Burkina Faso's military prosecutor has announced the opening of a trial of the alleged killers of former President Thomas Sankara and his companions in October 1987. Among the accused is another former president, Blaise Compaoré, who is currently in exile in Côte d’Ivoire - where he has been since his ousting.
The trial for the alleged killers of Thomas Sankara began on 11 October, in front of a military tribunal in Ouagadougou. But although Blaise Compaoré, Gilbert Diendéré and Hyacinthe Kafando stand accused of the murder, only Compaoré’s former chief of staff, who led the president’s notorious security regiment, was present in the ‘Ouaga 2000’ banquet hall.
Compaoré will be absent from the trial. A refugee in Côte d’Ivoire since his overthrow in 2014, Blaise Compaoré has no intention of appearing on 11 October before Burkinabe judges to answer for his role in the assassination of Sankara. His lawyer, Pierre-Olivier Sur said, “He will not go to this political trial organised against him, in front of this military tribunal which is an unprecedented case. He has never been summoned by the investigating judge for questioning and he has not been notified of any act other than his final summons before the court. I also recall that he has immunity, provided by the Constitution, as a former head of state.”
The former president, who is the target of an arrest warrant, is enjoying his days peacefully in Abidjan, where he is protected by his old friend Alassane Ouattara.
With his wife Chantal (of Ivorian descent), he lives in a large villa in the upscale Cocody-Ambassades district. There he welcomes friends who are passing through on the shores of the Ebrié Lagoon, his Burkinabe supporters, and the leaders of his party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), of which he is still honorary president. He also sometimes spends weekends in the seaside resort of Assinie or holidays abroad, in Morocco or Senegal.
In early 2021, Compaoré went to Dakar for treatment. At 70, the previously sprightly Blaise is no longer the same man, with visitors saying he has become weak and ill. Above all, it seems that he wants to finish his life at home in Burkina Faso.
But behind the scenes, negotiations between Abidjan and Ouaga have reached an impasse. President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré has made peace a priority for his second term and wants justice on the Sankara case and others. Blaise Compaoré does not intend to return as long as a judicial threat hangs over him.
On 11 October the disposed president will undoubtedly be following the historic trial closely. After all, he is the main defendant: tried in absentia for undermining state security, complicity in murder and concealment of corpses.
While hundreds of investigations and testimonies have pointed over the decades to his direct responsibility in the assassination of his “brother” Thomas Sankara, Blaise Compaoré has remained silent on his role in this case. It seems that those who hoped to finally hear him answer questions in front of the judges will have to wait.
According to the official version, Blaise Compaoré was at home and unwell when Sankara and his twelve companions were killed at the Conseil de l’Entente on 15 October 1987, at around 4.30 pm. Several sources, including a former aide de camp to Sankara, Moussa Diallo, have corroborated that he was at home at the time.
Witnesses also report that the small group of para-commandos who killed Sankara and his companions, led by Chief Warrant Officer Hyacinthe Kafando, had left in several vehicles from the home of the former head of state. According to Alouna Traoré, the only one of Sankara’s collaborators to have survived the 15 October massacre, Hamidou Maïga, Compaoré’s driver and personal bodyguard, was among them.
In the three days that followed, Blaise Compaoré was nowhere to be seen. On the evening of 15 October, the proclamation of the Popular Front, which established the coup d’état, was made in his name. “He is very tired and needs to rest, but he is the leader of the Popular Front,” Commander Lingani and Captain Zongo told foreign diplomats in Ouagadougou the next day.
Compaoré finally made his first public appearance on 18 October, for a meeting with the secretaries-general of the ministries to get public administration back on track. On 19 October, he finally addressed his compatriots. Visibly stressed and pale, it took two hours to record his message to the nation. In an attempt to justify the death of Sankara and his twelve companions, he developed a conspiracy theory, in which the former president and his bodyguards had planned to arrest him and his family on the evening of 15 October, at 8 pm.
He said, “Informed just in time, the loyal revolutionaries rose up, thwarting the 8 pm plot in time and thus saving our people from a terrible tragedy, an unnecessary bloodbath. This brutal outcome shocks us all, and me more than anyone else for having been his comrade in arms, his friend. For us, he remains a revolutionary comrade who made a mistake.
Days after the assassination, Blaise Compaoré spoke to a few foreign journalists in Ouagadougou, including Philippe Demenet of the weekly La Vie.
He said: “When the shooting started, I went into the street with my gun. I thought that my house was being attacked. I arrived at the Conseil de l’Entente around 6 pm. I was angry at the men responsible for the carnage. But they had evidence of a plot at 8 pm against me and my comrades. If I had not had this evidence, I would have reacted brutally against those who had committed such an act and I never would have remained the head of the state.”
When he was arrested after his attempted coup against the interim government in 2015, many immediately thought that General Gilbert Diendéré would finally be held accountable for the assassination of Sankara. Incarcerated in the House of Arrest and Correction of the Armed Forces (Maca) for six years, Diendéré is already sentenced to twenty years in prison for his failed takeover, which will be at the centre of all attention from October 11.
In the absence of his former boss, Diendéré will be the main defendant on the stand. The former chief of staff of Compaoré, who led his presidential security regiment, is being prosecuted for undermining state security, complicity in murder, concealment of corpses and corruption of witnesses in the Sankara case.
There is no doubt that Diendéré will be questioned at length during the trial, as this mysterious man, a veritable black box of the Compaoré regime, is presumed to be at the centre of the events of 15 October 1987.
In three decades, Gilbert Diendéré has almost never mentioned them. At the time, he was the deputy commander of the para-commandos of Pô and was already Compaoré’s right-hand man. It was his men who shot Sankara and his twelve comrades. According to some witnesses, it was he who gave them the order to take action, saying: “If they resist, annihilate them!
In an interview with Jeune Afrique during a meeting at Maca in 2017, the general had denied any involvement. “I was not aware of any operation against Sankara. I was informed after the events, like Blaise, who was ill at home when it happened.” He also swore that he had not given “any order” to Hyacinthe Kafando, who even enjoyed, he claimed, “a certain autonomy”.
Previously, Gilbert Diendéré had also confided in the Belgian Ludo Martens, who transcribed his words in his book Sankara, Compaoré et la révolution burkinabè, giving a very different version of events.
He wrote, “[We were warned] that Compaoré, Lingani and Zongo would be arrested this evening. Our reaction was that Sankara had to be stopped before the unthinkable happened. Sankara held his weapon, an automatic pistol as always, in his hand. He immediately shot and killed one of our people. At that moment, all the men went wild.
Since the investigating judge François Yaméogo summoned Kafando to hear him on the assassination of Sankara at the end of 2015, Hyacinthe Kafando has disappeared.
An arrest warrant has been issued for the former chief justice, but he has not yet been found. He will also be absent from the Sankara trial, in which he is accused of undermining state security and murder.
The former para-commando, who became head of Blaise Compaoré’s close security when he came to power, was reportedly seen in Benin and Togo. But according to several sources, he has been hiding in Côte d’Ivoire for the majority of the past six years. Like Compaoré, he has benefited from the goodwill of the Ivorian authorities.
Kafando is, however, one of the keys to this case. Under the orders of Gilbert Diendéré, he was designated by many witnesses as the leader of the commando who riddled Sankara and his companions with bullets at the Conseil de l’Entente.
It remains to be seen whether he acted on the orders of his superiors or on his own initiative, as Gilbert Diendéré suggests. He has never spoken about the case and unfortunately will not do so until he has been found.
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