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Unsolved Murder of Burkina's Revolutionary Leader Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara, who ruled Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, was one of the most riveting leaders of the last half-century. A pan-Africanist, Marxist and gifted orator, he came to power following a coup and promptly began implementing a progressive political agenda.

He changed his homeland's name from the colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means "the land of the upright people". He strove to make the West African nation economically self-sufficient, promoting local industry and food security, redistributing land from landlords to peasants. He also promoted gender equality, proscribing polygamy and female circumcision. And he spoke out passionately against South African apartheid, and Western meddling in Africa.  


Sankara's radicalism electrified Africa and the Third World more broadly - in September 1984 he was awarded the Jose Marti Order, the highest honor of the Cuban government.

But his attacks on capitalism and French and US interventionism also made him powerful enemies (he once publicly repudiated French President Francois Mitterrand at a state dinner for hosting an apartheid-era South African head of state).

On October 15, 1987, armed gunmen burst into Sankara's office, murdering the president and his 12 aides. His Minister of Defense Blaise Compaore would take over as head of state, and swiftly issue a statement - and death certificate - describing Sankara's demise as a "natural death".

But less than a month later, the magazine Jeune Afrique revealed that Sankara and his aides were actually murdered, their bodies dumped in a landfill outside the capital Ouagadougou.

Sankara's widow, Mariam, has long called for an investigation into her husband's death - asking that the remains be tested to assess whether they are indeed the remains of the former president, but for 27 years Compaore blocked all such efforts, saying "the facts are known" and that he has "nothing to hide".

As he would tell an audience in Harlem in 1984: "Our struggle is a call for building. But our demand is not to build a world for blacks alone and against other men. As black people, we want to teach other people how to love each other."Sankara has long been a hero to youth across the African continent. The vision that he advanced of internationalism and pan-African humanism resonated profoundly.

Sankara's name is often uttered in the same breath as that of Patrice Lumumba, another anti-colonial leader who was assassinated. The Ivory Coast reggae star Alpha Blondy would even compose a song about the betrayal of "Captain Sankara".


Sankara's name often rings out when democratic protests take place, at moments when change seems possible, as occurred recently in his land of birth.

In October 2014, Compaore was overthrown in a popular uprising as hundreds of thousands of youth took to the streets of Burkina Faso protesting the dictator's attempt to run for re-election. The protesters would form a movement called Balai Citoyen (Citizen's Broom), and after sweeping Compaore from power, began calling for a democratic society as envisioned by Sankara.

Last month, 10 political parties and "Sankarist" associations claiming to represent the late leader's progressive vision formed an alliance. These groups then forged a unity agreement and put forth a candidate Me Benewende Stanislas Sankara (no relation to the late revolutionary), who publicly demanded that an inquiry be opened into the coup of October 1987.

Michel Kafando, the head of the current interim government, has agreed, seeing a resolution of Sankara's death as necessary for national reconciliation - and as a way to smooth the country's transition to democracy. National elections are planned for October 2015.

A judicial order was issued, and on May 25, state workers began exhuming the body of Sankara and his 12 colleagues at the Daghnoen cemetery. 

Experts will test the remains against DNA samples submitted by Sankara's sons Philippe and Auguste, both of whom are currently students in the United States. Kafando has also asked France to declassify the archives concerning Sankara's death.

The question now is whether the Burkinabe judiciary will go beyond exhuming Sankara's remains, and start calling high-ranking officials to testify in court over what happened in October 1987.

The Sankarist movement is now demanding that the interim government subpoena the former dictator Compaore - in exile in the Ivory Coast - and his former Chief of Staff Gilbert Diendere who apparently led the commando raid against Sankara's office - and still lives in the Burkinabe capital, to appear in court.

It remains to be seen if the interim government has the capacity - and international support - to do so. The next step for the activists is to connect with sympathizers and champions of Sankara beyond Burkina Faso's borders.

As Cherriff Sy, head of the national transition council, put it: "We believe that the case of Thomas Sankara is not the case of the Sankara family, or of Burkina Faso, but a case [of interest] for all of Africa, because all African youth want to know why this figure of hope was extinguished."

Ghanaian Inventors Who Are Stunning the World

Imagine having a television set that comes on after an effortless clap or by blowing air; picture yourself in a car that is engineless and starts with a simple push of a button tucked to your dress; or a change-over-machine that speaks and tells you where exactly a fire or electrical fault is in your home.

This is not fiction. It is not magic. It is not happening in Europe or Asia and not even in the United States. These products are being manufactured in the West African nation of Ghana.

The brains behind this is Apostle Dr Kwadwo Safo, owner of the Kantanka Group of Companies. He is naturally gifted. A genius. An inventor and a philanthropist. He has no formal or sophisticated technical background. He imagines, dreams and creates at will. He lives in his own world.

It takes about 45 minutes from Accra, the capital, to reach his "city" at Gomoa Mpota in the central region of Ghana. It is set apart from the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Accra. His flag - blue, red, yellow and white stars embossed on the blue hue - constantly flies at a junction on the highway you reach after going past beautiful green landscapes that lead to his location.

It is a large tract of land. The buildings are huge. The ambiance is engaging. It has a natural touch and feel, complete with tortoises - the oldest is 40 years - and a porcupine, evidence of Safo's love for nature.

A large African map showing a picture of Apostle Safo spinning a ball imprinted with pictures, a huge star beneath it and a miniature aircraft welcome visitors.

It takes close to two-and-a-half hours to tour his complex in a car. His son, Kwadwo Safo Jnr, a commercial pilot who acquired his license at age 19, welcomed Al Jazeera. He is the group's chief operations officer.

After driving past the tortoises, the first point of call was a workshop where a chopper was being manufactured alongside a hand-made engineless five-seater vehicle.

"The batteries can be recharged with solar energy or electricity. As you drive the car on the road, it converts the energy from the sun into mechanical energy which powers the car. Safo Jnr said they will ensure there is no risk in test-flying the chopper and explained how the engineless car will work.

"The non-engine vehicle does not rely on a combustion engine to move, but an electric motor powered by rechargeable batteries," Safo Jnr told Al Jazeera.

"We do everything here. For the engineless car it is only the lights and the tires that were bought. Everything else from molding [parts], among others, was done by our local people."

A peacock bade us goodbye from that section, then three zebras smiled at us as we drove on an untarred road towards the colossal buildings on the outskirts. They are four in all, neatly painted and look abandoned when viewed from a distance.

The structures serve as the assembling plants for the yet-to-be unveiled Kantanka range of commercial vehicles - sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks.

Although some car parts are imported, assembling the more than 1,500 pieces for a car and spraying are done by about 20 young men between the ages of 16-25 years. Amazingly, they have no formal training in building a car.

"Most of them are junior and senior high school leavers. The people who are actually racking their brains here to make things work have never been to school before," Safo Jnr said.

Six to 10 cars can be assembled and be ready for the road in a day. Four had been completed and tested by the time Al Jazeera visited. It is hard to tell they were actually assembled in Ghana, save for the Kantanka crown and inscription at the back.

"We are hoping to increase the number to 12 or 15 daily when we go commercial soon," Safo Jnr said.

"We have delayed ... going commercial because Africans and Ghanaians in general have the perception that once it is from Ghana, it is not good - durability is not assured, safety is not guaranteed. So we have decided to use the products ourselves and make sure they are good to go and standardized before we hit the market.

"I was in Brazil about six months ago and I was in tears. The whole of Rio de Janeiro was packed with Marcopolo buses ... and these are buses that were assembled and made in Brazil.

"They patronize it. In India they encourage made-in-India vehicles - like Mahindra - and that's my dream to one day see Kantanka cars on the streets of Accra, Kumasi and all over. I will be fulfilled," a visibly euphoric Safo Jnr pointed out in his office fitted with a locally made air-conditioner that is switched on and off by slotting in a card.

The card in the air-conditioner, explained Safo Jnr, works like one used for an ATM. It is programmed to start the air-conditioner, regulate the temperature and can tell the time when the unit should be turned off. It is multi-functional, he said.

While hugely ambitious and a potential source of pride for a country that is only known for its gold, cocoa and lately oil, the Kantanka project still raises major questions. Who, for example, will buy SUVs in a country where the average income is $1,400 and where just about everyone drives a used car? Do the carmakers perform crash tests, and will they meet the high standards of cars made in Europe and Asia?

"We will be doing that in the course of our manufacturing process," said Safo Jnr, referring to crash tests.

The cars will be "affordable" and middle-income earners will be able to buy them. "We know the market and we can assure you that Africans will be able to buy our cars," he said.

In some countries projects such as this attract financial assistance from the government. But Ghanaian governments upon governments seem to have ignored the "Star of Africa", as Apostle Dr Safo is called by the people of Ghana.

Not even his self-made Limousine dubbed "Obrempong", the speaking change-over-machine, or a range of flat-screen television sets made with wood covers that respond to a simple clap to come alive, increase or reduce volumes have fascinated the government enough to support one of their own.

The Safo family is undaunted though.

"Most of the promises they have made, they say they are in the pipelines. I'm sure African pipelines are very choked so the water is not flowing. Not even the corporate world has shown concern … We are still hoping," said Safo.

"We have had several offers from Asia and Europe, but we turn them down because we just want to stay in Africa and make sure that whatever we are doing here we'll be able to achieve our dreams.

"People tell us that we are wasting our time because we won't get anywhere. But we pay no attention to them, rather we make sure that we prove them wrong by meeting targets that we set for ourselves."

The US-trained young pilot is optimistic about the future. For him, it is a matter of trust and belief in the African.

"The whites believed in themselves and got to where they are now. They are no different from us. We all stayed in our mothers' womb for nine months ... If you cut a white and a black man you get blood. The only differences are our names and colors," he said.

"So we should believe in ourselves. We must reduce the talking and put in work."


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