This story is over 5 years old.


Digging Up a Murdered President May Answer 30-Year-Old Questions in Burkina Faso

The first-ever investigation into the 1987 murder of President Thomas Sankara may shed light on what role, if any, was played by his eventual successor Blaise Compaore.
Photo via Getty

On October 15, 1987, gunmen stormed the office of Burkina Faso's young president Thomas Sankara, killing the revolutionary leader and 12 of his colleagues, during a coup led by his one-time best friend Blaise Compaoré. Now, 27 years later, the crime is being investigated for the first time.

Authorities began exhuming the bodies Monday from graves in Dagnoen Cemetery on the outskirts of the capital, Ouagadougou. The new investigation into the killings was announced in November by interim president Michel Kafando after Compaoré resigned amid mass protests, and the initial step will be to use DNA testing to positively identify the bodies.


"The process is going to take time," Benewinde Sankara, a lawyer representing the leader's family — he isn't related — told the Associated Press. According to the attorney, the former president's family will not be present when the bodies are dug up, although the AP reported hundreds of onlookers were posted outside Dagnoen on Monday.

Related: Gunman Opens Fire at Tunisian Military Barracks Near Parliament

After Sankara was killed, his assailants immediately buried him; he was 37 at the time and had been in power for just four years. While it is widely believed that Compaoré was behind the crime, no investigation was ever carried out. In the decades after the killing, Mariam Sankara — Thomas's widow — had unsuccessfully fought for DNA testing to confirm her husband's identity.

Sankara was a pan-Africanist who rose to power through a 1983 coup on a Marxist platform pushing land redistribution and nationalization policies. When he became president at age 33, the landlocked West African country was still known as the Republic of Upper Volta. The former French colony had experienced three coups between gaining independence in 1960 to Sankara's own power grab.

During his rule, he pushed agricultural reforms and infrastructure projects, while banning practices like female genital mutilation. He also changed the country's name to Burkina Faso and famously planted 10 million trees throughout Ouagadougou, while enforcing a vaccination program that saw millions vaccinated against diseases like yellow fever.


Sankara emerged as a pan-African and revolutionary icon throughout Africa, particularly embraced by youth in Burkina Faso as they protested Compaoré's hold on power.

"While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered," Sankara said not long before he died, "you cannot kill ideas."

The controversy surrounding his death re-emerged last year after protests tore through Burkina Faso in October when Compaoré, who rose to power after the 1987 coup, attempted to change the constitution so that he could run for a fifth consecutive term as the country's president. Compaoré fled the country to Morocco, where he is currently living in exile.

Related: South Sudan Faces Economic Devastation and Famine as Fighting Grows More Ferocious

In November, Kafando, who was appointed interim president after Compaoré resigned, announced the opening of an investigation into Sankara's death, along with an investigation into the controversial killing of journalist Norbert Zongo, who was assassinated in 1998; no one was ever prosecuted for the crime. In the weeks before his death, Zongo had been looking into the murder of a driver who had worked with Compaoré's brother.

More than 8 million citizens of Burkina Faso, referred to as Burkinabes, are expected to register for the first presidential election since Compaoré's ouster, set for October 11. In April, parliament passed a bill barring Compaoré's allies from running for office in the elections.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB