On October 15, 1987, Thomas Sankara, leader of Burkina Faso and figure of Pan-Africanism, was assassinated during a coup d’etat. The circumstances of this crime remained obscure until the fall of President Blaise Compaoré in 2014. The trial, which opens in Ouagadougou on October 11, should lift a corner of the veil. One question remains open: the role played by France

by Bruno Jaffré

The trial of the alleged assassins of Burkinabe President Thomas Sankara and his companions, during the October 15, 1987 coup, opens in Ouagadougou on October 11, 2021.  The commando leader, Mr. Hyacinthe Kafando, still at large, and the most anticipated defendant, former President Blaise Compaoré, will not appear in the dock. Exfiltrated by French troops during the popular uprising of October 2014 ( 1 ) , the latter took refuge in Côte d’Ivoire. On the other hand, General Gilbert Diendéré, who directed the operations, as well as Mr. Jean-Pierre Palm, then chief of staff of the gendarmerie, will be present, with eleven other defendants.

In power from 1983 to 1987, Captain Sankara promoted self-centered economic development, fought drastically against corruption, supported education for all and the liberation of women. His revolutionary and social orientations – in particular his denunciation of the debt and the diktats of the international financial institutions in July 1987 at the forum of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – make him a symbol of emancipation still alive in Africa. ( 2 ) . Its ability to mobilize the population of Burkina Faso and its international influence, in particular its positions in favor of Palestine, aroused the irritation of Western chancelleries and African leaders “ friends of France ”.

For a long time, the justice of the regime of Mr. Compaoré (1987-2014) multiplied maneuvers to hinder the investigation, despite the actions carried out from abroad by Burkinabe lawyers and activists, in particular the campaign ” Justice for Thomas Sankara, justice for Africa ”. Against all evidence, the death certificate of the former president includes the mention ” natural death ” until April 2008. It takes the insurrection of the Burkinabés to unblock the situation. In February 2015, under popular pressure, the transitional government reopened the file. The authorities appoint an examining magistrate, Mr. François Yaméogo, who has since demonstrated his  independence and his commitment ( 3 ) .

The investigation — and this is its first significant contribution — made it possible to reconstruct the course of the events of October 15. The judicial inquiry confirmed the identity of the victims summarily buried in Ouagadougou. By proving the presence of soldiers from Mr. Compaoré’s close guard among the members of the commando, the investigations established the direct responsibility of the then Minister of Justice. The killers left his home, some even borrowing one of his vehicles. They burst into a room of the regional organization of the Council of the Entente ( 4 )where Sankara met with six members of his secretariat and fired without warning, which demonstrates their will to assassinate and not to arrest. In addition, the investigation confirmed that Mr. Compaoré’s deputy, Mr. Diendéré – who was then only a lieutenant – designated the people to be eliminated from among the captain’s relatives and the loyal officers arrested in their barracks.

American involvement in question

Faced with the ill will of the States concerned, Judge Yaméogo completed the ” internal of the file while leaving open that of its probable international ramifications. The role of Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s Côte d’Ivoire, unfailing support of Paris, like that of France, a former colonial power, then in full cohabitation between President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, remains to be elucidated. Other countries could be involved. In October 1987, when the Cold War was coming to an end, Paris supported Chad in its conflict with the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, a former ally of Sankara, for control of the Aozou strip. It was also at this time that the Liberian  Charles Taylor – who enjoyed significant support in Tripoli, Abidjan and Washington – organized the armed rebellion that would bloody his country and destabilize neighboring Sierra Leone for seven years.

During a trip to Burkina Faso in November 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron undertakes to lift the defense secret, as officially requested by Judge Yaméogo. This promise will not be kept. The first two batches of declassified documents that reached Ouagadougou only include secondary documents. ” The content does not only include diplomatic notes, but above all analytical notes, information notes or even local documents (tracts) “, takes care to specify the French ambassador Luc Hallade, before adding to about the third batch submitted on April 17, 2021 that it is “ archives of the Ministry of the Interior ( …)in connection with the context of the assassination of Thomas Sankara ( 5 ) ”. Clearly, the  delivery does not contain any parts from the cabinets of Chirac and Mitterrand.

It was the Burkinabe judicial inquiry that revealed the presence of French agents in Ouagadougou on October 16, 1987, the day after the coup. Following him, tongues loosened. “ We took the listening archives concerning Blaise Compaoré and Jean-Pierre Palm that we shared and proceeded to destroy them, testifies on condition of anonymity a member of the Burkinabé intelligence services. Palm himself came to our service, accompanied by French people (…) looking for evidence that he was being tapped ( 6 ) . Another evokes the presence of the French mercenary Paul Barril . This is the second essential
contribution of education.

Until now, few elements corroborated a possible  complicity of the French authorities. The hostile reactions of Paris to certain initiatives of Sankara – such as his support for the inclusion of New Caledonia on the list of territories to be decolonized established by the United Nations – are well known. In a letter addressed to his Minister for Cooperation Michel Aurillac, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac asked, in retaliation, to reduce French aid to Burkina Faso ( 7 ) . Supporter of the Burkinabe revolution now deceased, the journalist Elio Comarin reported this apostrophe from the head of the French government : in six months we will have taken care of him ( 8 ) . »

Other maneuvers came from the entourage of President Mitterrand after a lively exchange with Sankara during an  official dinner on November 17, 1986 in Ouagadougou. The young captain denounces in particular the deliveries of French arms to countries at war and the invitation to Paris of the South African Pieter Willem Botha, an emblematic figure of apartheid. Guy Penne, Africa adviser to the French head of state, then organized a campaign to smear the Burkinabe revolution. He put François Hauter, then a senior reporter at Le Figaro, in touch withwith Admiral Pierre Lacoste, former Director of the Directorate General for External Services (DGSE). French intelligence provides the journalist with documents intended to feed a series of incriminating articles, describing supposed atrocities committed by the revolutionary captain. They will appear in 1986. ” I have the terrible feeling of having been manipulated “, confides Hauter today ( 9 ) .

The American historian Brian Peterson, who was able to consult the archives of the State Department, recounts an attempt to destabilize Burkina Faso organized by African regimes close to Paris: the so-called ” Christmas war ” between Mali and Burkina Faso , in December 1985. This crisis was fabricated from false accusations against Ouagadougou according to which armed elements had illegally crossed the border with Mali. Bamako, but also Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, support these allegations against all evidence. Sankara’s efforts to provide evidence of his good faith are systematically undermined. “ It is difficult to believe that the Malian authorities are unaware that the rumors circulating are false ”,says then US Ambassador Leonardo Neher, quoted by Peterson. A Central  Intelligence Agency (CIA) cable confirms the manipulation : “ The war was born out of Bamako’s hope that the conflict would trigger a coup in Burkina Faso ( 10 ) . »

The judicial inquiry shed light on another crucial point: the presence of Liberians, companions of Mr. Taylor, at the scene of the assassination has not been confirmed, contrary to what certain witnesses asserted ( 11 ) . Should we therefore exclude their involvement ? We know that Mr. Taylor himself came to Burkina Faso in January 1987 asking for help from Ouagadougou to seize power in Liberia. Sankara would have refused it, according to  several testimonies. Mr. Compaoré would have granted his support in exchange for backing the coup of October 15, 1987, according to the former Liberian mercenary Prince Johnson ( 12 ). But the instruction could not verify this point, the Burkinabe judge not having obtained the collaboration of the justice of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Côte d’Ivoire, for its part, refused to extradite Mr. Compaoré.

Worried about the influence of the Burkinabé revolution, the Ivorian President Houphouët-Boigny, a pillar of French influence in the region, complacently welcomed and financed his opponents ( 13 ) . For his part, Libyan President Gaddafi criticizes Sankara for not having supported him in his conflict with Chad over the Aozou strip and for having refused the installation of one of his Islamic legions in Ouagadougou. These tensions are confirmed by numerous elements from the American archives ( 14 ) .

Liberia’s bloody civil war brings together the Ivorian Houphouët-Boigny, the Burkinabé Compaoré and the Libyan Gaddafi, who support Taylor. Specialist of “ Francafrique ” François-Xavier Verschave qualifies the assassination of Sankara as a “ founding sacrifice ( 15 ) ” sealing the unexpected alliance of the three men. This is also the opinion of Mr. Mousbila Sankara, then ambassador of Burkina Faso in Libya, as reported by his French counterpart Michel Lévêque in a diplomatic telegram of November 9, 1987.

Peterson rejects the hypothesis of direct American involvement in the coup d’état of October 15, 1987, although it was mentioned in several testimonies by Liberian actors ( 16 ) . On the other hand, it reveals the participation of Mr. Michel Kafando ( 17 ), leader with Jean-Claude Kamboulé of the Burkinabé opposition in exile in Côte d’Ivoire, at a meeting of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL). Relations between Ouagadougou and Washington were strained when Burkina Faso broke off negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in July 1987. The historian also points out that many Burkinabé officers participated in the American training program International Military Education and Training. During a meeting with President Houphouët-Boigny, in April 1978, Mr. Herman Cohen, American Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia, allegedly insisted that he “ rid him of the influence of Sankara in the region ( 18 ) “.

The elements confirming the hypothesis of an international conspiracy remain limited but they exist. Will the judicial inquiry have the means to go further ? Will the authorities of the suspected countries sincerely cooperate by opening their archives ? There is a long way to go to shed light on the elimination of Sankara, who continues to inspire many young Africans.

Bruno Jaffre
Moderator of the Thomassankara.net site , author of L’Insurrection inachevée. Burkina 2014, Syllepsis, Paris, 2019.

(1) Lire David Commeillas, « Coup de Balai citoyen au Burkina Faso », Le Monde diplomatique, avril 2015.

(2) Lire « Thomas Sankara ou la dignité de l’Afrique », Le Monde diplomatique, octobre 2007.

(3Cf. Amber Murrey (sous la dir. de), Certain Amount of Madness : The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara, Pluto Press, Londres, 2018.

(4) Elle accueillait les chefs d’État membres de cette organisation régionale (Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Bénin, Togo) lorsqu’ils se réunissaient à Ouagadougou.

(5) « Affaire Thomas Sankara : la France “a tenu parole”, en déclassifiant les documents couverts par le secret national », Le Faso, 18 avril 2021.

(6) Hervé d’Afrik, « Assassinat de Thomas Sankara : comment le complot a été organisé et exécuté », Courrier confidentiel, n° 226, Ouagadougou, 15 février 2021.

(7Le Canard enchaîné, Paris, 21 octobre 1987.

(8L’Humanité, Saint-Denis, 11 avril 2021.

(9)  Voir http://www.thomassankara.net/un-journaliste-francais-declare-avoir-ete-manipule-par-guy-penne-et-les-services-secrets-francais-avant-lassassinat-de-thomas-sankara.

(10) Brian Peterson, Thomas Sankara : A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2021.

(11) Silvestro Montanaro, Ombre africane, documentaire diffusé le 15 juillet 2009 sur la chaîne de télévision publique italienne RAI 3.

(12) Témoignage devant la Commission vérité et réconciliation du Liberia, 29 août 2008, repris dans « Derrière les révélations de Prince Johnson, les soutiens burkinabé et ivoirien à la rébellion du Liberia », RFI, 28 octobre 2008.

(13Cf. Lona Charles Ouattara, Les Dessous de la révolution voltaïque. La mélancolie du pouvoir, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2017.

(14Cf. Brian Peterson, Thomas Sankara : A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa, op. cit.

(15) François-Xavier Verschave, Noir Silence. Qui arrêtera la Françafrique ?, Les Arènes, Paris, 2000.

(16) Silvestro Montanaro, Ombre Africane, op.cit.

(17) De novembre 2014 à décembre 2015, M. Kafando occupera le poste de président de transition.


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