Key defendant

Burkina Faso: General Diendéré testifies before a military court in the Sankara trial

By Nadoun Coulibaly

Posted on November 12, 2021 12:09

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-11-12T10-06-54.563Z © General Diendéré at the military court in Ouagadougou, 9 November 2021. SOPHIE GARCIA/Hans Lucas via AFP
General Diendéré at the military court in Ouagadougou, 9 November 2021. SOPHIE GARCIA/Hans Lucas via AFP

This is the first time that General Diendéré, who is suspected of having been directly involved in the October 1987 coup that resulted in the deaths of Thomas Sankara and his companions, has been asked to testify since this historic trial began. He is the main defendant, as Blaise Compaoré continues to live in exile in Abidjan.

For a long time, Gilbert Diendéré – former chief of staff to Blaise Compaoré, to whom he remained loyal until the end of his reign in October 2014 – had not worried about the alleged role that he had played in the assassination of former president Thomas Sankara in 1987. However, the past has finally caught up with him. Given the absence of his former boss, who was exiled to Abidjan, Diendéré – who was once one of Burkina Faso’s most powerful and well-informed men – is the main defendant in this historic trial that began a month ago.

Diéndéré, whose hearing was highly anticipated, appeared before the court in his combat gear and as a prisoner. He has already been sentenced to 20 years in prison for his involvement in the failed September 2015 coup and is currently serving his sentence at the Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction (Maca).

He told “his” truth

The general first bowed in memory of the 13 victims – Sankara and 12 companions – of that fateful day in October 1987, the events of which have weakened Burkina Faso for over 34 years. After that, he immediately refuted the charges of attacking state security, complicity in murder, concealing a corpse and bribing a witness. General Diendéré pleaded not guilty and then told his version of events.

“On 15 October 1987, at 9 a.m., I had a meeting at the Conseil de l’Entente [where Sankara and his 12 comrades were assassinated] with the figures in charge of ensuring the building’s security and the members of the close guard of Captains Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, respectively numbers one and two of the Revolution. Hyacinthe Kafando [at the time a member of the para-commandos led by Compaoré and Dendéré], was absent and sent four soldiers to report to him.

This meeting, which I used to hold, took place regularly. But on that day, given the situation, I insisted that we had to be careful about what we heard whispered because it could have a negative impact on these security personnel.

There were rumours that either Thomas Sankara wanted to arrest Blaise Compaoré or that Blaise Compaoré wanted to carry out a coup against Thomas Sankara. A lot of the men were drunk and were sharing filthy leaflets that attacked both men personally. All of this meant that members of both camps were carefully scrutinising one another.

Some people within the Conseil National de la Révolution (CNR) wanted the CNR to explode because they had been bullied or sanctioned. I, therefore, brought all the men together to tell them to stay in the military and to not get caught up in political affairs,” said Diendéré.

Avoiding another bloodbath

The general then said that he went to a sports field at around 3pm on 15 October 1987. “It was there,” he says, “that I heard the shots. I immediately decided to return to the Council via a different route. From there I saw some shaken soldiers. I saw guards, two of whom I recognised as Arzouma Ouédraogo (aka Otis) and Nabié N’Soni [two soldiers, also accused in the trial].

I went towards them, they were near the corpses. They told me that they had learned that Thomas Sankara was planning to arrest Blaise Compaoré and that they had decided to take the lead. Faced with this situation, I called Commander Jean-Baptiste Lingani [one of the fathers of the Revolution, then head of the army] who suggested that I call for reinforcements. He then arrived.”

Speaking about the circumstances surrounding Sankara and his companions’ execution, “Golf”, as he is known to his compatriots, explains that he did not arrest the men responsible for the killing because he wanted to “avoid another bloodbath: they were not going to let themselves be killed.”

“I arrived at the Council in sportswear, without a weapon or security personnel,” he said, before adding: “If I had tried to arrest the perpetrators of the killing, they would have killed me in turn, and today, my lawyers would be on the side of the prosecution. I was in a weak position at the time,” he said, looking towards the prosecution.

The civil parties’ disappointment

“Why did Gilbert Diendéré report to Commander Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani instead of Blaise Compaoré?,” asked the prosecution. “Blaise Compaoré was bedridden at home [the former president has always maintained that he was ill that day], so I had to report to Commander Lingani, who was also my superior,” he said, denying accusations that he handled corpses.

Even though Diendéré’s appearance was highly anticipated, no new revelations were made on 9 November. When questioned, the civil parties’ lawyers denounced these “incoherent statements.” Before adding: “Even though Diendéré may not have pulled the trigger, he certainly oversaw the operations.”

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