Published: Monday, March 10, 1997

Almost every day, at least a handful of visitors still come to pay their respects to a martyred young leader who was unceremoniously buried here in a trash-strewn cemetery at the edge of this hazy city and whose bones remain under the watchful gaze of vultures.

It has been 10 years since the leader, Thomas Sankara, a charismatic 38-year-old army captain who took office after leading a revolution, was gunned down in his office.

His second-in-command and successor as President, Blaise Compaore, did everything he could to put memories of Mr. Sankara behind him and the people he governs — starting with the commoner’s grave. But Mr. Sankara has not been forgotten.

Few African leaders have been mourned so deeply at home or as widely on this continent since the era of the deeply flawed but stirring visionaries of Africa’s early independence days in the 1950’s and 60’s — men like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo.

Almost as if on cue, the 10th anniversary year of Mr. Sankara’s assassination on Oct. 15, 1987, began with a mysterious death and a disappearance, which together revived strong memories of the man who once electrified this backwater country. They also inspired a troubling re-examination of how Mr. Compaore grabbed and has clung to power.

Renewed talk of the fortunes of Mr. Sankara and Mr. Compaore, once almost inseparable friends, was touched off by the disappearance last October in the Ivory Coast of the widely feared presidential security chief, Yacinthe Kafando. The security chief, a longtime associate of Mr. Compaore, is widely believed to have led the hit squad that killed Mr. Sankara. Western diplomats in Ouagadougou say it is strongly rumored that Mr. Kafando, who was known to be disgruntled with Mr. Compaore, was secretly captured and executed.

Asked by the local press to respond to these rumors, Mr. Compaore, who has always strenuously denied any connection with Mr. Sankara’s killing, said of Mr. Kafando, ”There are so many things to do in this country that this is not my preoccupation.”

On Christmas Eve, another presidential security agent, Arzouma Ouedraogo, who used the alias Otis and was also widely believed to have taken part in Mr. Sankara’s slaying, died in a mysterious late-night car crash on a highway outside town, just hours after having been quietly released from detention in the wake of a shake-up in the presidential guard.

On a continent where the mysterious car crash is a time-honored way of disposing of troublesome rivals, many people in Burkina Faso have seen a pattern emerging. They suspect an effort not only to eliminate potential rivals, but also to silence all those who could shed light on Mr. Sankara’s death.

This follows a period of relative quiet and stability since the summary executions in 1989 of the third- and fourth-ranked officers among the young leftists who seized power with Mr. Sankara and Mr. Compaore in 1983. The two officers were accused of plotting to overthrow Mr. Compaore.

In recent years, Mr. Compaore has governed conservatively. He has won praise abroad for liberalizing the economy — and lately for energetically promoting peace in the region after years of reported involvement in arming the Liberian insurgent Charles Taylor.

But foreign diplomats and local political analysts describe the mystery surrounding Mr. Kafando and the murky circumstances behind the demise of other potential rivals to Mr. Compaore as a part of what they see as a disturbingly dark side of the President.

”Compaore has two worlds he moves in,” one Western diplomat said, ”a palace crowd of rather rough people he has been associated with for a long time who stay in the shadows and other people who represent the distinguished face of Government. The first group are becoming fewer and fewer, and in particular the people who know the history of the Sankara episode are disappearing.”

If figures from Mr. Compaore’s past have a way of disappearing, the legend of Mr. Sankara has, if anything, only continued to grow.

Much of the adulation that continues to surround him comes from a reputation for incorruptibility in a poor continent of fabulously rich presidents, and from his self-confident stand toward the West, which many Africans to this day cite as inspiring.

After he seized power from another military Government in 1983, Mr. Sankara seemed to set as his first priority an effort to shatter the mentality of dependence.

When he negotiated new cooperation agreements with France that year, Mr. Sankara demanded that the classic texts, applied with only minor modifications throughout West Africa, be amended to speak of ”mutual assistance.”

If Burkina Faso was unable to make material gifts to France, Mr. Sankara told his shocked French partners, the immigrants who sweep the streets of Paris for meager wages should be considered a form of reciprocal African help.

”Back then we were afraid of nothing,” said Basile. L. Guissou, who was Mr. Sankara’s Foreign Minister. ”Thomas was someone who believed strongly in what he said and was convinced of the value of his country. Even if we didn’t have money or great mineral wealth, he believed that we could will our country forward.”

It was not long before an exasperated France cut off nearly all of its aid to the country because it was rocking the boat too much. Many analysts predicted a quick collapse of the economy, but Mr. Sankara surprised them.

Some have likened his politics to a West African version of Maoism. But by favoring peasants, women and agriculture over an urban civil service, he anticipated the policies being urged on the continent today by conservative international monetary institutions like the World Bank.

He organized successful mass campaigns to vaccinate peasants and teach them how to read and to manage scarce water supplies.

But Mr. Sankara’s most important impact on the country may have been a seemingly cosmetic one. This country, formerly known as Upper Volta, was long used as a reservoir for forced labor in southern territories under the French colonial regime. Its borders were shifted repeatedly to suit the needs of the moment, earning the colony a reputation as the ”Poland of Africa.”

In a popular stroke of political genius, Mr. Sankara rebaptized the country Burkina Faso, meaning ”land of upright people,” giving people a new sense of national pride.

Mr. Compaore’s political allies in Parliament recently pushed through a number of constitutional changes that replaced the country’s revolutionary motto and symbols and gave presidents an unlimited right to run for re-election. But a proposal to restore the old name of Upper Volta stirred strong popular opposition and was abandoned.

”Whatever its faults, the Sankara regime gave our people a deep sense of confidence in themselves that they had never had before,” said Edouard Ouedraogo, editor of a conservative daily, The Observer, the office of which was burned down during Mr. Sankara’s administration, presumably by supporters of the Government, which it had criticized. ”The impact of this should not be underestimated, and anyone attempting to reverse it would be foolish.”

Source :

A version of this article appeared in print on Monday, March 10, 1997, on section A page 4 of the New York edition.


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