A military tribunal in Burkina Faso has charged ex-president Blaise Compaore in connection with the 1987 assassination of then-president Thomas Sankara, the Marxist revolutionary known as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.

Sankara was murdered during a coup led by Compaore, a former friend who ruled the country for the following 27 years. Along with the killing of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, it is one of the most notorious political assassinations in post-colonial Africa.

Compaore, 70, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014 after he tried to change the law to prolong his rule and lives in exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast, was charged in absentia along with his top aide Gilbert Diendere and a dozen others. The former president’s party continues to be a force in Burkina Faso, coming second in elections in November that saw Roch Marc Christian Kaboré re-elected as head of state.

Burkina Faso authorities have held dozens of hearings into the assassination over the past six years and issued a warrant for Compaore’s arrest in 2016. But the former leader lives in comfort in Ivory Coast, where he has since taken citizenship.

“There are two possibilities for Compaore: either he appears freely and voluntarily or an international arrest warrant will have to be issued,” a lawyer for Sankara’s family told the AFP news agency. “But what we hope is that he can appear voluntarily.”

Sankara was a charismatic young army captain who came to power in 1983 at the age of 33 with the help of his close friend Compaore. A strident anti-imperialist, Sankara rejected aid from the likes of the IMF and promoted mass vaccinations and African self-reliance.

Critics have pointed out that he also restricted union membership and independent media. But he has since become a symbol of African independence and leadership, in part because he outlawed forced marriage and polygamy, and promoted women to leadership positions in government during his four years as president.

Compaore, who has long denied ordering Sankara’s death, blocked all attempts to investigate the murder during almost three decades in power. The transitional government that served following his 2014 removal reopened the case.

Burkina Faso, once a model of stability in the west African Sahel, has seen a precipitous collapse over the past few years, as violence that began with a jihadist uprising in northern Mali has spiralled out of control and spread across the region.

Large parts of Burkina Faso are now largely ungoverned, while a dangerous mix of extremist groups and ethnic militias have filled the void, killing thousands and displacing at least 1.65m people.

The current government has, like neighbouring Mali, said it is considering opening talks with the extremist groups that have wreaked havoc on the country. That would cross a red line for ex-colonial power France, which leads the counter-terrorism effort in the region, but it is widely popular with ordinary citizens and domestic politicians alike.