This story has been updated.
Just weeks before Thomas Sankara, the pan-African visionary nicknamed "Africa’s Ché Guevara," was shot and killed in Burkina Faso’s presidential palace, he joked about the threat of being overthrown by his fellow revolutionary and longtime friend, Blaise Compaoré.
"Compaoré? He is a very smart man, very refined too," Sankara said then. "The day you find out Blaise is preparing a putsch against me, don’t bother trying to counter him or even warning me. It will already be too late."
So it would have come as no surprise to Sankara that the day after the ambush that killed him (a murder which remains unsolved but is widely thought to have been the work of Compaoré) Compaoré took the presidential seat and, until Thursday, refused to leave it for 27 years.
Unrest started in the capital of Ouagadougou on Tuesday and was prompted by built-up anger over Compaoré’s proposal to amend the constitution so that he could remain in power.
As tens of thousands of Burkinabé protesters set the Parliament building on fire and gathered outside of Ouagadougou’s presidential palace after having driven him from it chanting "27 years is enough," it was, for some, a chance to honor Sankara’s legacy. Though Sankara himself came to be president through an internal struggle, not a democratic process, he was still beloved by many Burkinabé.
Many Burkinabé consider Sankara the greatest son of the small West African nation nestled between Mali and Ghana. A Marxist, Sankara was an advocate for women’s rights, a neo-colonialism critic, and a strong proponent of African self-sufficiency.
In 1984 he named the nation Burkina Faso, "the land of the upright [or honest] people," replacing the country’s colonial name, Upper Volta.
In the four years Sankara served as president before his death, he launched one of the most ambitious social programs in Africa’s history, including ones intended to destroy the lasting effects of imperialism.
Sankara died in the country’s fifth successful coup since its independence from France in 1960. Many suspect Compaoré’s overthrow of Sankara was influenced by Muammar al-Qaddafi, Compaoré’s mentor who led Libya’s brutal regime for 42 years before a dramatic and bloody fall in the country’s 2011 revolution. In 1987, the same year Sankara was killed, Qaddafi asked Sankara to sponsor Charles Taylor’s invasion of Liberia. Sankara refused; in 1989, the Libyan-sponsored invasion began Taylor’s rule over Liberia. In 2011, Taylor was found guilty of war crimes at The Hague.
Unlike Qaddafi, who tried to stand his ground in Libya before his embarrassing and violent downfall, when his body was dragged through the streets of Tripoli by the rebels who ousted him, Compaoré reportedly fled Thursday night to neighboring Ghana in a convoy of more than 40 vehicles. The presidential palace has since been stormed and looted, and the "support the referendum" T-shirts Compaoré ordered to garner support for his fifth term have been burned.
Already coined the "Lwili Revolution," the coup is being documented on Twitter with #Lwili, a bird native to the region that appears in patterns on some of the country’s most popular fabrics. Some have questioned whether this coup, which could finally lead to a democratically elected president, will be the spark that lights the flame for a sub-Saharan Spring, much like the Tunisian revolution in 2011 prompted an onslaught of protests across the Arab world.
With 60 percent of the country’s population younger than 25, a 77 percent unemployment rate, and 47 percent of the population living at the poverty line, the country’s situation is parallel to the state the Arab nations that ousted their leaders from power in 2011 were in.
Compaoré’s reign over Burkina Faso seems short in comparison to other African dictators. In Cameroon, Paul Biya has lived comfortably for 40 years in his multiple presidential palaces. Presidents Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and Jose dos Santos of Angola have both ruled for 35 years; Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is close behind at 34 years.
Compaoré was a key ally to France and the United States in a region threatened by al Qaeda insurgency. Although his overthrow may be a victory for Burkina Faso, his removal could threaten the region’s stability, a region already straining under the weight of the world’s worst Ebola epidemic. Observers expect General Kouame Lougue, a former defense minister, most likely to be Compaoré’s successor. General Honore Traore has ruled under martial law since Friday, but early Saturday morning, another senior army official, Colonel Yacouba Zida announced on state-run television that the borders were closed and a transitional committee was in place and the constitution was suspended. "I will henceforth assume, from today, the responsibilities of the head of this transition and the head of state," he said.
It is not yet clear whether Traore has accepted Zida’s announcement.
"While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas," Sankara uttered shortly before his death. Today, with the Parliament on fire, the corrupted leader en route to Ghana, and protesters in the street shouting "It’s over for the regime!" Burkanibés might have the chance to prove his most famous words right.
Simon Engler contributed to this report.