Stephen W. Smith
Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, was shot dead in the presidential buildings in Ouagadougou on 15 October 1987. I was the West Africa correspondent at the time for Radio France International and Libération, based in neighbouring Ivory Coast. The day before the assassination I got a call from Sankara. This was a first. We knew each other well but, until then, his aide had always called me before putting the president on the line. This time, his lively voice took me by surprise. We were of the same generation: he was 37, I was 30. ‘Hey Stephen, how are you these days? You know it’s really getting very tense here in Ouaga. I think you should come, it’s urgent, don’t hang around.’ These were not his exact words. But the contrived levity, the hint of imminent danger and the discreet appeal for support are what I remember of that short, one-sided conversation. As always, Sankara pretended to be in control of the forces unleashed by his revolution. He was a high-spirited figure impelled by a ‘historic mission’ – Pan-Africanist, Marxist, anti-imperialist – and made light of fear and uncertainty.
A little more than 24 hours later he was dead. The news spread quickly in Ivory Coast. I remember improvised candlelit vigils with his picture in the streets, mourners humming laments, and occasional shouts of ‘France assassine!’ or ‘Le Vieux l’a tué!’ ‘Le Vieux’ was Ivory Coast’s octogenarian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a pillar of the postcolonial Franco-African state better known as la Françafrique. I was in a state of shock, Sankara’s words echoing in my ears. But I was enough of a journalist to send a telex to Blaise Compaoré, second in command in the ruling quartet of young army officers that Sankara had headed. Compaoré’s response was prompt. He told me to come, and said he had given orders to let me across the border: Burkina Faso had been sealed off and its airspace closed to traffic. After a night and a day of a wild driving – more than a thousand kilometres north from Abidjan to Ouagadougou – I sat in front of Compaoré in the presidential buildings.
The room was familiar: we had often met here before, in the presence of Sankara, Compaoré’s closest friend, his ‘brother’. Sankara had been a mercurial, lively presence; Compaoré had always seemed slower but also more solid. I remember the long silences more clearly than the few words we exchanged. I was caked in dust and sweat, fresh from the road, exhausted but on edge. He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, speaking in his familiar soft tone of ‘Thomas’, his comrade, and the ‘tragedy’ of his death. He was a model of taciturnity, perplexity and grief. ‘Now go and do your job,’ he said eventually. ‘Find out what happened.’ I gathered up my bulky tape recorder, surprised that he hadn’t suggested an interview, that he didn’t want to edit the first draft of history. Or maybe that had been his reason for inviting me into the country, but then he changed his mind.
It didn’t take long to reconstruct the fatal chain of events. Twelve men had died with Sankara, but one of his aides, Alouna Traoré, had escaped. Friends in town tipped me off about his location. I met him the following night, in a small adobe house in a neighbourhood of unpaved roads, by the light of a kerosene lamp. He was unscathed but extremely tense. He had attended Sankara’s last meeting, which had started shortly after 4 p.m. The president had just come from a collective workout and was wearing a red tracksuit. After less than half an hour, shots erupted in an adjacent courtyard. Sankara sprang up. ‘Stay in here,’ he ordered, ‘it’s me they want!’ Leaving the room unarmed, with his hands in the air, he was met by a volley of gunfire. A commando led by Hyacinthe Kafando, a member of Compaoré’s security detail, burst into the room, spraying it with bullets. Traoré was lucky that Kafando and his men left the premises to requisition prisoners in town to clean up the scene. He snuck out before the bodies were removed at nightfall and buried in shallow graves. A medical officer issued a death certificate to the effect that the president had died of ‘natural causes’. I learned later from one of Sankara’s closest advisers that he had begun his last day by drafting a speech which he intended to deliver that evening before the Revolutionary Military Organisation. He had been going to announce a ‘purification’. The word is ambivalent but those who pre-empted his move clearly thought that he had decided on a purge.
Last November, thirty years after my account appeared in Libération, and three years after the fall of Compaoré’s regime, I was flown in to Ouagadougou by an investigative judge, François Yaméogo, to repeat my story. Compaoré had finally been driven from power by a wave of protest in October 2014. He managed to escape with the help of French elite soldiers, and has since lived in Ivory Coast. A transitional head of state was appointed. A year later, and only two months short of fresh elections, a group of officers who had served in Compaoré’s presidential guard staged a coup. The army objected; so did the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States; and within a matter of days the acting president was back in office. The elections went ahead as planned. The presidency was won by Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who had been a loyal member of Compaoré’s retinue for 25 years, well rewarded for his services – five ministerial appointments, including prime minister – until he jumped ship and founded his own party ahead of his mentor’s downfall. Kaboré was sworn in at the end of 2015. He is humbler than his predecessor, kneeling in the pew with the rest of the congregation at Sunday Mass. Corruption has been curbed, at least for the moment, but you would have to look very hard for any suggestion of regime change.
For long hours, the judge and I sat face to face in his tiny office, while a clerk in the corner typed up my deposition on a computer. Burkina Faso’s military courts, located across from the headquarters of the country’s armed forces, lie within a high security perimeter, protected by barriers and sandbagged checkpoints (on 2 March this year, the perimeter was one of the targets, together with the French embassy and a French cultural institute, of a jihadist attack which killed 30 people and wounded 85 others). Yaméogo, a man in his late fifties with a strong sense of purpose, lives in the company of bodyguards. He was instructed by the interim president, Michel Kafando, to look into Sankara’s murder almost as soon as Compaoré fled the country. After the coup in 2015 his work was put on hold and he was assigned to investigate the coup’s mastermind, General Gilbert Diendéré, Compaoré’s most trusted senior officer. He indicted him not only for the coup but also for ‘complicity’ in Sankara’s assassination.
The odds are low the judge will ever get to Compaoré himself. The former president is unlikely to be extradited by the Ivorian regime he was instrumental in bringing to power in 2011. But 12 alleged fellow conspirators are already in custody. And a few days after my departure from Ouaga last November, President Macron, on a state visit, pledged to declassify all French documents relating to Sankara’s murder. Since then, a French investigative judge has been appointed to assist his Burkinabé counterpart in elucidating whether or not France had a hand in the assassination – together, they’re busy sifting through thousands of official records from the period between 1984 and 1988. Even if Compaoré is judged in absentia, there will at last be an official accounting of Sankara’s murder.
It will not appease everyone. Much of the open discontent in Ouagadougou has to do with the fact that the Kaboré regime is new only in name. Like a majority of the population, the political class supported Compaoré’s ‘rectification’ of the Sankarist revolution as long as yearly growth rates hovered around 6 per cent and the regime confined its purges and liquidations to its own ranks. Only when Norbert Zongo, a journalist who challenged the presidential guard’s impunity, was murdered in December 1998 did Compaoré face widespread resistance. But he stuck it out for a further 16 years, until an attempt to extend his rule into a third decade by rigging the constitutional limit on presidential terms sparked a popular uprising.
The old National Assembly building was set on fire during the 2014 protests. The burned-out building and the charred wreckage of a car in front of it have remained untouched as a monument to popular outrage. I went to take a look at it last November. The police had set a cordon around the building and stopped the traffic. Through a patched-up megaphone an elderly figure addressed a crowd of several hundred mostly young protesters, running through a catalogue of familiar demands – more jobs, better pay, social justice, equality – and punctuated them with strident calls for the ‘end of impunity’. His fist pumped the air each time he named a Compaoré-era office-holder still in place in Kaboré’s administration. The crowd yelled back in unison: ‘En prison!’ Many of the protesters held up placards or wore T-shirts emblazoned with Sankara’s name.
Sankarist parties of all hues have sprung up. Some have gained seats in the National Assembly, either in opposition or as part of the government coalition. All in all, they represent only about 5 per cent of the electorate. But wherever you go, almost everyone claims to be a Sankarist. In the capital, and especially among the young, the idea of radical change is alive, though ill-defined: due process and functioning institutions don’t seem to be part of it. The people clamouring ‘In jail! In jail!’ want to see heads roll. In the halls of power, the judge’s reckoning with the past will be read with nervous scrutiny.
In Burkina Faso, the transmission of memory is hampered by a vast generational divide. Three-quarters of the population are under 35, and have no first-hand experience of the Sankarist revolution. They don’t know how the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution operated, often cowing entire neighbourhoods and intimidating village elders. They weren’t present when ‘revolutionary justice’ was meted out under a giant portrait of Stalin. They didn’t have to show up on Mondays and Thursdays for sport de masse, the ‘collective workout’ that Sankara attended on the day of his death. For them, the state of exception the youthful leader kept in place until he had exhausted his small nation lives on in the highly charged rhetoric of ‘Sankarism’ and the commemoration of symbolic changes he introduced: smaller cars for state officials, a national costume of home-grown cotton to replace the Western suit, and the country’s name, Burkina Faso, ‘the home of the people of integrity’, in place of the colonial Upper Volta. More than ever, Burkina Faso is in need of not one but many Sankaras, not a top-down radical overhaul driven by a strongman, but a bottom-up renewal involving all levels and sectors of society. According to the World Bank, the richest 10 per cent are hoarding one third of the nation’s wealth while the poorest 10 per cent are sharing the crumbs – roughly 3 per cent. In addition to the jihadist spillover from neighbouring Mali, a local movement has taken root in the north. In a report released in October, the International Crisis Group says that Ansar ul-Islam is ‘at least as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement’, using Islam ‘to frame its opposition to an ossified social order that breeds widespread frustration’.
I found Sankara disarmingly sincere, utterly engaging and even prophetic. He was a cumulonimbus in a region desperate for rain, a ‘third way’ in Cold War Africa, a youthful maker and breaker challenging the regional tradition of gerontocratic rule. But the downpour never came. He spent most of his time in office speaking in the name of ‘the people’ who were now supposed to be able to speak for themselves, and never sought an electoral mandate from his fellow citizens. Executed at the behest of his brother in arms, he has become a martyr. But to what cause? Will Sankara continue to haunt his country’s history as the wraith of an overnight transformation that led nowhere?