Nearly 30 years after President Thomas Sankara was killed in a coup as he strived to make his West African country an egalitarian one, his purported grave is being dug up to answer lingering questions about his death.
Sankara was a Marxist, anti-imperialist revolutionary who in four years in power in Burkina Faso doubled the number of children in schools, reduced infant mortality, redistributed land from feudal landlords to peasants and planted 10 million trees that still help shade Ouagadougou, the capital. His style was different from other African presidents, ordering ministers to trade in Mercedes for more humble Renaults.
Sankara’s death at 37 in October 1987 after a coup staged by his once best friend Blaise Compaore has remained shrouded in secrecy.
Sankara and his followers were hurriedly buried, and his family and many others in Burkina Faso have for years wanted to know how he was killed, and if, in fact, his body is really in the Dagnoen Cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of Ouagadougou.
“We want the truth,” many people chanted Monday outside the cemetery, urging the gendarmerie to let journalists in.
“We are here to see who is in the grave and we won’t leave until we know the truth,” said 20-year-old mechanic Ismael Sawadogo among a crowd of people waiting on dark brown earth outside the cemetery. “I was not born when Sankara died but I heard that he was righteous and loves justice.”
Medical experts from Burkina Faso and France are overseeing the exhumation of the site where Sankara and the 12 others killed alongside him are said to be buried. They will conduct DNA tests to identify the bodies.
At the time of the 1987 coup, Compaore said troops loyal to him uncovered a plot by Sankara to arrest and then execute Compaore and two other members of the ruling National Revolutionary Council.
When troops entered the government compound, Sankara pulled out a light machine gun and a pistol and died in an exchange of fire, Compaore said in reports from that year. Compaore has denied being a part of Sankara’s killing.
Workers with pickaxes and shovels were seen starting the exhumation Monday morning under tents.
“The exhumations have started,” Benewinde Sankara, the lawyer for Sankara’s family, who is not related to the former president, told The Associated Press by telephone from the cemetery.