Reporting on the Ghost of Sankara : Interview with Journalist Jooneed Khan


by Stefan Christoff


[Read part I of this series, an interview with Aziz Fall of GRILA]

GRILA, the Group for Research and Initiatives for the Liberation of Africa, a grassroots collective in Montreal, is leading the international legal charge concerning the case of Thomas Sankara, recently winning a key case at the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations.

According to GRILA, the impunity of those involved in assassinations in Africa is finally being called into question. The Sankara case could set new precedents in an issue of profound importance to a continent with a history of unresolved assassinations of national leaders and political activists.

Jooneed Khan, a reporter on international affairs for Montreal’s La Presse, has been covering the case of Thomas Sankara for a number of years. He is one of the few journalists working at a major media outlet to cover this story.

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Stefan Christoff: Explain your accounting of the history surrounding the revolution of Burkina Faso and the assassination of Thomas Sankara. What is the historical and contemporary importance of these events to African politics?

Jooneed Khan: Sankara became president of Upper Volta, shortly after changing the name to Burkina Faso, which translates to the land of people with dignity. At that time, when apartheid in South Africa was still holding sway, Sankara represented a new hope for African development. He advocated simple principles like self-reliance, rooted in the belief that Burkina Faso could not develop if the nation continued to rely on outside support, that the first resource to tap is the internal energies of the country, the energy of the people.

Sankara was also very strongly anti-corruption, cutting back a great deal on government expenses. At one point Sankara was traveling to work on a bicycle, later on giving in to the demands of some within the government cabinet Sankara accepted that government officials use cars. However the government then used very small cars, not the traditional Mercedes that made the African elite known very often known in those days as the new tribe of "wabenzi," [a reference to their preference for the Mercedes Benz car].

In 1987 Sankara was assassinated by a companion in the revolution named Blaise Compaoré, who carried out a coup d’état seizing power, remaining in power for 20 years [until today]. Often we discuss the importance of democracy in Africa, however recently Burkina Faso has been elected to serve a two year term on the Security Council of the United Nations, together with Vietnam, Libya along with the permanent members.

Africa has a long history of national leaders who have been murdered, massacred, or overthrown in one way or another. Beginning with Patrice Lumumba in Congo, in Ghana Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown and died in exile in Egypt, Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique. Many anti-Apartheid workers, activists in South Africa were assassinated, some by hit-men, some with letter bombs. You could say that Thomas Sankara is one of the last in that long list of great African martyrs.

You have been following the case of Thomas Sankara in relation to the work of a local organization here in Montreal which as been active on the case in recent years. Can you explain Sankara’s case in relation to Montreal?

There is a small NGO in Montreal named GRILA [of the Group for Research and Initiatives for the Liberation of Africa], which was formed in the 1980’s during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Interestingly, after the fall of apartheid it continued working, as it was clear that the end of apartheid had not liberated Africa; there were still many battles to be fought. GRILA looked to Sankara as a model for African Development and picked up the case aiming to have light thrown on the circumstances of the death, to commemorate Sankara’s assassination every year.

In 1997, ten years after the assassination GRILA managed to lodge a formal complaint with the authorities in Burkina Faso, asking for Sankara’s assassination to be investigated, and it managed to secure the legal move just a few days before the deadline, the local statute of limitation, beyond which the matter could not be raised. There is a limit of 10 years under Burkina Faso law in which one can access legal recourse, after which time the point becomes moot.

GRILA lodged the complaint just prior to the deadline with the support of Sankara’s family, who was living in exile in France successfully raising the matter, which of course irritated authorities in Burkina Faso. The response that they received that this was a military affair, since Sankara had been an army officer and could not be dealt with in civilian courts but within the military courts.

Within these legal proceedings GRILA had the support of twenty-two volunteer lawyers from around the world, in Canada, in Europe and Africa. After failing within the Burkina Faso legal system GRILA took the matter to the UN Committee on Human Rights and they succeeded last year in obtaining a formal denunciation of the Burkina Faso regime of Blaise Compaoré. The denunciation dictated that the government had to throw light on the circumstances of the death of Sankara, had to identify the grave clearly and properly, and also had to pay some form of financial compensation to Sankara’s widow and two sons.

Apparently when Sankara died the death certificate bore the inscription, “died of natural causes”, apparently the authorities have now removed the word “natural” from the death certificate, and offered somewhere near ninety thousands dollars as compensation to the family, which of course the family and GRILA have considered very inadequate.

Until now the grave of Sankara has still not been identified, while the circumstances of the death have not been elucidated and all the obstruction of justice that has taken place around this case has not been looked into. So GRILA is pursuing the case, they are waiting for the UN Committee on Human Rights to react to the Burkina Faso response.

Can you explain the contemporary importance of the case of Thomas Sankara on a global scale?

What’s interesting concerning the Sankara case is that the principle involved is the fight against impunity in Africa because there are so many crimes and violations which continue to be committed and go unpunished. The international criminal court on Rwanda concerning the genocide that took place is just a drop in the bucket concerning crimes in Africa. This is an attempt from the international community and the UN to bring the criminals in Rwanda to justice. However, there are many, many other cases in Africa.

Currently Darfur is a very fashionable cause among many people in the West who want to go to protect the people of Darfur. At the same time according to the United Nations itself, five to six hundred thousand civilians die each year in the eastern Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, deaths stemming from a war that is closely tied to the struggle for natural resources by international corporations. This is often forgotten, one of the many forgotten genocides that is going on as we talk in Africa.

GRILA has picked up the case of Thomas Sankara as another example of impunity, wanting those responsible to be brought to account. These are all interesting factors which have kept me interested in the Sankara case. As the Sankara case has evolved I have tried every now and then to try to asses the situation and do a story in order to keep it alive in the eyes of  the public.

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