MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Sentencing Sankara’s killers has great significance for Africa

A week ago, former Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré was sentenced in absentia to life in prison over his role in the assassination of Thomas Sankara, one of the greatest revolutionaries that ever lived. A special military tribunal ruled that Compaoré, his former head of security, Hyacinthe Kafando, as well as General Gilbert Diendéré, one of the commanders of the army during the coup that led to Sankara’s assassination, were found guilty of complicity in Sankara’s murder. All three were sentenced to life in prison. Eight other accused were given jail terms ranging from three to twenty years. Three defendants were acquitted.

On 15 October 1987 Sankara, who was the president of the West African nation, along with twelve of his colleagues, was gunned down by a hit squad during a meeting at the presidential palace in the nation’s capital, Ouagadougou. The coup d’état was led by Compaoré, who had been Sankara’s right-hand man throughout the latter’s presidency. Shortly after Sankara’s death, Compaoré assumed power. Soon after this, he immediately introduced a policy of “rectification” which was intended to completely erase the legacy of Sankara’s left-wing government. Compaoré would go on to lead Burkina Faso for 26 years before being forced to resign during the Burkinabe uprisings of 2014. The uprisings had been sparked by his attempts to amend the constitution to extend his presidential term.

When the sentences for Sankara’s killers were handed down, after a charged trial that had begun in late 2021, the courtroom burst into applause. Across the world, the announcement of the news was met with mixed emotions. For some, the wheels of justice had turned far too slowly. To them, justice delayed is justice denied. Others felt that sentencing the men almost four decades after the fact was pointless. All the men are in their golden years. Furthermore, 71-year-old Compaoré has been living in exile since he fled in 2014. But there were also those, like me, who celebrate the sentence and believe wholly in its importance not only for the people of Burkina Faso but for all Africans.

It is a painful fact that many African leaders who commit atrocities against their people are never held accountable for their crimes. Many of them die without ever being charged and standing trial for their actions. Perhaps worse than this, they die as “heroes”. In 2020, one of the most brutal leaders in Africa, Perrance Shiri, died of natural causes in a Harare hospital. Shiri was the commander of the Fifth Brigade, an elite unit that was responsible for the brutal Gukurahundi massacre that claimed the lives of thousands of Zimbabweans in Matabeleland. His brutality would continue to find expression long after the bodies in Matabeleland had skeletonised. In the mid-2000s, he would lead military assaults on illegal diamond miners in eastern Zimbabwe. But upon his death, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who also played an instrumental role in the brutalities that have defined Zimbabwe since independence, would declare him a “true patriot”. The same honour was bestowed upon former president Robert Mugabe, who had died the year before. He too had played an instrumental role in the Gukurahundi massacre (and had established the deadly Fifth Brigade) and many other brutalities meted out on Zimbabwean people.

The fact that men such as Shiri, Mugabe and many others have gone unpunished has contributed greatly to the institutionalisation of violence in African societies. In When a State Turns on its Citizens, Professor Lloyd Sachikonye poses a profound argument that the impunity that perpetrators of human rights abuses enjoy facilitates the reproduction of violence in societies. He argues that where there is no consequence for criminality there is no regard for humanity. This same principle can be observed in South Africa where the lack of consequence for crimes such as rape and other forms of gender-based violence has resulted in their exponential increase. Perpetrators of crimes, whether they are common criminals or powerful people, thrive where there are no repercussions. The impact of this is felt by victims – men and women who battle traumas that are never acknowledged.

It is very likely that Compaoré will fight his sentence. But this does not negate the fact that the family of Sankara and the people of Burkina Faso can finally lay the ghosts of a painful past to rest. We should never undermine the importance of having a crime acknowledged and a perpetrator named. Black people in South Africa are living through multiple traumas, one of which is unacknowledged pain caused by apartheid. It is for this reason that just a week ago, the family of Solomon Mahlangu opened a case at Mamelodi West Police Station to find answers about how their son died. Many other families of slain anti-apartheid activists have done the same or requested inquests, decades after the deaths of their loved ones. The unacknowledged crimes and the anonymity of the perpetrators haunt them. In Zimbabwe too, an entire population is carrying the heavy burden of pain that has been made invisible. And until there is acknowledgement of what Gukurahundi did to people, until those who committed the atrocious crimes are brought to justice, there is no hope for sincere harmony.

The first step towards healing Africa must be holding men such as Compaoré and others responsible.

Mahlatsi is a geographer, urban planner and research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.