Burkina Faso’s former president Blaise Compaoré has been sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of complicity in the 1987 murder of his predecessor Thomas Sankara, concluding a landmark trial and a decades-long quest for justice.
Sankara, a Marxist icon of pan-Africanism hailed across Africa and beyond, was gunned down along with 12 colleagues in the west African nation’s capital, Ouagadougou, at the age of 37, four years after he took power in a coup.
The massacre coincided with another coup that took Sankara’s erstwhile comrade and friend Compaoré to power.
Compaoré, who lives in Ivory Coast, was tried in absentia along with his former head of security Hyacinthe Kafando and Gilbert Diendéré, one of the army commanders during the 1987 coup, already imprisoned in Burkina Faso for his role in an attempted coup in 2015.
Fourteen people were charged in total for Sankara’s killing in the trial, which began in October. Eight other people were found guilty of a range of charges including giving false testimonies and complicity in undermining state security. Three were found not guilty including the doctor accused of forging Sankara’s death certificate to say he died of natural causes.
There were gasps in the packed courtroom when the verdict of life imprisonment for Compaoré was announced, with Sankara’s supporters shaking hands, pumping fists in the air and chanting.
Seated near the front, Sankara’s widow Mariam Sankara said justice had been served. “The judges have done their jobs and I am satisfied. Of course, I wished the main suspects would be here before the judges,” she told the Associated Press. “It is not good that people kill other people and stop the process of development of a country without being punished.”
Throughout his 27-year reign, Compaoré shut down attempts to investigate the circumstances of Sankara’s death, including persistent calls for his remains to be exhumed, fuelling speculation of his role in the murder.
Compaoré went on to rule for 27 years before being ousted in a coup in 2014 and fleeing to Ivory Coast, where he still resides.
In 2015 the country’s then transitional government reopened the investigation and in 2016, Burkinabé authorities issued an international warrant for Compaoré’s arrest. Ivorian authorities have rejected extradition requests for the 70-year-old, who has since become a citizen there.
Sankara came to power in 1983 after an internal power struggle at the end of a coup. At 33, he was one of the youngest leaders in modern African history. His socialist programme of nationalisation, land redistribution and mass social welfare was hailed as transformative, over a four-year rule of one of the world’s poorest countries – now in the grips of a jihadist insurgency active in the wider Sahel region and a humanitarian crisis.
Sankara’s government was credited for leaps in education and healthcare provision, and social reforms towards ending polygamy and female genital mutilation. His ardent support for independence from colonial rule in Africa, his disavowal of the “France-Afrique” operation – maintaining French political and economic influence in its former colonies – and his stance against aid from western financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund endeared the 37-year-old to many on the continent.
But his administration also faced criticism for curtailing press freedoms and political opposition in the country before he was killed.
After the verdict on Wednesday a former associate of Sankara said “a page in the history of Burkina … has just been turned”.