The Sankara Tribunal and its Significance

By: Jack D.

Thomas Sankara, the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary and late leader of Burkina Faso

On Oct. 11, 2021, a military tribunal was opened in Ouagadougou, capital of the West African country of Burkina Faso.  Exceptional security measures were put in place, with electronic devices prohibited across a whole district of the city.  The culmination of 34 years of popular struggle, this tribunal represents a historic reckoning with the traumatic incident that has singularly defined the country’s politics for a generation—the assassination of the country’s president Capt. Thomas Sankara and 12 of his colleagues on Oct. 15, 1987.

A Marxist-Leninist army officer, Sankara had come to power in an uprising four years previously.  A thoroughgoing maverick, he made a reputation for himself with his innovative policies and the example he set for his countrymen in his daily life.  His administration’s domestic initiatives ranged from mass vaccination and anti-desertification measures to cultural campaigns aimed at promoting women’s rights, national cohesion and African identity.  In a country that had long suffered from endemic corruption and cultural toadyism, he set a standard for government officials by riding a bicycle to work each morning and dressing in locally produced traditional attire.  Sankara’s legacy has not faded from the public consciousness.  Today, he is the country’s best-known personality and has admirers across the continent and beyond.  Although the international communist movement may currently be at a low ebb, the anti-imperialist consciousness Sankara instilled in his nation endures.

More than anything else, anti-imperialism was the centerpiece of Sankara’s message and this was reflected in his independent foreign policy.  His steadfast objection to dependence on foreign aid and insistence on ideological non-alignment earned him a chilly reception in both the capitalist and socialist camps.  In Washington, Sankara was seen as a mercurial Libyan puppet and his government’s U.N. voting record angered the Reagan administration.  Tripoli, on the other hand, was irritated with Sankara’s refusal to accept Libyan aid and his decision to invite Chadian representatives to Ouagadougou while Chad and Libya were at war.  Sankara also rejected Soviet food aid and in 1984 a deterioration in relations between a pro-Soviet party, LIPAD, and Sankara’s administration would provoke a diplomatic spat with the USSR.  Most significantly, Sankara turned his back on the special relationship his predecessors had maintained with former colonial master France, taking actions such as criticizing France’s relationship with apartheid South Africa and calling for the decolonization of Kanaky. Neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, whose president Félix Houphouët-Boigny had close and long-standing ties to France, was particularly concerned by Sankara’s charisma and the appeal of his revolutionary program, especially given the large number of Burkinabè migrant laborers in the country.

On the dock today in Ouagadougou are 12 accused.  Two others are being tried in absentia.  The key defendant is ex-president Blaise Compaoré, who took power upon Sankara’s killing. A fellow communist army officer, Compaoré had been Sankara’s right-hand man and close personal friend.  Compaoré had played a pivotal role in the 1983 uprising that had brought Sankara to the presidency.  And so it was a stunning turn of events when Compaoré seized power and immediately issued a statement denouncing Sankara as a “renegade” and declaring a campaign of “rectification” in order to “stop the process of neocolonial restoration undertaken by this traitor to the revolution.” In practice, this meant undoing most of Sankara’s autarkic policies and embarking on a rapprochement with the West and its financial institutions.  In March 1991, Compaoré’s party formally renounced Marxism-Leninism.  That very same month, the country’s first structural adjustment agreement was signed with the International Monetary Fund.

Compaoré would hold on to power until 2014, when a popular uprising erupted and forced him from office in a matter of days.  The new régime declared Sankara rehabilitated and set about pursuing a process of national reconciliation.  Upon his ouster, Compaoré fled into exile in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, where he remains today out of the tribunal’s reach.  The other absentee defendant is Hyacinthe Kafando, Compaoré’s former head of security, who is accused of having led the commando that carried out the assassination.  Kafando has been on the run since 2015.

Radio France internationale recently termed Compaoré and Kafando “the elephants not in the room.”  While this is certainly true, there are in fact much bigger “elephants not in the room.”  Although the tribunal has its merits, its significance is seriously undermined by the fact that its scope is limited to dealing with Burkinabè involved in the killings, despite indications of foreign involvement.  Fingers have long been pointed at France, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and the U.S., as well as the Liberian politicians Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson, who were rebel leaders at the time.

Johnson has admitted to his own involvement and has implicated Compaoré as well.  After receiving guerrilla training in Libya, it was from Ivorian territory that Johnson and Taylor would launch their rebellion in 1989.  Moreover, Taylor has claimed that his escape from a U.S. prison in 1985, which enabled him to undertake his political activities, was arranged for by the U.S. government. In 1985, Compaoré had married a relative of Ivorian president Houphouët-Boigny and has maintained close relations with Côte d’Ivoire—where he is now a citizen—ever since.  The marriage is believed by some to have been orchestrated by the conservative Houphouët-Boigny in hopes of cultivating an ally within Burkina Faso’s revolutionary régime.  Libya’s Gaddafi too is alleged to have favored Compaoré over the more independent-minded Sankara.  France had clear incentives to see Sankara removed and is also said to have been behind Sankara’s arrest a few months before the 1983 uprising that brought him to power, as this came on the heels of an unusual visit by French African affairs advisor Guy Penne to Ouagadougou.

While the tangled web of intrigue and foreign interests remains opaque, it is likely there is some truth behind the rumors.  Unfortunately, the current tribunal is not likely to shed much light on the question.  Only the pettiest of imperialism’s “petty local servants” are on the dock.  Although France has promised to hand over its classified documents on the matter to the prosecution, the three batches that have been provided so far include no contemporary documents from the French president’s and prime minister’s offices.  On top of this, despite the exceptional nature of the case, the judge has denied a request by civil society that the proceedings be filmed and preserved for the public record and many high-ranking military officers have refused to participate in the tribunal when asked, suggesting that a culture of impunity and collective silence persists within the old guard seven years after “Revolution 2.0” saw their boss toppled.

The fact that the Sankara tribunal is happening at all is significant enough in itself.  It is the fruit of a decades-long popular struggle.  But as with any hard-won concession from the powers that be, it is limited and ultimately unsatisfactory.

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On Jan. 23, 2022—days after the above was written—an army mutiny broke out in Burkina Faso, culminating in the arrest of the country’s social-democratic president and the seizure of power by a military junta led by Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, a French-trained former member of Compaoré’s presidential guard.  While the dust has not yet settled, the ongoing crisis harks back to the reactionary coup d’état of September 2015, which saw the presidential guard under Compaoré’s erstwhile right-hand man Brig. Gen. Gilbert Diendéré arrest the president and seize power in similar fashion, only to himself be ousted days later when the regular army moved into the capital in support of the civilian resistance.  It was only after this near deathblow to the new régime, almost a full year on from “Revolution 2.0,” that the reactionary presidential guard was forcibly disbanded.  Diendéré was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his failed power grab and is the most senior of the 12 defendants present at the Sankara tribunal—although rumors now abound that the mutineers have freed him.

While it remains to be seen what the long-term implications of the events taking place today will be, nothing could more forcefully underscore the conclusion of this article, that the significance of the Sankara tribunal was fundamentally limited by the moderation of a social-democratic administration that consistently failed to take radical measures to combat imperialism and suppress reactionaries.  A revolution must know how to defend itself.  The upheaval in Ouagadougou today drives home this Marxist-Leninist principle so brilliantly expounded by Lenin in The State and Revolution.

Even more fundamentally, it reminds us of the essential role of the vanguard party in revolution.  Burkina’s “Revolution 2.0” was a valiant democratic resistance movement, but it was a spontaneous revolution that achieved victory in a mere three days—a remarkably short time.  Because it was not organized, it was coopted by anti-democratic interests.  The practical result was that the new régime it inaugurated was headed by Lt. Col. Isaac Zida and Michel Kafando.  Zida had been a long-time member of Compaoré’s presidential guard and a close associate of Diendéré.  Kafando had been a member of the corrupt flunkeyist régime Sankara overthrew in 1983 and had subsequently been active in the Ivorian-funded opposition to Sankara and the World Anti-Communist League.  After “Revolution 2.0,” he turned to phrase-mongering in eulogy of Sankara, pandering to the public mood.  These gentlemen were not prepared to smash the old régime.  The foiled 2015 coup was followed closely by an election that brought to power the social-democrat Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who has just been deposed in the latest turmoil.

Without the leadership of an organized vanguard party representing the interests of the broad masses of society, revolution can destroy but it cannot build, it cannot realize the people’s aspirations, nor is any of its gains guaranteed to survive long.