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Sankara judgment a new beacon in Africa

Burkina Faso’s ‘Sankara case’ is finally over, after 25 years in court and 35 years after the crimes were committed. The judgment is being described as a landmark for African jurisprudence and a wake-up call for the continent’s errant political leaders.

A military court in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, has ordered the country’s former president Blaise Compaoré and his co-conspirators to pay 800 million CFA francs ($1.25 million) in damages to the families of another former president, Thomas Sankara, and others who were assassinated in a 1987 coup d’état.

The 10 May 2022 damages award, though interesting, was one of the least extraordinary elements of a remarkable decades-long legal battle that has been hailed as ground-breaking in Africa.

Compaoré and his co-defendants were found guilty a month earlier, in April, of killing Sankara and 12 others in a coup in 1987. Three of the men, including Compaoré, were sentenced to jail for life.

Compaoré has been living in exile in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire since he was deposed in another coup in 2014, but that country has refused extradition requests. Also getting life sentences were guard commander Hyacinthe Kafando, whose whereabouts are unknown, and former army chief Gilbert Diendéré, who is already serving a prison sentence – for yet another a coup bid in 2015.

The trial is very important for three reasons, according to Emmanuel Yonli, who was involved in the case and is a partner at law firm SCPA Kam & Some, the member of the LEX Africa Alliance in Burkina Faso.

“First, it is a trial involving the prosecution of a former head of state who came to power by a coup d’état, for an attack on state security and political assassination,” explains Yonli. Not only that, justice was served an astonishing 35 years after the event and 25 years after legal proceedings were started.

Second, says Yonli, the trial involved a president being prosecuted and fairly tried by the judicial system within his own country. This sets a “good precedent”, as African political leaders are generally put on trial in courtrooms outside Africa like the International Criminal Court. “It is a good thing for democracy, the sovereignty of African states and the African continent.

“Finally, the trial is very important because, by its exemplary nature, it signals the end of impunity for political assassination in Burkina Faso,” adds Yonli.

He acknowledges an “irony of fate” in that, as the case drew to a close in early 2022, yet another coup took place in Burkina Faso – with an elected president being overthrown by military forces unhappy with a lack of government support for their fight with Islamic insurgents. The takeover was apparently bloodless and there was no interference with the ongoing trial. The ruling generals have promised elections and a return to civilian rule within three years.

Thomas Sankara was president of the poor, landlocked country for three brief years but managed to become a revered figure to much of the population.

He changed the country’s name from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (meaning “land of honest men”) and made sweeping economic and social reforms. A committed Marxist, he came to power in a 1983 rebellion, spurning all foreign aid and launching programmes of literacy, building new roads, redistributing land, banning forced marriage, vaccinating 2.5 million children, planting 10 million trees to stop desertification, and various other highly popular measures.

On 15 October 1987, Sankara and 12 others were killed in a coup organised by Compaoré, a former comrade and colleague who went on to serve as president for 27 years – until 2014, when he was overthrown.

In 1997, seven months before the local statute of limitations elapsed, Sankara’s widow and her two children filed a case over the deaths. Compaoré “did everything to block the case”, reveals Yonli. “Some judges were corrupted, others were bullied” and the case went nowhere until the “popular insurrection that ousted Compaoré” allowed it to proceed to trial.

Yet it was still another eight years before the April 2022 “guilty” verdict and sentencing. Local and international lawyers, along with an organisation called International Campaign for Justice for Sankara, kept the process slowly rolling.

Yonli explains the stamina and determination to exact justice: “The Sankara case has radiated in Burkina Faso since his assassination, and also beyond the country’s borders.

“Because of his stature as a national and African hero it has focussed the attention of the press and public.” He describes Sankara as a “symbol of courage, love of country, dignity and integrity” who remains an inspiration for young people, in particular.

Cote d’Ivoire and Togo are suspected of having backed the 1987 coup, while the role of France is unclear – though the French government were among the first to accept Compaoré as president and provide him with economic aid. Current French president Emmanuel Macron promised in 2017 that his government would declassify related diplomatic notes from the time, but lawyers say only information already in the public domain was eventually handed over.

“The outcome of the trial reminds political actors that their impunity is now over,” says Yonli. “It also shows the high risks that political assassinations and taking power through military coup might involve.”

The trial was held in a military court because the crime was perpetrated on military property, the Conseil de l’entente, a barracks that was Sankara’s headquarters at the time. However, the case was presiding over by two civilian judges, with three military assessors. The constitutional criminal code was applied, not military law.

“The case is an important milestone in the ongoing efforts to strengthen governance, the rule of law and political accountability in Africa, all of which are essential for investment and economic development” says Chairperson of LEX Africa, Pieter Steyn.


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