They Never Killed Thomas Sankara

Last week, Blaise Compaoré was jailed for his role in the murder of Burkina Faso's revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara — but real justice can only be won by a movement that fights to bring Sankara’s socialist vision back to life.

Thomas Sankara speaks in Paris, France, on October 5, 1983. (Alain Mingam / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

After a drawn-out legal battle lasting almost three decades, former president of Burkina Faso Blaise Campaoré was last week sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1987 coup d’état that toppled Pan-African Marxist revolutionary Thomas Sankara.

“[I] am proud to have a country where justice works,” declared Sankara family lawyer Guy Herve Kam upon delivery of the verdict. But with the death of Sankara snuffing out the Burkinabé Revolution before it could truly come to fruition, and its lead conspirator tried only thirty years after the fact, some feel the justice served is a limited one.

“Africa’s Che Guevara”

Once Sankara’s right-hand man, Compaoré was also a leading figure in the 1983 coup that brought him to power. In 1983’s aftermath, French Upper Volta — one of the poorest countries in the world, scarred by the ravages of French colonialism — become Burkina Faso, or “Land of Upright Men” No longer were the backs of the Burkinabé people to be bowed under the boot of French colonialism: instead, they would once more become a proud and independent people.

Like the Pan-African revolutionaries who went before him, Sankara understood that true independence was more than a new flag and currency — it meant political and economic independence, too. To this end, Sankara’s leadership was characterised by nationalization, land redistribution, and expansive railway building programs. Women’s liberation was placed at the revolution’s forefront, with Sankara arguing that “the revolution and women’s liberation go together.”

The achievements of the revolution cannot be understated. Over two million children were vaccinated in a public health drive, ten million trees were planted to fight desertification, and schools and hospitals were built across the country. In just four years, Burkina Faso would become food self-sufficient: “he who feeds you controls you” was received wisdom. When asked about his revolutionary intentions by Newsweek, Sankara declared, “Our economic ambition is to use the strength of the people of Burkina Faso to provide, for all, two meals a day and drinking water.” Above all, Sankara showed the world that all of this was possible without neocolonial “assistance” from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank.

His ambitious programs were matched by a personal approach that eschewed the trappings afforded by power: instead, Sankara lived a humble life on a modest salary, with few personal belongings to his name. Inspired by Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, he put his standing on the world stage to use expressing solidarity with the “wretched of the earth” — the oppressed peoples of the world and those engaged in anti-imperialist struggle.

Echoing Guevara’s speech to the UN in 1964, Sankara’s address twenty years later stressed solidarity with “those millions of human beings who are in ghettos because their skin is black . . . those Indians who have been massacred . . . women throughout the entire world who suffer from a system of exploitation imposed on them by men” and a host of oppressed peoples from Ireland to East Timor. Sankara also recognized the significance of the struggle of Palestinians against settler colonialism: “Courageous, determined, stoic and tireless, the Palestinians remind us all of the need and moral obligation to respect the rights of a people.”

Burkina Faso may have been a small, poor country — but Sankara knew that international solidarity with those struggling alongside it was paramount.

The Rectification Period

To those familiar with coups against socialist African leaders, the reversal that took place following the assassination comes as no surprise. After Sankara was gunned down in the nation’s capital of Ouagadougou, Compaoré set about undoing the progress achieved by the revolution: nationalized state entities were privatized, and Burkina Faso was redelivered into the clutches of the IMF.

In the immediate aftermath of Sankara’s death, the airwaves were flooded with anti-Sankara propaganda that framed the coup as “rectifying the Revolution” and branded Sankara a “messianic traitor.” But few people on the ground believed the stories about the man who lived such a humble life, particularly delivered by Compoaré and his supporter base, mainly comprised of old social elites and tribal chiefs. Corruption again became the order of the day, and the widespread repression of pro-Sankara loyalists, journalists, student activists, and ordinary citizens ensured the survival of the postcoup government.

Bonds with the old colonial oppressor, France, were also reforged under Compaoré’s leadership: Compaoré was warmly received in Paris, in contrast with his predecessor, and strengthened ties with Francophone Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. The commander of Sankara’s assassins, Gilbert Diendéré (sentenced to life alongside Compoaré), was even awarded France’s highest order of merit, the National Order of the Legion of Honor.

A Living Legacy

Unable to stamp out the widespread admiration for Sankara, however, Compaoré’s government recognized him as a national hero in 1991. Outside of Burkina Faso, too, his uncompromising integrity and the tragic circumstances of his downfall have earned Sankara a popularity that endures today. A monument dedicated to Sankara and other national heroes was inaugurated as recently as 2010, and Sankara’s grave remains the site of constant visits. On the twentieth anniversary of his death in 2007, Sankara’s exiled widow, Mariam, returned to Burkina Faso for the first time and was met by thousands as she laid flowers at her husband’s resting place.

The spirit of Sankara was again in the air seven years later, when a popular uprising successfully ousted Compaoré from government after twenty-seven years in power. Sankara’s popularity in Burkina Faso even comes across in fashion, with the dan fani — a traditional fabric commonly associated with Sankarism — worn widely in the aftermath of 2014.

The sentence handed to Compaoré is the culmination of a decades-long struggle for justice, however bittersweet it may be. Sankara joins the ranks of African visionaries such as Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba, and the idea of a unified Africa free from neocolonial control drifts slowly into the territory of “what could have been”; Burkina Faso is still plagued by political instability, evidenced by the military coup that took place in January this year.

What’s more, the French government refuses to acknowledge playing a role in the 1987 coup, and keeps classified documents pertaining to Sankara’s assassination under lock and key. French president Emmanuel Macron pledged the declassification of these documents in 2017, but they have yet to materialise. Compoaré and his accomplices may have been served justice, but the colonial oppressors that facilitated his coup have yet to be held accountable.

Amid this bleak picture, however, is a sliver of optimism. The 2014 uprising demonstrates that Sankara may be dead, but the dream of an independent Burkina Faso where its people stand proudly, with backs unbent, lives on. As Sankara himself said before his assassination, “Ideas cannot be killed, ideas never die.” Blaise Compaoré’s sentence is one step toward justice — but only the liberation of Africa from the hands of neocolonialism and a reckoning brought to the old colonial powers can provide the real justice Sankara deserves.