Sankara loyalists were able to flee abroad. A number who stayed were detained and tortured for months on end. The CNR and other central institutions were dissolved. The mass CDRs, now without any purpose, simply collapsed. Many of the revolution’s signature programs and policies were scrapped or allowed to wither.
Compaoré’s regime was built around the coup-makers and their civilian collaborators. Initially, the latter came from the UCB and similar factions, but as time went on, some of the old conservative party leaders resurfaced and secured key positions. Traditional chiefs, the merchant class, and corrupt bureaucrats rallied to the new order.
Externally, relations grew close with the governments of Houphouët-Boigny (Compaoré’s in-law) and Togo — and above all France. The French authorities not only regularly welcomed Compaoré to Paris, but even awarded their National Order of the Legion of Honor to Diendéré.
Thanks to significant financial aid from France and other powers and a readiness to use the most brutal force against domestic opponents, Compaoré was able to build a formidable machine that lasted 27 years. What he did not expect was that Sankara’s name and legacy would resurface — and loom large as popular opposition mounted.
Those anti-regime mobilizations came in waves. The 1998 assassination of independent newspaper editor Norbert Zongo set off months of protest demonstrations and strikes, focused against Compaoré’s repression and other abuses. Then throughout the first half of 2011 came hundreds of student and youth demonstrations, labor marches, merchants’ protests, judges’ strikes, farmers’ boycotts, army and police mutinies, and attacks on the homes of leading political figures.
The resistance in the streets seriously weakened Compaoré’s seemingly entrenched system of rigged elections and high-level corruption for his closest cronies. In 2013, intent on hanging onto power, Compaoré pushed too far by planning to violate the constitution’s presidential term limit. Already incensed by widespread poverty and rights abuses, people across the country reacted in outrage. Months of massive outpourings in the streets pushed the divided opposition parties, activist groups, and unions to draw together behind a popular insurrection that drove Compaoré from the country at the end of October 2014.
Even before then, Sankara had become known as an anti-imperialist martyr across the globe, but especially in the former French colonies of Africa. His speeches were readily available online. Popular musicians incorporated Sankara quotations in their songs and videos. T-shirts with his image were worn by activists from Senegal to South Africa.
Within Burkina Faso itself, as the regime was obliged to tolerate an independent press and some organized opposition, admirers of Sankara took advantage of those openings to end the silence about his revolution. Some of Sankara’s old comrades launched small “Sankarist” parties that ran candidates in elections — and occasionally won seats. Students and other young people formed associations and study circles to discuss his ideas.
Among the most influential such groups was Balai Citoyen (Citizens’ Broom), founded by several popular Burkinabè musicians and with thousands of supporters. The rap artist known as Smockey told me that Balai Citoyen adopted Sankara as its spiritual “patron” because of his “courage and determination to build a Burkina Faso of social justice and inclusive development.”
In the months of demonstrations leading up to Compaoré’s ouster, symbols of Sankara were virtually everywhere. Protesters carried his portrait, and his recorded voice rang out over sound systems. Phrases from his speeches featured in popular chants. Even politically moderate opposition leaders cited him. When the protests turned to insurrection, Balai Citoyen members were on the frontlines. A number of avowed Sankara supporters played prominent roles in both the transitional government that followed Compaoré’s overthrow and the legislatures that were subsequently elected.
Justice on the agenda
As long as Compaoré was president, his regime’s crimes remained unpunished. Although one soldier was found guilty in a case related to Norbert Zongo’s murder, no one was actually charged in the journalist’s killing. Sankara’s widow tried to file civil charges against “X” individuals for his assassination, but no prosecutor or judge was willing to touch the case.
Finally in 2015, with Compaoré gone, prosecuting judges announced that they were opening inquiries into both the Sankara and Zongo killings. Compaoré’s brother François has been implicated in Zongo’s death and is currently detained in France for possible extradition to face trial back home. French president Emmanuel Macron promised to release any files in France relating to Sankara’s assassination.
The French documents sent to Burkinabè prosecutors were helpful for providing some details on the domestic aspects of the 1987 coup. But they did not include any evidence classified under France’s “national defense” designation, hampering investigators from taking up possible French involvement. For that reason, the case was separated into two tracks: the domestic one, to be pursued first, and then the international one after further evidence was gathered.
In April 2021 the military tribunal overseeing the case at last announced that it was charging 14 individuals on charges ranging from murder and accessory to murder, to attacking state security, and tampering with evidence. Of the accused, both Compaoré and Kafando could only be tried in absentia. But the rest were in the country, including Diendéré (now a general), imprisoned for a failed 2015 coup attempt. All the defendants had military backgrounds, and no civilian who was part of Compaoré’s plot was charged.
The trial itself began on October 11, 2021 — four days before the 34th anniversary of Sankara’s death. The start was low-key, dominated by procedural issues. The judges, aware that they would face intense legal scrutiny, acceded to numerous requests by the defense attorneys. For those who had been waiting so long for justice, it was nevertheless a momentous achievement. According to Mariam Sankara, the fact that the trial opened at all sent a message that rulers “can no longer kill with impunity.”
Some worried that the trial might stall, especially after a military coup overthrew the elected government of President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in January, ostensibly because it had failed to stem a jihadist insurgency. The proceedings were in fact suspended for several weeks, but the new junta led by Lt.-Col. Paul-Henri Damiba enabled them to resume.
After nearly six months, more than 100 witnesses, and some 20,000 pages of documentation, the trial concluded on April 6. The tribunal chair, Urbain Méda (the only civilian among the military judges on the panel), read out the verdicts and sentences. Three defendants were found guilty of most charges and sentenced to life terms: Compaoré and Kafando (both absent) and General Diendéré. Eight others received sentences ranging from three years to twenty years at hard labor. Most of the sentences were even more severe than the prosecutors had requested, except that the five-year prison terms of two defendants were suspended and three others (a driver and two military doctors) were acquitted outright.
Of those in the court and sentenced to prison, seven subsequently filed appeals, among them Diendéré, setting the stage for a hearing before a military appeals court. Compaoré’s attorneys, who refused to recognize the court’s validity or participate in the proceedings in any way, failed to appeal. The court maintained the international arrest warrants against both Compaoré and Kafando.
Aside from the appeals, other challenges lie ahead. Members of the parties that support Compaoré have raised the possibility of a presidential pardon or amnesty, ostensibly to help promote “national reconciliation.” Activists reject that idea, stressing that the best road to reconciliation lies in ensuring justice for the worst political crimes of the past. Lawyers for the families of Sankara and the other victims have warned the authorities that any move to grant pardons will face loud opposition.
Activists are also urging investigators to continue gathering evidence on the international aspects of the case, including the roles of Côte d’Ivoire, France, and any other government that may have been involved. “Not all the truth has come out,” commented Serge Bayala, a key figure in the international committee that manages the Sankara memorial site (the Conseil de l’Entente complex where he was killed). Prosper Farama, the family’s attorney, has publicly called on the French government to declassify all documents relating to the assassinations and coup. That, he said, would be a positive step toward “the dawning of a new day in relations between Africa and France.”
Members of the Sankara memorial committee are planning further commemorations for him and his twelve slain aides, as well as the 16 other people who died during or immediately after the coup. National funerals, they hope, can be organized for those martyrs.
Whatever transpires, the outcome of the trial has already brought the Burkinabè people a measure of justice.
Speaking immediately after the verdicts, Farama declared: “This historic day will mark the beginning of a new era for Burkinabè justice, a new era in political relations. Let violence be banished forever. Let this country never again have orphans or widows who cry for 30 years simply because some people decide one day to assassinate their adversaries and seize power.”
(This was the second of a two-part series. The first can be found here.)
Ernest Harsch is a journalist and a research scholar at Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies in New York. He has traveled to Burkina Faso, Ghana, South Africa and more than a dozen other African countries on research and reporting assignments. He has written about Burkina Faso since the early days of the revolution in the 1980s. He has visited Burkina Faso six times, and interviewed or had discussions with Sankara on a half-dozen occasions before the 1987 coup that took the revolutionary leader’s life. His most recent books include Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary (Ohio University Press, 2014) and Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2017). Among other works, he is also the author of South Africa: White Rule, Black Revolt (Monad Press, New York, 1980. 1983).
For further reading:
Sennen Andriamirado, Il s’appelait Sankara, Paris: Jeune Afrique livres, 1989.
Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014.
Ernest Harsch, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution, London: Zed Books, 2017.
Bruno Jaffré, Biographie de Thomas Sankara: La patrie ou la mort…, 2nd edition, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007.
Amber Murrey (ed.), A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara, London: Pluto Press, 2018.
Brian J. Peterson, Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2021.
Thomas Sankara, Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983-87, 2nd edition, New York: Pathfinder Press, 2007.
Categories: World Politics
Congratulations, Ernest. A fine piece off research and writing.
Great article, and very comprehensive. Looking forward to seeing the information released as part of the international trial. A hero never dies!