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What happened on 15 october 1987?
The initial accounts of Thomas Sankara’s assassination were reported by Sennen Andriamirado in the pages of Jeune Afrique as early as November 1987(Andriamirado 1989). Valère Somé, a close associate and friend of Sankara, would complete these first reports through the publication of his book, Thomas Sankara, l’Espoir Assassiné (Somé 1990), soon after. The only survivor of the assassination, Halouna Traoré, has been frequently interviewed; he has always confirmed the same version of the events of that day.
According to Traoré, Thomas Sankara had just begun a meeting with his collaborators when armed soldiers arrived at the Conseil de l’Entente headquarters (an office of the CNR). He declared, ‘It’s me, they are looking for’ and went outside to face his assassins. The findings of the autopsy – only made public in Ouagadougou in October 2015 – corroborated that he had indeed been assassinated while holding up his arms. His body was riddled with bullets, with one entering just under his armpit. The soldiers shot at him, then at those taking part in the meeting. Valère Somé identified three members of the commando unit: Corporal Maïga (bodyguard of Blaise Compaoré) Hyacinthe Kafando and Corporal Nadié, who was the first to hit Thomas Sankara with a hail of bullets.
In November 2001, an article in the weekly journal Burkinabè Bendrépublished the initials of six members of the commando unit, all servicemen. In 2002, Mariam Sankara’s lawyer, Mister Dieudonné Kounkou, in L’affaire Sankara Le Juge Et Le Politique, disclosed their names: Ouédraogo Arzoma Otis, Nabié N’Soni, Nacolma Wanpasba, Ouédraogo Nabonsmendé, Tondé Kabré Moumouni and Hyacinthe Kafando (Nkounkou 2002). They were all under the order of Gilbert Diendéré, who led Pô’s commandos at the time. Gilbert Diendéré would later be promoted to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honour during a visit to France in May 2008 and would serve as Compaoré’s chief of staff. In October 2015, Diendéré would be arrested after an attempted coup.
Following the popular uprising in October 2014, a judicial investigation began, conducted by the honourable François Yaméogo (of the military judicial system). As this chapter went to press, the trial was still underway and the current French President, Emmanual Macron, vowed to make the French archives of Sankara’s assassination public (during a visit to Burkina in late November 2017). Compaoré, after fleeing to Côte d’Ivoire, is currently being tried in absentia. Yaméogo has thus far presided over dozens of hearings and the persons charged have now been publicly named. A few names (previously mentioned) do not appear on the court’s list as they have since died. Other soldiers have been added to the list of members of the commando, including General Diendéré, second in command in Blaise Compaoré’s regime. Also named are those responsible for falsifying the death certificate of Thomas Sankara, which claimed Sankara had ‘died of natural causes’. All of the accused have been arrested, with the exceptions of Blaise Compaoré and Hyacinthe Kafand (the latter was allegedly the chief of the commando unit). However, both are under an international warrant. At the time of this writing, the trial is ongoing and many of the precise circumstances are, as of yet, unknown.
‘The western imperialist camp’: the geopolitical context of the 1980s
The wave of independence movements across the African continent alarmed what Sankara referred to as the ‘Western imperialist camp’. There was considerable apprehension that these newly independent countries would move towards communist ideologies. In each country desires for political and economic independence were quickly subjected to destabilisation attempts. This was the case in 1956 when the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal and, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (democratically elected) was assassinated in 1961.In the French-speaking former colonies, the United States subcontracted the fight against ‘communism’ to the French, as progressive movements were leading to revolts and popular wars for independence, as in Algeria, Cameroon and Madagascar. After a protracted war in Algeria, France (under the stewardship of de Gaulle), ‘granted’ independence to French ‘possessions’ in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa in an attempt to retain some of their political-economic dominance in the region. Paris installed subservient regimes in order to continue the exploitative extraction of raw materials as well as retain influence in African markets – and thus to maintain its political domination and its status as a world power. At the time De Gaulle entrusted Jacques Foccart with the mission of holding the region under French influence. Nicknamed ‘Monsieur Afrique’ under de Gaulle and Pompidou, Foccart set up a large network of contacts, which organised surveillance and collected information across the francophone African region. It is well known that he also ordered covert actions and so-called ‘dirty tricks’ (i.e., destabilisation efforts).
This shadow network would later be termed ‘la Françafrique’. La Françafrique was still operational when Thomas Sankara was killed. A number of similar networks, military, financial or supporting various businesses were created, sometimes with competing agendas. Most of them did not hesitate to act illegally, including organising assassinations, destabilisations and ‘buying consciences’ (i.e., bribery and blackmail). Both Guinea, which had refused to ally itself with France, and Mali, which had good relations with the Soviet Union, were the targets of economic sabotage. On 16 January 1977, the government of Benin, which claimed to be Marxist–Leninist, had to repel a commando raid led by Bob Denard, whose links with the French secret services are common knowledge. In most other French-speaking countries, these networks have imposed and promoted regimes aligned to France with the complicity of local elite by placing advisers at the highest echelons of the state – people who are willing to stifle any aspiration for political independence and sovereignty.In the mid-1980s the Cold War compelled each country to choose a side. The acrimonious competition between the so-called socialist countries (i.e. those allied to the Soviet Union) and the West under the umbrella of NATO (from which France has formerly withdrawn, albeit is still an active player) had transformed the planet into trench warfare. At stake was access to raw materials and the markets in Central and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. For many years Latin America was ‘the preserve’ of the US, which supported bloody dictatorships, resorting to massive arbitrary arrests, tortures and targeted killings. They had to contain recurrent unrest in this part of the world, which has a rich history of struggle for independence. The victory of Cuban guerilleros, led by Fidel Castro, was followed by numerous destabilising attempts. Cuban leadership received strong support from the Soviets, causing one of the worst crises in the early 1960s. An exhaustive list of murders, disapperings or other attempts to destabilise countries and movements would be too long to enumerate. Rather, I have described them here to provide an understanding of the geopolitical context of neo-colonialism, including the Cold War conflict that emerged from the colonial struggle for power and domination, as it is within this much broader context that Sankara was assassinated.
In the 1970s, African youth had gone to study in France, joining in great numbers the Fédération des Étudiants d’Afrique Noire. It was here that many discovered Marxism. In Burkina Faso, the communist ideology in all its variants – Chinese, Soviet or Albanian – spread among the middle class intellectuals. They later constituted the managerial elite of the Revolution.
In the first months of the Revolution, dissenting views appeared within the CNR (Conseil National de la Révolution) as well as outside. The PAI (Parti Africain de l’Indépendance) – which was connected to international communist movements and was the best organised political party and the largest of the two that had taken part in the coup – had misgivings about the frequent changes in the composition of the National Council, the dominance of army officers, the lack of debates and the insufficient preparation for various initiatives launched by the government. This sometimes arose as a consequence of Sankara’s insistence on immediate actions to meet immediate needs. A former UNDP collaborator acknowledged that, for the sake of speed, Sankara dismissed extensive studies prior to the construction of water reservoirs, for example (Benamrane 2016).
Another party, the ULCR (Union des Luttes Communistes Reconstituées) lead by Valère Somé, opposed the preponderance of the PAI in the executive bodies and sets up a strategy to challenge it. The setting up of Comités de Défense de la Révolution (CDRs) in the workplace only increased tensions. At the time that they were created in November 1983, the general secretary Pierre Ouédraogo said, ‘No union is ready to make sacrifices which the CDR would gladly accept, unless CDR and unions merge for the best – provided that the former has eaten the latter’ (quoted in Jaffré 1989: 181).
A prominent member of PAI, Touré Soumane, led the CVS (Confédération Syndicale Voltaïque) and made several defiant declarations to the media. His critics accused him of aspiring to the position of general secretary of the CDR. This first political crisis triggered the resignation of PAI members from the CNR and government, depriving them of their expertise. The ULCR was the only party left sitting on the CNR. Many opportunists and neo-revolutionaries then came to the fore and took on responsibilities. Very quickly they created several organisations under the banner of Marxist-Leninism. The objective conditions for a new political crisis were in place.
Political infighting would resume during the fourth year of the Revolution. The launch of a public debate on the forming of a political party was the pretext. In May 1986 four organisations, UCB (Union des communistes burkinabè), ULCR, GCB (Groupe des Communistes Burkinabè) and OMR (Organisation des Militaires Révolutionnaires), in a common communiqué, pledged to work within the CNR ‘for the edification of a unique avant-garde organisation’. However, differences soon surfaced. On one hand, Sankara recommended the prior dissolution of these organisations; on the other hand, he wished to incorporate the PAI but also the PCRV (Parti communiste révolutionnaire voltaïque), which had refused to collaborate with the authorities seemed illegitimate. All civil organisations were opposed, except ULCR on the second point.
More differences arose. At the start of 1987, after the release of Touré Soumane, unions led by members of PAI and PCRV, until then harshly dealt with, resumed their activities. Some CDR activists, close to UCB, attempted to take control of several unions by force. Union leaders again were arrested in late May. In the CNR, members of UCB, GCB and OMR demanded the execution of Touré Soumane. Thomas Sankara and members of ULCR were opposed. On 4 August 1987, the fourth anniversary of the Revolution, Thomas Sankara delivered a keynote speech, urging a ‘put[ing to] right’ of errors, saying:
The democratic and people’s Revolution needs a people who believe in the Revolution, not a defeated people, a people with convictions, not a people subjugated [and] resigned to its fate … But we must take care to avoid that unity becomes one dry, obstructing and sterile voice. On the contrary, one should promote multiple, diverse and productive viewpoints and actions; nuanced thinking and actions, bravely and genuinely aiming at accepting differences, acknowledgement of criticism and self-examination, towards a bright future which cannot be anything else than the happiness of our people.
He sent a letter that circulated to all the ministries, asking for the reinstatement of sacked staff. Thomas Sankara was aware of a sense of weariness. He offered a pause to slow down the pace of reforms. A pay rise was approved by the Council of Ministers on 14 October. Those who took over on 15 October 1987, the day after, would claim credit for it.
The struggle for power resumed apace. Many discontented rallied round Blaise Compaoré, including those who had been criticised by Sankara, for behaviours he deemed unworthy of revolutionaries, those opposed to opening up the government and calling for new purges as well as those who wanted at last to take advantage of their positions to enrich themselves. A war of leaflets, which comprised more insults than substance, highlighted the tension between the two groups. Blaise Compaoré controlled most of the army and was plotting to attract to his side all these opponents who knew they needed the support of the military forces. His supporters had taken control of many CDRs via activists from UCB, with the complicity of Pierre Ouédraogo, the general secretary of the CDR.
The draft of a speech he was due to make at a meeting in the evening of 15October 1987, written by himself and authenticated by his relatives, was found a few years ago. Thomas Sankara asserted that those who were hiding behind so-called ‘dissensions’ did not put forward any argument when engaged in a political discussion. Actually, according to him, their only motive was the lure of power. They were the political guarantors of the plot. Some who sincerely believed that the coup against Sankara was about changing the course of the Revolution were assassinated when they realised that his death put an end to the Revolution. Those loyal to Sankara, who could not flee, were arrested, often tortured, sometimes until death as several witness accounts, recently made public, reveal (including testimonies from Mousbila Sankara, Guillaume Sessouma and Basile Guissou, to name a few).
Thomas sankara and blaise compaoré: an intensely close friendship or a rivalry?
It would be easy to hide behind political determinism in order to dismiss questions regarding the relationship between Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré. For some, this relationship was the main explanation for the assassination of Thomas Sankara. But one could also presume that Compaoré’s state of mind and this extraordinary relationship, constituted the weakest link of the leadership – one which the backers of the assassination plot used to their advantage so as to organise Sankara’s assassination.
The two young officers, Sankara and Compaoré, allegedly met during the so-called ‘war of the poor’ between Burkina Faso (then Haute-Volta) and Mali in 1974. But their friendship deepened during a military training in Morocco in 1978. At the time some close to Sankara were surprised by his sudden friendship with Blaise Compaoré. Until then, every new member of the clandestine organisation (that the revolutionaries in the army had created) had to get through various stages before being admitted. But Thomas Sankara asked his comrades to allow Blaise Compaoré to skip the normal procedure. Sankara seemed to have absolute confidence in Compaoré, to whom he entrusted the most secret missions.
Thomas Sankara’s father, Joseph Sankara, came to consider Blaise Compaoré, an orphan, whose family background was uncertain, as his own son. He had his meals with the family nearly every day and he even asked him to search for a wife on his behalf. When Thomas Sankara was assassinated, his father expected a visit from Blaise Compaoré – a visit that never materialised. Later he said that he lost two sons on that day.
Thomas Sankara recalled his strong friendship in the film, Capitaine Thomas Sankara (2012), directed by Christophe Cupelin. The film captures a fascinating and striking account, depicting a fusional but very unequal relationship. In one scene Sankara explained,
It’s great to have a man to whom one can tell everything, well almost everything. Letting him guess what you did not dare to tell him yourself … It’s great and very unusual … But it can be painful because it implies huge efforts from the other to be always responsive. When I call Blaise at 4 o’clock, to ask him to come and see me he has to accept to spend the entire night until dawn, making me relax, laugh, boosting me, in order to help me in carrying out my work. We spend night after night discussing. That means he must have no worries. He ought to live to attend to a sick person or I don’t know … too look after. It’s unique. When I reflect on this, I am asking myself, who is going to support him? Because he has to have someone to lean upon, to keep [him] sane.
In each of the photographs and scenes depicted in the film, Blaise Compaoré is seen in the background, behind Sankara. Critics say that Sankara did not spare his friend, even publicly.
Their rivalry became apparent when they seized power on 4 August 1983. Blaise Compaoré confided to Vincent Sigué that he wanted to be the ‘top man’ given his central role in the events that day (an account that was widely believed). Compaoré’s wife, Chantale Terrasson de Fougères – herself a well-connected protégée of Ivorian president Houphouët-Boigny had allegedly pushed him not only to claim the ‘top job’ but also to claim the traditional chief of Mossi (the largest ethnic group in Burkina), to which Blaise Compaoré belongs. Rule in this group is centralised and is led by an emperor, the Morgho Naba. Thomas Sankara, whose parents were Peulh and Mossi, was deemed to be inferior. Of course, I am not emphasising an ethnic angle to explain the rivalry that developed between the two men. It is simply one possible interpretation – or one potential dynamic – among many.
The presence of several liberians at the scene
The involvement of Liberians in the assassination has been suspected for many years. The academic and writer Stephen Ellis did research on the war in Liberia; he cites several sources to support this conjecture in his book (published in 1999). Referring to the presence of Liberian refugees in Burkina Faso, he writes:
These were the men Blaise Compaoré had contacted and whom he asked for help to topple the Burkinabè president Thomas Sankara. According to a former aide of Compaoré, the Ivorian president, Houphouët-Boigny, was aware of the plan of the ambitious Compaoré. On October 151987, Burkinabè soldiers under the command of Compaoré with the support of a small group of Liberian exiled, including Prince Johnson, killed Sankara.
(Ellis 2006: 68)
In an interview, Ellis indicated that Liberians had secured the place where Thomas Sankara and his entourage were killed (telephone interview with the author, 3 May 2001).
In 2008, Prince Yormie Johnson confessed to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he was involved in the killing of Thomas Sankara (Radio France Internationale 2008a). He confirmed it again later to a RFI (Radio France Internationale) journalist. Johnson said, ‘The only option for our group, to stay in Burkina, then go to Libya, was to positively respond to the request of Blaise, that is to get rid of Thomas Sankara who was hostile to our presence in Burkina’ (Radio France Internationale 2008b). He also indicated that they had the support of Houphouët-Boigny.An American researcher, Carina Ray (2008), quoting from the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF) via several media outlets, further confirms this version of events. Sankara was killed in an agreement that Burkina and Libya would help Charles Taylor and his men seize power in Liberia. Libya provided finances, arms and training for the Liberian Future Fighters. Another version has also surfaced: Sankara was murdered before the arrival of Taylor in Burkina. At the Special Court for Sierra Leone during the trial on 25 August 2009, Charles Taylor stated that he did not take part in the assassination because at the time he was detained in Ghana. During the trial, he claimed that the country archives could prove this (Jaffré 2009). Several Liberians have since stated the opposite (discussed further below). Ernest Nongma Ouédraogo, the Interior Minister, during the Revolution, indicated that Taylor was indeed in Ougadougou before15 October 1987 and was living under an assumed name. In my discussion with him, Ouédraogo claimed that he could show me the house where Taylor was living at the time. In July 2009, the Italian TV channel RAI 3 broadcast a documentary, Ombre Africane (directed by an investigative journalist, Silvestro Montanaro),about Liberia. In the film, several of Charles Taylor’s former close associates, including Momo Jiba (the ex-aide-de-camp of President Taylor), Cyril Allen (the former leader of Taylor’s party and ex-chairman of the national oil company), Moses Blah (the ex-vice-president of Liberia) and Prince Yormie Johnson (the former warlord, already mentioned), speak at length about their involvement in the assassination of Thomas Sankara. In this testimony, they indicate that Sankara had refused to help them. It was in this context that they agreed to kill Sankara at the request of Blaise Compaoré. There was an understanding that they would receive assistance following Sankara’s assassination and Compaoré’s ascension.Momo Jiba and Cyril Allen claimed that it was Blaise Compaoré himself who had ‘fired the first shot’ that killed Sankara around 4.30 pm. Diendéré, on the other hand, said that Blaise Compaoré arrived at the house much later, around 6.00 p.m. The precise timeline of Compaoré’s arrival remains unknown.
The involvement of the united states
In the book recently published by Herman Jay Cohen (former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs), he writes that, as a member of the American Executive, ‘I accused Sankara of trying to destabilize the entire region of West Africa. Houphouët dismissed my concerns with the flippant remark, “Don’t worry, Sankara is just a boy. He will mature quickly.” Since we were alone, I insisted that Sankara was hurting the image of the entire French community in West Arica and would eventually hurt Houphouët himself’ (Cohen 2015: 23).
The Liberians interviewed in Silvestro Montanaro’s documentary, quoted supra, all similarly mentioned the American participation in the plot to kill Sankara. What was the reason? ‘The Americans did not like Sankara, he talked about putting in public ownership the country’s resources for the benefit of the people: actually he was a socialist. And they decided to get rid of him’, as Cyril Allen put it.
The Liberians were willing to tell a bit more, provided that they believed they were not being filmed. To these ends, they made two important disclosures, which were confirmed later on. Firstly, they affirmed that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped Charles Taylor escape an American jail, where he was serving a prison sentence. Secondly, Charles Taylor was tasked to infiltrate African revolutionary movements.
Pure coincidence? Charles Taylor recounted the incredible improbability of his escape during his trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). According to an AFP report dated 15 July 2009: ‘For me I have been freed because I did not escape from prison’. In 1985, he was detained in the jail of Plymouth County while waiting to be extradited to Liberia, where he was charged with embezzling US$90,000. The accused explained that, on 15 September 1985, a prison officer rushed into his cell in the high security unit. This officer led him to another wing with less supervision. ‘Two other inmates were there’,added Taylor. ‘We stepped closer to a window. They took a sheet and tied it to the bars. We climb[ed] down outside. A car was waiting … I did not pay anything. I did not know the people who collected me’, the accused told. Another AFP report, dated 22 December 2008, reveals that
An American congressman visiting Monrovia acknowledged … during a press conference that the United States had taken part [in] ‘the destabilisation’ of Liberia before and during the civil wars and had been ‘wrong’ to do so … Americans have supported the toppling of William Tolbert [assassinated in 1980 during a bloody coup by Samuel Doe] because he was not doing what they [i.e., the Americans] wanted.
In his testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC), Simpson stated, ‘Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor … met the same fate because they refused to carry out orders from Washington’.
More recently, The Boston Globe, in its 12 January 2012 issue, revealed that Charles Taylor might have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon as early as the beginning of the 1980s (the CIA neither confirmed nor denied these charges, see Bender 2012). The American connection(s) warrants more research.
France had several reasons to see Thomas Sankara as a danger to their interests. Not the least was his growing popularity, his youth, his straight-talking manner and the achievements of the Revolution, in particular against corruption. All of this meant that Burkina was looked at in the region with sympathy and that Thomas Sankara was an admired leader. Sankara’s achievements pointed to possibilities of choosing an alternative development model: this model was one opposed to the neo-colonial model that favoured French interests in the region. More than this, there was a fear that Sankara would become a regional example; therefore he threatened to destabilise neighbouring countries, where the elite’s rampant corruption was cultivated and instrumentalised by neo-colonial actors. On a very public and international level, Sankara’s Burkina Faso was no longer aligning itself with French positions at the United Nations, unlike France’s other former colonies.
A series of events increased the tension in 1986. At a reception during President François Mitterrand’s visit to Ouagadougou, Thomas Sankara lashed out at French policy in Africa. On his feet, looking defiantly at François Mitterrand (who appeared impassive, gazing in front of himself), Sankara delivered a very undiplomatic speech:
We cannot understand why bandits like Jonas Savimbi, killers like Pieter Botha, have been authorised to travel to France, so beautiful and decent a country. They stained her with their hands and feet covered with blood. Those who allowed them to commit such actions will bear responsibility here and elsewhere in the world, now and forever!
That day, François Mitterrand attempted with his customary sagacity to respond to each point, at times in fatherly manner, ‘I admire his great qualities, but he is too forthright; in my opinion he goes too far. Let me tell me out of experience’. This verbal sparring was regarded as an insult by Mitterrand’s entourage. According to many commentators, the final decision to ‘get rid of’ Sankara was taken after this incident.
Other policies of Burkina poisoned relations further. A few months later, another event (one that was far more serious for French diplomacy) earned a more overtly aggressive response. On 2 December 1986, Burkina Faso voted against France in support of New Caledonia’s right to self-determination, which was discussed by the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonisation. In paragraph 3 of resolution 41/41, the General Assembly ‘proclaims the inalienable right to self-determination independence of New Caledonia people’. In Paris, at the National Assembly, the right wing MPs were enraged and the Prime Minister wrote to the Minister for Coopération, demanding economic retaliation against Burkina Faso (Guissou 1995: 107).
French authorities were too often slow to make good on their past errors. After a four-year campaign by the international network ‘Justice for Sankara, Justice for Africa’, the president of the French National Assembly finally accepted a motion for the setting up of an investigative committee on the assassination of Thomas Sankara (tabled by members of the Green and Front de Gauche parties). Claude Bartelone pretended to ignore that its remit would be precisely to investigate in France and not in Burkina. The questions phrased by the MPs were focused on specific points:
We have to answer the following questions: why was Thomas Sankara assassinated? How was his assassination made possible? What roles did the French intelligence agencies and the French leaders at the time did play? Did the DGSE know some people were plotting and did it allow them to carry on? (Assemblée Nationale, 10 June 2011)
The process stalled.
Momo Allen, one of the witnesses in the aforementioned documentary asserted: ‘The piano was tuned both by the Americans and the French. There was a CIA agent at the American embassy in Ouagadougou, who was liaising with the representative of the secret services in the French embassy, they took the most important decisions’ – the director cut in, saying, ‘Then the CIA and the French intelligence services … decided to get rid of Sankara. These are facts’.
On 23 February 2012, on France Inter, the programme ‘Rendez-vous avec M.X’ focused on the death of Thomas Sankara. Mr X (introduced as a former French intelligence services agent) claimed that after the victory of the right at the parliamentary elections in 1986, which lead to a period of ‘cohabitation’ with the socialist president, some African leaders called upon Jacques Foccart to take action. They asked him to get rid of Thomas Sankara. The most prominent of them was Houphouët-Boigny, the president of the Ivory Coast, neighbouring Burkina-Faso and a close ally with France in the region. When asked, ‘Have the French agencies played a role?’, Mr X answered, ‘How could it be otherwise? Africa abounds with agents and former ones who work directly for African leaders or companies. They ensured our [i.e., French] interests over there are protected’.
The French journalist, François Hauter, a reporter at large with Figaro, recalls a troubling conversation during a panel discussion at Cheikh Anta Diop University as part of events organised by the Prix Albert Londres in May 2008. During the panel, he informed the audience that he had been contacted by a special adviser to François Mitterrand for Africa, Guy Penne, who asked him to write an article hostile toward Thomas Sankara. More than this, Penne helped connect the journalist with Admiral Lacoste, who called the DCRG (Direction Générale des Renseignements Généraux) and suggested that he meet the Chief of African Operations. The journalist ended by adding, ‘That was the biggest attempt at spinning I have ever seen in my entire career as a journalist’.
Ellis informed me in 2001 that ‘Charles Taylor was also in contact with Michael Dupuch, former adviser to the President Jacques Chirac, when he was ambassador to the Ivory Coast. A French businessman, Robert de Saint-Pai was acting as an intermediary. He died some years ago’. Jean-Pierre Bat further emphasises France’s support to Charles Taylor in his 2012 book, Le Syndrome Foccart.
The networks of la Françafrique were not just satisfied with these efforts to destabilise the regime – they also needed to imply that Blaise Compaoré would have the support of the new French government. In 1998, Jeune Afrique alluded to these overtures to Blaise Compaoré before October 1987: ‘At the time number two of a revolution he did not believe in anymore, ever closer to Houphouët-Boigny, through whom he met his future wife, the handsome Blaise met his French counterpart, then Prime minister, via the Ivorian president and Jacques Foccart who introduced him to the leaders of the French Right, in particular Charles Pasqua’. A few years later, in 1992, Blaise Compaoré awarded the highest distinction in Burkina Faso, l’Etoile d’or du Nahouri, to Jacques Foccart.
This complex landscape constituted the conditions for an assassination – made up of the converging interests of the United States, France, several French-speaking countries in the region (notably Côte d’Ivoire) and Libya via Charles Taylor associates. Although complex and sinister, the historical geopolitical context described in this chapter is not a mere flight of fancy, as the French ambassador to Burkina declared in 2005. Rather, multiple sources reveal that many geostrategic actors supported, in some form, Sankara’s assassination. Togo was also rumoured to have sent a general of gendarmerie with a group of men to Ouagadougou.
When looking for support in the West African region, Compaoré’s trip to Côte d’Ivoire was a great occasion. During a party, he met Chantale Terrasson de Fougères, who was a member of a group of girls at the Yamoussoukro Lycée, who were often called upon to make Heads of State’s visits to Côte d’Ivoire ‘pleasant occasions’. She was the daughter of Jean Kourouma Terrasson, a well-known doctor in Côte d’Ivoire, who had close ties to President Houphouët-Boigny. After their initial meeting, Compaoré, deeply in love, travelled regularly to Côte d’Ivoire to join her. Their relationship progressed quickly and the wedding took place on 29 June 1985, six months after their first encounter. Houphouët-Boigny seemed to want the wedding to be successful. He lent his private jet to transport the couple and gave them numerous presents, including a large sum of money (rumoured to be 500 million FCFA or US$900,000) to ensure that his Franco-Ivorian protégée could maintain her lavish lifestyle – this, of course, was in the context of the political and economic revolution in Burkina Faso, as people were being encouraged to live according to their means, to count on themselves and to abstain from lavish lifestyles.
The geopolitical conditions were in place to prepare the coup. Bernard Doza, a political journalist, former adviser to Blaise Compaoré (August 1987to July 1988) asserted, ‘Houphouët Boigny provide[d] funding – the general secretary to the presidency, Coffie Gervais, estimate[d] the sum to 5 billion CFA francs – in order to finance a campaign of divisive leaflets [that would tear] apart Burkina during June 1987’ (Doza 1991). The feud between revolutionary leaders deepened and the Liberians eventually set the assassination into action. Tripoli was alleged to have given intelligence equipment. Blaise Compaoré was confident that he could rely on Diendéré to carry out the coup.
As we have seen from the discussion above, grey zones remained. The French media, which had been quiet on the subject, finally seized on the so-called ‘Sankara affair’ only after Blaise Compaoré was toppled following the popular uprising in October 2014. For the first time, they now widely mention versions of the plot theory outlined here. Yet, there had been no official response from the French government prior to the presidential election in May 2017. Mr Bartolone, the President of the National Assembly, during a visit to Burkina Faso in March 2017, declared in an interview: ‘We are in favour [of] the French justice deal[ing] with all the demands [of] Burkina judiciary so [that] there will not be any suspicions in [the] relations between our two countries, including [in] this affair’ (Belemviré 2017). This was a different tone than his previous responses in September 2015, when, during a parliamentary inquiry, he stated that the Sankara affair did ‘not concern France’.
If a rogatory commission were created, it would entail the appointment of a French judge to lead the investigation in France. As per the declassification of documents (as President Macron has recently indicated France will do), such a commission would constitute an important breakthrough, but it would be insufficient. This is because similar incidents in the past have shown that even when official papers are made public in France, there are still many remaining obstacles on the path to establishing the truth. In Burkina Faso, Judge François Yaméogo appears to be investigating thoroughly, including looking into the theory that there was an international coup. He asked for judicial assistance from the French authorities so that a judge might conduct hearings. He requested the declassification of related official papers. Nonetheless, no one has yet had any access to the necessary archives (as the date of the assassination goes back further in time than what has been made available). Gradually, we might have new revelations and hopefully compelling documents will be revealed, particularly if journalists and researchers press to open new avenues of investigation into aspects of the case as-of-yet insufficiently explored.
In this chapter, I set out to examine some of the many variables that might have played a part in the murder of Thomas Sankara. Some would like to dismiss his assassination as a rivalry between two men in a deeply complex friendship; others see his death as the consequence of internal politics and others as the result of a complex international plot involving many geopolitical actors. The contextualisation of Sankara’s assassination within political and economic events at the time underlines the narrow path that Burkina Faso was allowed to follow.
Contemporary history shows that countries that try to resist the dominance of major global superpowers are subject to thorough destabilisation attempts, including military aggressions. In this case, political differences led to a serious conflict precisely because Blaise Compaoré was able to turn them to his own advantage in order to create the political conditions for his presidency as an alternative. Without political allies, he never could have contemplated seizing power. On the other hand, the civilians who closed rank behind him could not contemplate taking over without the support of the army. The fact that the country quickly returned to the Western fold demonstrates that these so-called ‘political opponents’ against Sankara (whom they criticised for being too reformist), were interested, first and foremost, in their own enrichment. Personal enrichment is precisely what happened under Blaise Compaoré’s regime. Thomas Sankara was too dangerous an obstacle for this enrichment. He had to be eliminated and conditions were met to do it. This remains the most plausible hypothesis. Most of the world’s coups, which set out to topple leaders whom have become ‘hindrances’ to global capitalism, are organised with accomplices among the direct entourage (see Afterward, this volume). Thus they most often arise within internal political situations with deep contradictions. This is precisely what happened in Burkina Faso when Thomas Sankara was assassinated.
The murder of Thomas Sankara stands as one of the most shocking political assassinations in world history. To this day, the exact circumstances are not elucidated. Although some of the victims are forgotten, the prestige of Sankara has continued to increase over the years. In Africa, Europe and the United States, the former leader of Burkina Faso has inspired many creative people, including writers, poets, choreographers, painters, visual artists and playwrights (see Chapters 21 and 23, this volume). Many citizens’ movements and political parties now claim that Thomas Sankara’s ideas guide their actions (see Chapters 15, 19 and 23, this volume).Several documentaries, most of them made by European directors, have contributed to his renown. Screenings are generally followed by discussions, allowing activists from the international network ‘Justice pour Sankara, justice pour l’Afrique’ to remind us of the campaign for truth and justice about the killing of Thomas Sankara. They provide detailed information on what we know and ask the audience to sign petitions. Commemorations on the anniversary of his death are organised everywhere in Africa as well as in many European countries, in the US and in Canada. Videos of Sankara’s speeches (particularly that delivered on national debts) are available with subtitles in several languages. International networks against the burdens of debts in poor countries hold events around 15 October in order to pay homage to Thomas Sankara. These actions contribute to prevent what is termed ‘l’Affaire Sankara’ from being forgotten. Hopefully one day the full truth of Sankara’s assassination will come to light.
Andriamirado, S. (1989) Il S’Appelait Sankara: Chronique d’une Mort Violente. Paris: Jeune Afrique.
Belemviré, M. (2017) Coopération: Le Président de l’Assemblée Nationale Française en Visite au Burkina. Burkina Online. Retrieved on 1 December 2017 from www.burkinaonline.com/wp/cooperation-le-president-de-lassemblee-nationale-francaise-en-visite-au-burkina/Benamrane, D. (2016) Sankara, Leader Africain. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Bender, B. (2012) Former Liberian Dictator Charles Tayler Had US Spy Agency Ties. The Boston Globe. Retrieved on 14 July 2017 from www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2012/01/17/mass-escapee-turned-liberian-dictator-had-spy-agency-ties/DGBhSfjxPVrtoo4WT95bBI/story.html.
Capitaine Thomas Sankara. (2012) Directed by Christopher Cupelin [Film]. Switzerland: Laïka Films.
Cohen, H. (2015) The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures. Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing.
Doza, B (1991) Liberté Confisquée, Le Complot Franco-Africain. Paris: BibliEurope.
Ellis, S. (2006) The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War (2nd edn). London: Hurst & Co.
Guissou, B. (1995) Burkina Faso, Un espoir en Afrique. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Jaffré, B. (1989) Burkina Faso, les Années Sankara, de la Révolution à la Rectification. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Jaffré, B. (2009) Que Sait-On Sur L’Assassinat de Sankara? Pambazuka News. Retrieved on 12 July 2017 from www.pambazuka.org/fr/pan-africanism/%C2%AB-que-sait-sur-l%E2%80%99assassinat-de-sankara-%C2%BB
Nkounkou, D. (2002) L’affaire Thomas Sankara, le Juge et le Politique. Paris: NK.
Ombre Africane (2009) Directed by Silvestro Montanaro [Film]. Italy:RAI 3.
Radio France Internationale (2008a) Vérité, Réconciliation et Revelations. Retrieved on 14 July 2017 from www1.rfi.fr/actufr/articles/104/article_71763.asp.
Radio France Internationale (2008b) Prince Johnson: C’est Compaoré qui a Fait Tuer Sankara, avec l’Aval d’Houphouët-Boigny. Retrieved on 14 July 2017 from www1.rfi.fr/actufr/articles/106/article_73998.asp.
Ray, C. (2008) Who Really Killed Thomas Sankara? Pambazuka News. Retrieved on 14 July 2017 from www.pambazuka.org/pan-africanism/who-really-killed-thomas-sankara.
Somé, V. (1990) Thomas Sankara, l’Espoir Assassiné. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Thomas Sankara, l’Homme Intègre. (2006)Directed by Robin Shuffield [Film]. France: ZORN Production.
 Translated by Jean Jaffré with Amber Murrey
 These two colonial wars, still mostly unknown in France, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of anti-colonial insurgents.
 French President Nicolas Sarkozy reinstated France in NATO in 2009.
 See the original in French at http://thomassankara.net/nous-preferons-un-pas-avec-le
 However, Pierre Ouédraogo did not appear on the side of the Popular Front (which assumed power on 15 October 1987).
 The journalist, Denis de Montgolfier, originally located the text in 2001. The full text is available at http://thomassankara.net/lintervention-que-devait-faire-thomas-sankara-a-la-reunion-du-15-octobre-1987-au-soir.
 See the full interview, in French, at http://thomassankara.net/interview-de-joseph-sambo-sankara-je-nai-pas-mon-fils-thomas-je-nai-pas-mon-fils-blaise-jai-perdu-tous-les-deux.
 This story was first retold to me by one of Sankara’s aide-de-camp, who had also been a friend of Vincent Sigué, who had told him personally. Sigué was killed shortly after Sankara, when he was close to the border of Ghana. A former legionary, whose military qualities impressed his entourage, he remains a controversial character, notably for the ill treatment or the tortures that he would have inflicted on prisoners while he was temporarily in charge of internal security. Thomas Sankara later had him removed from this position and planned to entrust him with the direction of the FIMATS (Force d’intervention du ministère de l’Administration Territoriale et de la Sécurité) after an internship in Cuba. The project of creating this security force, sought after by Sankara’s entourage in order to better ensure his safety, would never see light. Thomas Sankara would be assassinated before its realisation.
 After a short courtship, the couple was married on 29 June 1985.
 Stephen Ellis met several times with Charles Taylor’s former companions to realise this work
 Among these sources is the on-line news magazine, The Perspective or the Liberian Mandingo Association, a New York-based online journal.
 See transcripts of these interviews and film extras at thomassankara.net/assassinat-de-thomas-sankara-des-temoignages-dun-documentaire-de-la-rai-3-mettent-en-cause-la-france-la-cia-et-blaise-compaore
 Jonas Savimbi was the leader of UNITA (Angola’s National Union for the Total Independence), a movement supported by both the CIA and South Africa, which was waging war against the Angolan government of the MPLA (The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola).
 The entire exchange is available in French at http://thomassankara.net/seul-le-combat-peut-liberer-notre.
 The transcript of the Assemblée Nationale is available at www.assemblee-nationale.fr/13/propositions/pion3527.asp
 For example, Robin Shuffield’s (2006) Thomas Sankara, l’Homme Intègre and Christophe Cupelin’s (2012) Capitaine Thomas Sankara.