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Who Killed Thomas Sankara? | The Nation

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso—Yamba Elysée Ilboudo, a 62-year-old former driver and presidential bodyguard, sat behind a wooden dock that framed his small form. An illiterate soldier who started and ended his military career as a private, Ilboudo is among 14 men accused of participating in the assassination of President Thomas Sankara—a celebrated pan-Africanist and Marxist political leader—and 12 other men more than 34 years ago.

On October 26 and 27 in a courtroom in Burkina Faso’s capital, Iboudo was the prosecution’s first witness. Ahead of him, steps ascended to the red-robed judge, the military jurors, and the state prosecutors, and behind him were lines of black-robed lawyers and an audience that stretched out to the edges of the wood-paneled room. Ilboudo wore a gray shirt and loose-fitting slacks. From my seat, all I could see was the back of his shaved head as he was questioned about what he did on October 15, 1987.

“Present!” Ilboudo snapped like a soldier during a drill, each time his name was announced.

Iboudo claimed that he drove four armed men to the government building where Sankara was gunned down. He heard the shots but didn’t see who fired them. When asked if he saw Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, a senior military official at the time, he faltered and often said it was “complicated” or difficult to remember. The audience laughed at his baffled manner and short responses.

Chrysogone Zougmoré, the president of the Burkinabé Movement for Human Rights, which has documented hundreds of extrajudicial killings committed by Burkina Faso’s military during counterterrorism operations, said the trial is a “victory” that could pave the way for greater accountability within the security forces. “The military are now answerable to the law like everyone else,” he told me. For the Sankara family’s longtime lawyer Prosper Farama, the trial will send a message that those who stage coups will be punished. “Through this Africans will understand that a coup d’état is not a way to come to power,” he said.

And for two female law students, Marie-Louise and Zenabo, who sat at the back of the courtroom and are too young to remember Sankara alive, more was at stake. Marie said she saw the trial as a test of whether there could be “justice in Africa,” and Zenabo said it was about seeing if there could ever be “impartial judgement” in Burkina Faso.

For more than three decades, Sankara’s death has remained an open wound in the former French colony. The story of his assassination has all the elements of a modern tragedy: Two soldiers and close friends, Sankara and Blaise Compaoré, seize power together in their early 30s, with Sankara becoming president and creating collectivist policies to make the nation self-sufficient. Sankara even renamed the country Burkina Faso, which draws from two native languages and means “the land of upright men” or “men of integrity.” But tensions between Compaoré and Sankara began to rise over leadership and the direction of the revolution. Then a group of assassins gunned down Sankara and his colleagues outside a government building. Suspicions of French and foreign involvement remain, which Burkina Faso is investigating.

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