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Home > English > NEWS AND ANALYSIS > The Sankara Affair: The Glimmers of Justice

The Sankara Affair: The Glimmers of Justice

Thursday 29 September 2022, by Chantal Ismé

Amid a pandemic, while the world seems to be holding its breath and COVID is taking up all the media space, a courageous and tenacious effort continues to obtain justice for the death of Thomas Sankara, an iconic symbol. It is leading to a victory. To better understand the current and emerging issues learned from this important trial, we spoke with Aziz Salmone Fall, coordinator of the International Justice Campaign for Sankara (ICJS).

Chantal Ismé (CI): Since 1997, the CIJS has been tirelessly campaigning to counter impunity, shed light on the case of Sankara and his companions, and obtain justice. What was the genesis of the case?

Aziz Salmone Fall (AF): It is indeed the longest legal battle in the case of the murder of a head of state and his colleagues in Africa, and indeed anywhere in the world. The International Justice Campaign for Sankara is led by the African Liberation Research and Initiative Group (Groupe de recherche et d’initiative pour la libération de l’Afrique). GRILA was born in 1984, coinciding with the Burkina revolution. Both were working to realize the pan-African dream and development grounded in autonomy and self-government. Following the assassination of Thomas Sankara and his comrades in 1987, GRILA reacted strongly and for more than three decades organized commemorative events every October 15, never missing an opportunity to remember the work of the Sankarist revolution and help its supporters. For more than nine years, the Compaoré regime gave no explanation for the death of Sankara and his comrades, intimidated and assassinated opponents.

In the summer of 1997, a few months before the ten-year statute of limitations expired, GRILA members Housseini Boly, Dominique Traoré and myself alerted the group to the imminence of the October 15, 1997, date and the risk of seeing all possibilities of legal recourse extinguished. The decision was made to work differently on the Sankara case. It was under these circumstances that his widow Mariam Serme Sankara courageously filed a complaint against X and forgery. The lawyer Dieudonnée Nkounkou of Montpellier and Bénéwendé Sankara enlisted the case and took on its defense. GRILA launched the international campaign against impunity: Justice for Sankara in the form of an appeal. The appeal is supported, among others, by the Human Rights Commission, the African Human Rights Network, the Togolese League for Human Rights, the Inter-African Union for Human Rights (Burkina), Amnesty International (Canada), Christian Action Against Torture, the CISO international center for workers’ solidarity, the coordination of young opposition parties (Senegal) Organization of Pan-African Youth (Senegal), CIMADE, FIDH, Survie (France), Club Thomas Sankara (Mali) Gruppo Mission (Italy) and endorsed by prominent individuals such as Prof. Jean Ziegler (Switzerland), Prof. Issa Ndiaye (Mali) the journalist Jean Philippe Rapp, the politician Edgar Pisani (France) Prof. Vincent Coulibaly (Mali), Mr. Jean Carbonare (FIDH), Dr. Buuba Diop ANAFA (Senegal), Alioune Tine (RADDHO) Ms. Coulibaly (African Network for Integrated Development) … Thousands of signatures throughout the years have supported our work, including during the Sankara Caravan that crisscrossed several countries on three continents in 2007. The International Justice for Sankara Campaign has been primarily waged by a collective of about twenty lawyers. These lawyers work pro bono voluntarily for the public good, for international law and for internationalist and pan-African solidarity. Their immense work is already historic and their contribution to the fight against impunity is well known. The odyssey of almost a quarter of a century has been marked, unfortunately, by the death of some, the departure of others to other functions or causes, or the arrival of new ones. ICSJ is grateful for the courage and self-sacrifice of its contributing organizations, whose members are models for the profession. The mobilization of ICSJ has contributed to keeping Sankarist thought and work alive in Burkina and throughout the world.

The ICJS has exhausted all the remedies of the Burkinabe courts, instrumentalized by the Franco-African regime, and has had to resort to the UN Human Rights Committee. It set an international precedent against impunity in 2006. With the overthrow of the Compaoré regime, a new regime allowed a new trial to be organized. It will open on October 11, 2021.

CI: What is at stake in this trial?

AF: [The stakes of this trial] are huge. Symbolically, Africa is studded with martyrs of our independence who were assassinated with impunity, from Lumumba to Cabral. On the dock is the comprador state, allied to imperialism, which plagues most African political regimes. That is to say, the political regimes that have accepted their subordination to neo-colonial modes of growth, that function through the expropriation of the masses, the embezzlement of public funds and the perpetuation of structures of underdevelopment. The Compaoré regime that was ousted by the popular uprising was exfiltrated by France and sheltered in Côte d’Ivoire. Before leaving, this regime ruined the country, undermined the political system and economy, among other things, by associating with jihadist cells that were beginning to scour the sub-region and having connections with mining networks. The transitional state was held hostage by this, and the Kaboré regime, which came to power, was embarrassed to continue the trial. For the first time, we were no longer fighting the state party, but the latter had become an impartial judge. Our objective is to make the truth known, to obtain justice and to curb the impunity which characterizes all the abuses carried out against the leaders of the democratic and popular forces.

CI: Twenty-five years since the beginning of your work, you have just made an important gain. What is it about?

AF: This judgment is the first of its kind in the history of the continent and marks a precedent in the history of law. For most of the past 25 years, ICJS lawyers have been trying to get the law heard against the state party, and then before a military tribunal. They have always stood up against impunity.

Thanks to the valiant popular mobilization that ousted the Françafrique regime of Compaoré, Judge Yameogo has revived the process, in accordance with Burkinabe law and the rights obtained for the widow Sankara and her children before the UN Human Rights Committee in 2006.

From March 6, 2015, to October 7, 2020, instructions and pleadings allowed the reopening of the trial on October 11, 2021. The trial has resumed, separate from its international component, since France has been slow to provide declassified documents, which it will unfortunately finally provide in a selective and incomplete manner.

Having refused our request to film and record its hearings for posterity, the court nevertheless held, in an exceptionally requisitioned location, a trial that will go down in the annals of the legal history of Burkina Faso and Africa. The serenity of the trial was disrupted for a time by a coup which put into question the constitutional legitimacy of the process. The continuity of the state allowed the trial to resume, and in full knowledge of the facts, the pleas of the civil parties and the defense, dozens of witnesses as well as the defendants have been heard. Some defendants were convicted and others acquitted, as described in the attached opening statement. Large parts of the truth about the assassination of President Sankara and his comrades were revealed, despite the silence and denials of several of the accused. Whether they were fleeing or hiding in plain sight, the last masterminds and assassins have publicly revealed their subterfuge and are now answering to their conscience and to history. We are asking Côte d’Ivoire and France to hand over the culprits and participate in the elucidation and closure of this case. The military court sentenced BELEMLILGA Albert Pascal Sibidi and DEME Djakalia to five (05) years imprisonment with a suspended sentence each:

  • TONDE Ninda known as Pascal alias Mang-Naaba to three (03) years imprisonment;
  • OUEDRAOGO Tibo and PALM Mori Aldiouma Jean-Pierre to ten (10) years imprisonment each;
  • ILBOUDO Yamba Elysée to eleven (11) years’ imprisonment;
  • SAWADOGO Idrissa and OUEDRAOGO Nabonssouindé to twenty (20) years’ imprisonment each;
  • COMPAORE Blaise, DIENDERE Gilbert and KAFANDO Tousma Yacinthe to life imprisonment each;

He pronounced the forfeiture of the decorations of all the convicted defendants who had received one or more honorary distinctions;

He said that the present judgment is worth detention title for the defendants sentenced to a custodial sentence not covered by pre-trial detention in accordance with the provisions of Article 315-14 of Law No. 040-2019/AN of May 29, 2019, on the Code of Criminal Procedure;

It decrees against TONDE Ninda known as Pascal alias Mang-Naaba, warrant of detention in accordance with the provisions of Article 315-14 of Law N°040-2019/AN of 29 May 2019 on the Code of Criminal Procedure;

CI: What obstacles did you face in reaching this verdict?

AF: There were so many that it would be tedious to list them. We have had intimidation, attempts at corruption, death threats, instrumentalization of magistrates, surreal legal quibbles, perversion of the law, intoxication, media propaganda, misinformation from Franco-African circles. At the level of the UN, the issue of impunity never completed with judges Guissé and Joinet and the legal limits at the level of the human rights committee have limited our victory at the UN which has become a Pyrrhic victory. We are fighting a hydra. But the resilience of our activists and supporters, the pugnacity of our lawyers has been greater.

CI: Will this achievement have an impact on similar cases?

AF: There are many pending cases on the continent and many possible situations where our jurisprudence will allow a breach in generalized impunity.

CI: Does this first victory at the national level give hope for the external (international) aspect of responsibility?

AF: It probably frightens the sponsors and accomplices of this assassination. Those responsible are scattered from France to the United States, via Liberia, Togo and the Ivory Coast. All these countries, if they would disclose their archives on the matter, would allow us to solve the mystery. But we are dealing with the reason of State. Sooner or later the missing truth will be known.

CI: What are the chances that this verdict will be respected? If not, what levers are available?

AF: We have little control over the political reality of these legal issues. Amid the trial of the assassination of Thomas Sankara, a coup occurred on January 23, 2022, while the country was under attack by jihadists. On January 24, 2022, a Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, chaired by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, denounced the Kaboré government’s inertia against terrorism and announced its takeover. Shortly thereafter, the constitution was suspended and then restored, with exceptional measures. This did not reassure us.

Nevertheless, the trial resumed and the main defendants were convicted on April 6. Among them was President Compaoré, sentenced to life in absentia for "attack on state security" and "complicity in murder”.

Already during the trial, rumors of negotiations with Abidjan were confirmed. A section of the political class is arguing that the former Compaoré regime, having made pacts with the jihadists, could restore peace. The return of the former president is being called for and in the name of reconciliation, between parties that have not been declared. A summit bringing together former heads of state of the country is then being orchestrated by the new regime.

This is how Blaise Compaoré was received on July 7, 2022, with impunity. The red carpet was rolled out for him rather than arresting him, even though the summit failed. The complicity between the current regime and the former one seems to be evident behind these gestures of reconciliation and maneuvers of amnesty.

On July 26, with a semblance of contrition, Blaise Compaoré asked for forgiveness through the press, without contacting the families, and without acknowledging his crime and the heinous crimes he committed, and above all without facing justice. The family of President Sankara has been waiting for 35 years for justice to be done. Since April 6, 2022, they have been waiting for the verdict, rendered by independent judges after an exemplary trial, to be carried out. There can be no reconciliation without truth and respect for justice. The contempt shown by both the new regime and Blaise Compaoré for the verdict of the military tribunal, rendered in the name of the Burkinabe people, is shocking. The new authorities’ desire for amnesty, echoing the bigwigs of the old regime, will not be accepted by the people of Burkina Faso or by Pan-Africans around the world.

The rhetoric of reconciliation is artificial. The assassination of President Sankara and the end of his revolution have nothing to do with the terrorist aggressions that are affecting the Sahel and Burkina. In line with the recent communiqué of the lawyers of the collective, the International Campaign Justice for Sankara considers this failure of justice and the continuation of impunity unacceptable.

CI: What are the next steps for the ICSJ?

AF: At our level we continue to keep the pressure on and support the family in their process. The burial of all these victims who were exhumed for the trial is coming soon. There is a whole battle about this symbolism. We will ensure by all means possible that the verdict is respected and carried out.

CI: How one shows solidarity with this cause?

AF: Progressive circles sometimes support us, often more with a pat on the back than by material support. We recently used a fundraising campaign with a concert and promotional materials to cover the cost of the lawyers’ travel and logistics. We have hardly had any material support during these years and we have almost exclusively assumed all expenses. This says a lot about the verbal solidarity in our circles, but it is better than nothing. But if people want to help us, we are grateful and they can support us here.

CI: A last word, message?

AF: The ICSJ is grateful for all the Pan-African and internationalist mobilization that has assisted it for 25 years. It salutes the memory of the victims and all those who paid with their lives and gave their blood for this day to come. The ICSJ salutes the pugnacity and courage of Mariam Sankara, the dignity of her family and the tireless work carried out by three teams of lawyers during these 25 years. It calls for vigilance and resoluteness for the respect of justice and the incarceration of the culprits as well as for an investigation of the international conspiracy. The ICSJ salutes the mobilization of Pan-Africans and internationalists who supported it in achieving this shared victory. The ICSJ hopes that peace and serenity will prevail now that the culprits have been condemned and expects that the people of Burkina, confronted with jihadism and destabilization, are now better reconciled with themselves, will recover their sovereignty and the momentum to make them deserve the title of a homeland of human beings of integrity.