Political obstruction preventing the solving of the 1998 murder of Norbert Zongo continued to poison the atmosphere in this “country of honest men”, as the country’s name is translated. Even if criticism is tolerated, any challenge to the head of state, Blaise Compaoré and his closest allies, remains a high-risk exercise.
The year 2006 began like the seven previous ones: in the expectation of justice for Norbert Zongo and his three companions, murdered by unknown assailants while driving along a country road, on 13 December 1998. It ended in scandal and shame, after the justice system, obviously for political reasons, shelved the fragile legal procedure which had led to a member of the presidential guard being charged.
The courts, on 16 August upheld the 19 July decision to dismiss the case for lack of evidence against Sgt Marcel Kafando, the only person who had been charged in connection with the murder. This decision, condemned by all local and international human rights and press freedom organisations, allowed the courts to send the file back to the court clerk’s office for ten years, after which it will be definitively closed. Under the criminal procedure code, the investigation can only be reopened in the event of “new charges" capable of "strengthening charges already found too weak” or “contributing new developments useful in establishing the truth”.
Impunity made sacrosanct
Norbert Zongo was the editor of the weekly L’Indépendant. He was found dead in his burned out vehicle along with his three companions, on 13 December 1998. This date marked the start of a wave of protest across the country. Several dozen demonstrations were held in Ouagadougou and in the principal cities. On 7 May 1999, an independent commission of inquiry (CEI), tasked with “determining the causes of death” of the journalist Norbert Zongo, presented its report to the prime minister. This investigation set up at the initiative of the authorities, concluded after hearing more than 200 witnesses, that “to find the motives for this quadruple murder (...) they should be looked for in the investigations carried out by the journalist over several years and in particular his recent investigations into the death of David Ouedraogo, the driver of presidential advisor François Compaoré,” and brother of the head of state. The report also named six “serious suspects” in the case, all members of the Presidential Security Regiment. Only one of them, Marcel Kafando, was charged in 2001 with “arson” and “murder”. Sgt Kafando, who was also convicted in 2000 of having “held captive and tortured to death” David Ouédraogo, has however being living peacefully at his home in the capital and still receiving his military pay.
During a visit to Ouagadougou, in October 2006, Reporters Without Borders provided the prosecutor’s office with “new elements”, as a result of which it called for the case to be reopened. As a member of the independent commission of inquiry (CEI) set up after the murder, the organisation’s secretary-general, Robert Ménard, provided the justice system with its full report before it could be watered down by the two members representing the government. This version handed over by Reporters Without Borders, more clearly implicated François Compaoré and a rich businessman close to the government, Oumarou Kanazoé. Some passages, detailing contradictions in the statement given by François Compaoré and the role played by Oumarou Kanazoé to try to silence Norbert Zongo, were completely removed from the final report. Information in the document handed over to the Faso prosecutor also proved that François Compaoré and Oumarou Kanazoé had both lied to the CEI. It showed that the David Ouedraogo and Norbert Zongo cases were directly linked and revealed how and why the businessman and Dramane Yaméogo, Faso chief prosecutor at the time, tried to silence the journalist before his murder.
The justice system, which took an extraordinarily long time to investigate the murder, took less than 24 hours to give its verdict. The day after receiving the Reporters Without Borders’ file, the Faso prosecutor and the prosecutor of the Republic called a press conference to announce that the elements in their possession were “not new” and it was essential to do nothing. At the same time, they launched a torrent of attacks against Reporters Without Borders, going so far as to threaten that the arrest of its representatives currently in Burkina Faso "would not displease their embassy”. These attacks were picked up and continued in the pro-government press for several further weeks.
This case therefore has for eight years continued to poison the life of the Burkinabé people, while press freedom is a reality in the country, despite a few persistent taboos. Even if criticism is allowed and the disturbing investigations largely already published, challenging the head of state, his family or his closest allies remains a high risk exercise.
The privately-owned bi-monthly L’Evénement found this out when, at the end of the year, François Compaoré lodged a “defamation” suit against it.” The offending article referred to the procedure begun by Reporters Without Borders to reopen the Norbert Zongo case. The complaint objected to the paper’s splash headline, opposite a photo of the brother of the head of state, which read: “Norbert Zongo case. So it is him then!’ Until now, one thought of him without daring to name him. Reporters Without Borders has just taken this step...”