Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaore: The wheel of justice turns

Kenneth Good writes on the historical background to the overthrow of the Burkina Faso President

Captains Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaore: Justice and Democracy in Burkina Faso

The popular uprisings over the past few days in Burkina Faso against President Blaise Compaore have been a long time coming and have justice firmly on their side.

Captain Thomas Sankara was propelled to power in August 1983 by underground left-wing groups, by dissatisfaction with sterile parliamentary infighting, and by elements in the military: troops from the Po garrison commanded by Captain Blaise Compaore marched on Ouagadougou, assisted in entering the capital by striking telecom workers and by civilians. Aged only 34, Sankara was brimming with new ideas and great energy. He defined his aims as president as:

"Refusing [to accept] a state of mere survival...freeing the countryside from medieval immobility...establishing democracy, opening people's minds...so that they dare invent the future. Breaking the stranglehold of the bureaucracy...by changing the image of the public official... and putting our army among the people through productive work".

Such transformative measures, along with decentralisation and direct democracy, all combined in his thinking with an effective fight against corruption.

Democratisation meant utilising the "full potential of the people. The ballot box and the electoral system [are insufficient]. There can be no democracy unless power in all its forms-economic, military, political, social and cultural-is in the hands of the people." His thinking was also rooted in daily practicalities. "Our revolution will be of value only if we are able to say...that the Burkinabe people are a little happier because of it."

This required clean drinking water, enough to eat, decent housing, better clothing and education. "Revolution meant happiness." Some twenty years later, Sankara remained in popular memory as ‘a man who told the truth, lived close to his people, fought corruption and gave fresh hope for the recovery of African dignity.'[i]

But as early as 1987, national, regional and international elites were already planning his removal. Jaffre is on safe ground when he says that the plot against Sankara was ‘orchestrated' by his brother officer and comrade-in-arms, Compaore, ‘with the probable support of France, Ivory Coast and Libya.' Amidst the evils of elite politics in many places, Compaore's moral culpability is of the highest. Sankara considered him a close friend, and described him as a "highly intelligent and sensitive man." He told a Swiss reporter: "It's good to have a man in whom you can have total or almost total confidence".

Observers recognised that Compaore was the only person with the capacity to mount a coup, but Sankara dismissed such concerns: "The day you hear that Blaise is preparing a coup against me, there won't be much point trying to stand up to him or coming to warn me...It would be too late and there'd be nothing to do about it."[ii]

Sankara was killed on 15 October 1987, and his remains were hastily disposed of in a shallow grave on the outskirts of the capital.[iii] Jaffre has noted that Compaore's government did everything to erase his memory. Public interest nevertheless remained high, with opposition groups in 2014 demanding answers about the circumstances of his death.

His family has never seen his body. While Sankara's presidency lasted just four years, Compaore's has endured for 27.[iv] A precipitator of today's uprising was his apparent intentions to extend his rule further. On 30 October ‘tens of thousands' of protesters clashed with police and military outside the presidential palace, demanding that Compaore step down. In a country where over half the population were believed to be under 18, youth had an ‘overwhelming presence' in the protests.[v]

After days of violent protest, Compaore resigned on 31 October, and fled with his family to the Ivory Coast. The second in command of the presidential guard, and a supposed leader of young army officers, Lt-Col Isaac Zida, claimed power. Early on 1 November, he announced on television that he had assumed responsibilities of the head of state to ensure "a smooth democratic transition...the aspirations for democratic change" of the Burkina youth "will be neither betrayed or disappointed."

But a coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups promised to continue their protests. They "reaffirm[ed] that the victory from the popular uprising-and consequently the management of the transition-belongs to the people and should not be confiscated by the army".[vi] Compaore had been removed, and his party's headquarters burned and looted, but relations between popular forces and the army remained fluid.


[i] Quoted by Bruno Jaffre, ‘Burkina Faso's Pure President', Le Monde Diplomatique, November


[ii] Noted in ‘Comment', Le Monde Diplomatique, 25 October 1987.

[iii] ‘The Fall of Thomas Sankara', South, December 1987.

[iv] He stood with the top dinosaurs, Teodoro Obiang Nquema, 35 years, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, also 35, Robert Mugabe 34, Paul Biya 31, and Yoweri Museveni, 28 years.

[v] David Smith, ‘Burkina Faso', Guardian Online, 31 October, and Thomas Fossy, BBC News Online, 31 October 2014.

[vi] David Smith, in Guardian Online, 1 November 2014.

Kenneth Good is adjunct professor in global studies, RMIT Melbourne, and visiting professor in politics, Rhodes University, Grahamstown

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