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Thomas Sankara: last moments, last witnesses, last secrets…

By Sennen Andriamirado
Posted on Saturday, 17 October 2020 16:41

Captain Thomas Sankara and journalist Sennen Andriamirado in Paris in 1986. Pascal Maitre/Archives JA

On the 15th of October 1987, the leader of the Burkinabe revolution was assassinated. Two years later, Sennen Andriamirado, editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique and an acquaintance to the former head of state, published “He was called Sankara”. Here is an account of President of Faso’s last day.

When Mariam woke up, Thomas Sankara, who had finally joined her in bed, in his turn fell asleep. On her tiptoes, the president’s wife leaves the room and prepares to go to work.

She has to be there at 3 p.m. Sankara will sleep for another hour, this daily nap is the only time this night owl gets to recover. A break all the more important seeing as the afternoon and the night of the 15th of October, 1987, are going to be long.

At 4 p.m. he leads one of the three weekly meetings for his special cabinet.

On the agenda: a report from one of his advisers who has just returned from Cotonou where he was speaking with the leaders of the Revolutionary People’s Party of Benin and collecting documents on the “Beninese Code of Revolutionary Conduct”; the project to create an a newspaper of the CNR (National Council of the Revolution).

At 8 p.m. there will be a complicated meeting regarding the OMR (Revolutionary Military Organisation).

First anniversary of the seizure of power by Thomas Sankara, August 4, 1984. Photo Marc Van Muysen / JA Archives

Around 3.30 p.m. Mariam Sankara calls him on the phone. “Daddy is in the shower”, answers her eldest son, Philippe, who was seven years old at the time. She calls back ten minutes later. The president, in sportswear since the morning- white T-shirt and red jogging trousers, is ready to leave.

“First I am going to my 4 p.m. meeting at the ‘Conseil de l’Entente,” he said. Then I’m going to sport at 5 p.m. Afterwards I’ll probably come home for a shower but you won’t be home yet. I won’t see you till after the 8 p.m. meeting. We’ll talk tonight.

In the meantime, the members of the special cabinet have begun to arrive in one of the villas of the Cartel Council, which serves as the headquarters of the NCR.

Alouna Traoré and Paulin Babou Bamouni made a detour through the offices to the presidency just opposite; the others, Bonaventure Compaoré, Frédéric Kiemdé and Patrice Zagré, came directly to the council. Christophe Saba, the permanent secretary for the CNR, has been there since this morning.

Thomas Sankara in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, February 26, 1987. Archives Jeune Afrique-REA

At 16.20, he decided to call the President who had not yet left his residence, where he was talking with another one of his advisers, the deputy director of the presidential press, Serge Théophile Balima. “We are here Mr President. It is late and we are waiting for you”.

“I’ll be right there,” Sankara replies. He sends Balima back and gets into a black Peugeot 205.

The President sat in the passenger seat, as usual. “I like to see the road, and from behind you can’t see anything,” he often has to explain.

In the back seat are sat two bodyguards. The car following them is occupied by three other bodyguards plus the driver, also a soldier. They are all dressed in sportswear, this Thursday afternoon: twice a week in fact, on Monday and Thursday from 5pm, the Burkinabè are supposed to do exercise. The president and his guards are therefore only armed with their automatic pistol.

Arrival at the Council

At the Council, the members of the special firm are also dressed in sportswear, with the exception of Patrice Zagré, who came in a Mao shirt. At 4:30 p.m., the President arrives. He got out of the 205, followed by four of his guards, who settled in the corridor adjoining the meeting rooms. The drivers parked the two cars in a nearby courtyard and took shelter from the sun in the shade of the tall trees, particularly the Neem trees, which lined the garden.

At 16.35, the chairman takes a seat at the end of the U-shaped meeting table. Warrant Officer Christophe Saba, Paulin Bamouni and Frédéric Kiemdé are seated on his right. On his left are Patrice Zagré, Bonaventure Compaoré and Alouna Traoré. Thomas Sankara, always late but also always in a hurry, opened the working session: “Let’s make it quick, let’s start!”.

From left to right: Blaise Compaoré, Thomas Sankara and Jean-Baptiste Lingani, August 4, 1983, the day Sankara took power © Archives Jeune Afrique

Alouna Traoré, who the day before had left on a fact-finding mission in Contonou, begins his report: “I left Ouago the day before yesterday at 6 p.m…”. He stops, his voice suddenly muffled by the sound of a most likely a pierced exhaust pipe from an approaching car.

Shocked and annoyed, Sankara asks: “What is that noise?”, soon joined by Saba, who frowns : “What is that noise?”.

The noise gets louder, a car- “a Peugeot 504 or a covered Toyota”, says the only direct witness who survived. The car stopped in front of the small gate of the villa. Immediately, the noise of the engine was covered by the roar of Kalachinikov shots.

The seven men gathered in the room flat on the floor, hiding behind the armchairs. Among them, the only one to be armed since his guards remained in the corridor or in the garden,  was Sankara who grabs his gun which he had placed on the table, within reach.  From outside, someone shouts: “Get out! Come out!”

Sankara gets up, sighs loudly and orders his counsellors: “Stay! Stay! It’s me they want!”. He leaves the meeting room with his hands in the air.

Thomas Sankara, president of the National Council of the Revolution (CNR), in March 1986 in Bobo-Dioulasso. Fabrice GUYOT / JA Archives

“He had barely stepped out of the door before he was shot” says Alouna Traoré. “The attackers had come to kill”.

The guards, the drivers and a biker from the police, Soré Patenema, who came by chance to bring mail to the CNR headquarters had all been shot in the first burst of gunfire. A former member of President of Faso’s guard, a man nicknamed Otis, who had since then been reinstated in the ranks of the para-commandos of Po (commanded by Captain Blaise Compaoré, who made him one of his drivers) – bursts into the meeting room, pushes the president’s collaborators towards the exit: “Out! Get out! Get out!”.

All those who obeyed were shot in turn. At the last moment, Patrice Zagré tries to take refuge in the meeting room, a shot in the back finishes him off.

Two fatal strikes to the head

Alouna Traoré, through sheer fear or survivorship, both perhaps, found himself lying on the gravel alive, bathed in the blood of his comrades, whose moans and sighs of agony he hears as if he was in a nightmare.

Four civilian members of the special cabinet (Paulin Bamouni, Patrice Zagré, Frédéric Kiemdé and Bonaventure Compaoré), eight soldiers, including Warrant Officer Christophe Saba, a poor police officer who was passing by, the drivers of the presidential convoy and four bodyguards. Alouna stepped over the PF’s body without even realising it.

Looking over his shoulder, he sees Thomas Sankara on the floor. Two shots to the head immediately killed him. He hears someone shouting: “There is one who isn’t dead! The one in blue! Let him get up!”. Alouna Traoré, the man in a blue tracksuit, stands up.

He was told to move forward and then lie back on the ground, between two other bodies, those of the two drivers.

He feels agitated. Covered in blood without a scratch on him. Around him, the commandos are still firing, but this time in the air, as if they wanted the outside world to believe that there was a fight going on within the walls of the Conseil de l’Entente; and with acrimony, as if they wanted to believe that they were really fighting and defending themselves.

This went on for a long time, perhaps thirty minutes, they used up all their ammunition this way.

The Conseil de l’Entente transformed into an execution field

Alouna is still on the ground. From the corner of his eye, he sees the driver-guard of Captain Blaise Compaorés body,  Hamidou Maîga, walking towards him wearing a blue mechanics overalls. He looks at Alouna at says to the others: “Leave it! I’ll finish him off!”

An officer (“I don’t know him, Alouna Traoré will say, his face was scarred”) objected and shouted. “Bring me the survivor”.

Alouna Traoré is brought to him, and he orders him to lie down again. The survivor tries to crawl and get close to the wall. “Stay still!” he shouts, “otherwise you’ll join the others”.

How long did he stay like that on the floor? “Two or three hours,” he says, without further explanation, until a soldier threatened him: “You saw everything. We can’t let you leave like that. You’re going to join the others!”.

Alouna doesn’t understand the situation he is in. He has gone beyond the stage of fear and has taken refuge in the world of absurd.

Ever since lying between the corpses, an image has haunted him: a photo of Mother Teresa, Nobel Peace Prize winner, in the middle of young miserable Indians, whom he had looked at for a long time that very morning. And for now, his only desire is to urinate. He is allowed to do so and he goes to relieve himself for a long time between the flowers of the gardens of the Conseil de l’Entente, transformed that very afternoon into a killing field.

Thirteen missing bodies

He was then taken upstairs to the floor of a villa where CNR agents were grouped together, who heard everything without having seen anything of the drama: the doctor-warrant officer Youssouf Ouedraogo, assistant to the warrant officer Christophe Saba, and the whole secretariat of the Laurent Kaboré, who also worked at the CNR.

In the middle of them, he was surprised to discover Bossobé, a guard of the president. Alouna Traoré’s blue sports outfit is soaked in blood. His hands, face and hair are bloody. He is told to wash himself and then to sit down.

Long after the sun had set, Alouna hears cars manoeuvring in the alleys of the Cartel Council. He risks a glance out the window. The thirteen corpses have disappeared; tankers are cleaning the scene of the drama with large water jets. He will spend the night behind the scenes, he won’t sleep. Turning over and over in his head is the same question: “What could the President have done to deserve this?”

Where are the alleged killers?

Relaunched at the beginning of 2015 by the transitional regime after the fall of Blaise Compaoré, the investigation into the assassination of Thomas Sankara is being conducted by the military examining magistrate, François Yamégo. Of the seventeen people he has charged, six are in pre-trial detention, including Gilbert Diendéré, Blaise Compaoré’s former private chief of staff. Two other indictees, accused of having played a major role in the case , are still at large in Burkina Faso and are the subject of an international arrest warrant: Blaise Compaoré and Hyacinthe Kafando.

Exiled to Abidjan, Compaoré is not expected to face Judge Yamégo any time soon as the Ivorian authorities seem reluctant to extradite him.

The second, former head of Compaoré’s close guard and leader of the squad that murdered Sankara, was summoned by the judge on the 22nd of June 2015. But the former MP never appeared before the military court. He fled the country without leaving a trace  and is also, according to our sources, a refugee in Côte d’Ivoire.

Several unsolved leads

Apart from Compaoré and Kafando, most of the suspects were trialed. Summoned twice in 2016 by Judge Yaméogo, Salif Diallo, the former head of Compaoré who died last August, denied any responsibility to do with the assassination of Sankara. He also added that Blaise Compaoré could not ignore what was being planned. As for Gilbert Diendér, he said he had not been informed of any operation against Sankara and that it was Hyacinthe Kafando who took the initiative.

Judge Yaméogo, for his part, is interested in possible foreign involvements, in particular French, Ivorian and Togolese. He has sent a letter of request to Paris, asking for the lifting of the defence secrecy on certain archives and the hearings of various people. The French authorities responded in May, saying that they have “no objection”  but that they first need to obtain a “certain number of clarifications”.

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