By Dare Babarinsa
We are now in the ember months when Nigerians expect miracles and pray against the angels of death. Starting from September, the countdown to the end of the year begins and the slow movement of the day would acquire a brisk pace. Before you know it, the harmattan haze would descend like the soft dew of the morning and the nostrils would feel the peppery aroma. It is still raining even now that we are in October and we are told global warming is announcing itself while those living at the river banks are welcoming more frequent floods. It is the ember months; it is also the period of sudden deaths.
Now we are learning that the ember period may also be a period of remembrance when the Kama may be abroad, seeking to do justice. In faraway Burkina Faso, we are learning the truth that pounded yam produced more than three decades ago can still be hot and fresh. That is the news coming from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
The men of yesterday who allegedly conspired and killed the charismatic Thomas Sankara are now facing trial for his assassination. The 14 men have been kept alive so that they can have their pounded yam fresh. Sankara was killed on October 15, 1987, along with some of his associates, during a bloody palace coup led by his friend and old classmate, Blaise Compaore. The coup plotters then installed Compaore in power and he was to be on top of the totem pole for almost 30 years.
Nothing last forever.
Sankara was the young ruler of Upper Volta who seized power in 1983. He dubbed himself a revolutionary. He was 33 and sought to infuse in his country, the urgency of a new beginning. He changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso (the Land of the Proud) from the old colonial name of Upper Volta. He wanted Burkinabes to work and change their land. He started with the President, sold off the fleet of official Mercedes Benz cars and bought himself a simple Renault car. His ministers were to follow suit. Each had one simple Renault car. There were no official drivers. For the first time in Africa, a leader was ready to live according to his preachments. It was a difficult choice, but Sankara was ready and willing.
Sankara had trained as a soldier where he and Compaore were recruited at the same time. Sankara was 17 when he was admitted into the military academy in Ouagadougou in 1966. It was while he was a cadet in that school that his country experienced the first coup which brought into power, Colonel Sangoule Lamizana. He was soon to learn that power can be a portent instrument for social change. He read voraciously and imbibed socialist doctrines. He read about French colonialism and neo colonialism. He was an eager student.
His country was waiting for him. In 1972, he was a young officer when war broke out between his country and neigbouring Mali. He was dispatched to the war front to lead the troops. It was a short brutal war in which Upper Volta got the better of the Malians. Sankara returned to Ouagadougou a national hero. He bought himself bicycle, moved from one club to another, playing guitar and enjoying the highlife.
Power was attracting him as he was attracted by power. At 32 in 1981, Sankara was appointed the Minister of Information in the new military regime of Saye Zerbo. Sankara was a different kind of minister. He rode bicycle to work. He maintained a revolutionary low profile. He franternised with the press and allowed the doctrine of published and be damned. His colleagues in the cabinet were uncomfortable with him. He became a marked man. The power struggle led to another coup and Zerbo was toppled in November 1982 to be replaced by Major Jean Baptiste Quedraogo who appointed Sankara Prime-Minister.
It was a difficult alliance and by May 1983, Quedraogo dismissed Sankara and placed him in detention. Sankara was a popular officer and the barracks seethed with resentments. His friends, led by Compaore, staged another coup on August 4, 1983, and installed Sankara as President. He has finally met his destiny. He changed his country, not just the name. He showed it was possible for an African leader to govern with integrity and fearlessness. He was charismatic and patriotic.
The Burkinabe loved him. Not everyone did of course and one of the few who did not was his old friend, Compaore who had fallen under the influence of ambition and jealousy. When the enemies came for Sankara, Compaore was at the head of the assassination squad. The assassins took the body of the slain President and buried him in a shallow grave. They then announced to a stunned world that Sankara had died of “natural causes.” Sankara’s father knew that the new President was the bosom friend of his son. He sent a message to Compaore. Why don’t you release the body of your friend so that he can be buried along with his ancestors? Compaore ignored him.
Apparently Sankara’s ghost could not be buried with him. It is abroad seeking for justice. That the trial is going on in Ouagadougou showed that there is also hope for justice in Nigeria for those our leaders who were assassinated during the ember months. Two names readily come to mind. One is Dele Giwa, the first Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch, who was killed with a parcel bomb on October 19, 1986. The second is Chief Ajibola Ige who was killed in his Ibadan home on December 21, 2001. Ige, the first elected Governor of old Oyo State, was then the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi tried valiantly to commit some people for trial over the assassination of Giwa, but he failed. No one was ever tried for it. In Ige’s case, a motley crowd of suspects was hauled before a High Court judge in Ibadan. In the end, we were told, they were the wrong suspects. The assassins are still walking free.
We know for sure that those killers cannot escape the judgement of God, but this Republic has a duty to revisit those cases. There are new tools of forensic investigations that science has gifted humanity that should be employed to re-investigate these cases. It serves the interest of our country if the killers are brought to justice.
We have seen in Burkina Faso that the passage of time cannot lessen the enormity of a serious crime. Compaore is in exile in Côte d’Ivoire where he fled in disgrace after his ouster in 2014. But at least he is facing trial in absentia. We need to understand that we should never allow the trail of justice to grow cold. What is good for Sankara is also good for Giwa and Ige. We know now that pounded yam of 20 years can still be served fresh and hot!