Thomas Sankara, the army captain turned revolutionary who led Burkina Faso in an anti-imperialist coup, was reburied on Thursday at the site in Ouagadougou where he and 12 comrades were murdered in 1987.
Draped in the Burkinabe flag, the remains of the 13 men were reinterred in a private funeral ceremony – nearly eight years after they were exhumed as part of the long-delayed investigation into their deaths, which former president Blaise Compaoré was last year convicted of plotting.
The reburial, which had been announced earlier this month, was attended by Prime Minister Apollinaire Joachimson Kyélem de Tambela as well as relatives of the 13 men, though some family members – notably Sankara's widow – chose to stay away.
Mariam Sankara and other relatives of the late leader object to the choice of location: the former offices of his National Revolutionary Council, which were stormed by a hit squad on 15 October 1987.
'Nothing but a circus'
“Sealing the souls of the people we have lost in blood, in that pain, in the place where they fell, it forces us to walk through their blood to pay our respects,” Blandine Sankara, the sister of the late leader, told RFI.
The families had requested that the remains be buried elsewhere, she said, not at the site of their deaths – which today serves as the Thomas Sankara Memorial, watched over by a larger-than-life bronze statue of the leader that typically attracts hundreds of visitors each day.
“These days it's like people are trying to claim the name, the memory of Thomas,” said his sister, who dismissed the reburial ceremony as “nothing but a circus”.
Sankara continues to loom large in Burkina Faso and beyond.
The progressive policies he enacted in the four years that he and his junta ruled the country from 1983 until his death – promoting women to government jobs, planting millions of trees, and pushing school attendance and literacy – combined with his assertiveness towards former colonial powers, who he demanded cancel African countries' debt, have led many to consider him one of the great lost heroes of pan-Africanism.
But his leadership was authoritarian and opponents were suppressed. That left him vulnerable to power grabs by other would-be strongmen.
As Sankara and his allies were gunned down, Compaoré, his former friend and righthand man, seized control of the country, which he would rule for the next 27 years.
After protests forced Compaoré from power in 2014, the remains of Sankara and his comrades – which had been buried until then in a cemetery on the outskirts of the capital – were exhumed to gather evidence that might finally allow those responsible for the killings to be brought to trial.
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In April 2022 Compaoré, along with Gilbert Diendéré, an army commander at the time of the assassination, were found guilty of conspiring to murder the men. Hyacinthe Kafando – an officer believed to have led the hit squad that killed Sankara – was convicted of murder.
All three were sentenced to life in prison, while another eight people received lesser sentences.
Neither Compaoré nor Kafondo are serving time, however, the former president living in exile in Côte d'Ivoire and Kafondo having gone on the run in 2016.
After the verdict, Compaoré issued a statement of apology and asked the people of Burkina Faso for forgiveness, “especially the family of my brother and friend Thomas Sankara”. Many saw the move as a cynical bid to earn a pardon and return home a free man.
The country's current government plans to hold a “national and international ceremony” to honour the victims on the 36th anniversary of the killings this year, it announced earlier this month.