A court in Burkina Faso has begun the first trial since the death of the country’s ex-president, Thomas Sankara, in 1987, hearing allegations that his death was a result of a coup attempt orchestrated by his supporters.
This week’s case is expected to turn on who kidnapped Sankara, then a long-time soldier, and led his body to the ocean: his supporters and government or some anti-Sankara Islamists – also long-time supporters of the country’s first post-independence president, Thomas Sankara.
Former radio host Remy Kouame, who says he orchestrated the rescue attempt, is on trial accused of killing one of the key figures in the failed abduction. He faces up to 25 years in prison. But a witness called to testify against Kouame said he had seen witnesses fire a grenade at his colleagues and kill Sankara.
Thomas Sankara’s supporters questioned whether Kouame was being framed. “It makes me happy to see the decision by the justice system,” said Mai Aziz Tchanaka, a member of Sankara’s successor, the Blaise Compaoré.
The case has recast the country’s leaders after years of stability and relative peace since its civil war and independence from France in 1960. A revolt in 2014 tipped the country back into chaos, raising fears of a return to turmoil.
The Sankara family had hoped the trial would shed light on his death. They view the accusations as being part of an attempt to create another facade for Compaoré, who ruled in a repressive regime until a popular uprising in 2014 overthrew him.
Thomas Sankara in 1984. Photograph: Getty Images
Those wanting to make a political comeback in Burkina Faso have found the message from friends and family of Sankara, who has become a symbol of resistance in the country, hard to shake. Those who opposed his election as president did not accept his death, he was shown being executed after a coup.
Compaoré was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity but the verdict was overturned and he was freed last year.
Thomas Sankara’s brother, Kouka Sankara, is now a powerful union leader in the West African country and has denounced the trial, describing it as a pretext to allow Compaoré’s former supporters to get back into government.
Sankara was one of the most charismatic leaders in Africa when he ruled the country from 1983 to 1987. He nationalised industries, put in place a democratic system and ended the military dictatorship that existed in Burkina Faso from 1962 to 1983.
Thomas Sankara was a “fighter for the poor,” Kouame said during his trial on Wednesday. “I detest that he’s just becoming a pretext for letting others who made illegitimate decisions about his death to walk again.”