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Burkina Faso31 December 1998

Inquiry into the death of Norbert Zongo
Mission Report

1. Summary of the case

At about 4pm on Sunday 13 December 1998, Norbert Zongo, his younger brother Ernest, his driver Ablassé Nikiema and one of his employees Blaise Ilboudo, died on the road to their ranch, Safari Sissili, about 4 miles from the village of Sapouy, 60 miles south of Ouagadougou. The bodies of Norbert, Ernest and Blaise were found badly burned inside the cabin of their four-wheel-drive vehicle. Fire had destroyed the inside of the Toyota Landcruiser, registration number 11 J 6485 BF. According to a report in the daily Sidwaya, the driver’s body lay "in a shallow channel to the left of the vehicle (...) the lower part of his body licked by flames and covered by only the tattered remnants of a pair of jeans". The state daily went on: "The vehicle (...) was parked on the left-hand verge. There were no tyre marks to indicate that it had braked sharply. The doors were still closed and all traces of paintwork had been destroyed by the flames, as well as all inflammable accessories". These observations were confirmed by the Burkinabe Human Rights and Peoples’ Movement (MBDHP), which sent a team to the scene on Monday 14 December: "From its initial observations made on the spot, the delegation noted the following facts: no sign of skid marks on the road; the vehicle had not struck an obstacle; it had neither overturned nor left the road; from the outside, it seemed to have burned from;the top downwards; the tyres were intact; there were bullet holes in the rear right-hand door; four bodies found at the scene: one outside the vehicle and three burned inside." The MBDHP concluded: "In the light of the elements noted, [we have] serious reason to believe that this was not an accident but an odious crime which was apparently carefully planned and carried out."

2. Who was Norbert Zongo?

Norbert Zongo, alias Henri Segbo, aged 49, was publishing manager of the weekly L’Independant and chairman of the Private Press Publishers’ Society (SEP). For many years he had specialised in investigating the "dark side of the Fourth Republic", to use the term coined by one of his friends. Norbert Zongo trained as a primary school teacher in Togo and Cameroon. He later worked with the state press, resigning when the Burkina News Agency (AIB) wanted to transfer him to Banfora, in south-western Comoé province. He joined the privately owned weekly Le Journal du Jeudi before starting La Clé, then in 1993 launching L’Independant, which is the biggest weekly on the market with a circulation of several thousand. He was also the author of two novels: "Parachutages" and "Rougbeinga".

3. Reactions to the journalist’s death

Tension increased in the days that followed the death of Norbert Zongo and his companions. On Tuesday 15 December, thousands of students demonstrated outside the headquarters of the ruling party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), throwing stones and entering the courthouse. The protest was broken up by police using teargas after the students set fire to a CDP coach. The next day 15,000 people - according to AFP - followed Norbert Zongo’s coffin to the cemetery. More than 1,000 people attended a meeting at the trade union centre on 19 December. A diplomat posted to Ouagadougou commented: "The sum of these demonstrations goes far beyond the opposition’s usual ability to rally support."

On 21 December, President Blaise Compaoré was sworn in for a second mandate. The chairman of the supreme court mentioned in his speech what had become known as the "Zongo case", saying he hoped the investigation by the independent committee put forward by the authorities would be "properly carried out in order to strengthen the construction of our democracy". But Blaise Compaoré made no reference to the death of Norbert Zongo in his reply.

4. Setting up an "independent committee of inquiry"

Three days earlier, the authorities had published a decree, number 98.0490, "concerning the establishment, composition and powers of an independent committee of inquiry". Article 6 stipulates that "the committee is given the task of making all necessary inquiries to determine the causes of death of the occupants of the vehicle (...), including journalist Norbert Zongo". The opposition, trade unions and human rights organisations rejected the government’s proposal because they thought the state was "too heavily represented" (four people out of a total of 14) and suggested setting up an "international committee that could include international organisations such as Amnesty International, the International Committee of Jurists and Reporters Sans Frontières".

The organisations were quick to respond. Amnesty International, noting that the government had announced the opening of an inquiry, expressed its concern: "In the past, this type of investigation has never reached a conclusion. In the past ten years, the deaths of Guillaume Sessouma, Boukary Dabo, Clément Ouédraogo and David Ouédraogo have never been officially explained". Reporters Sans Frontières said in a letter to justice minister Larba Yarga: "Over and above the outrage provoked by Norbert Zongo’s death, RSF does not want to neglect any line of investigation that might help us to have a fuller understanding of how he died. In these circumstances, our organisation wishes to go to Burkina Faso very shortly to conduct an independent inquiry and meet all those involved in the case. We do not have the pretension of taking the place of the national legal authorities; we merely wish to help them shed light on the case and thus stop the spread of the rumours that have already reached all parts of the country." For RSF, the circumstances of the journalist’s death are "dubious, and require further clarification".

The government reacted to the criticism. On 17 December the CDP said: "It was by no means in our interests, just after we had won the elections brilliantly with a transparent candidate, that such a situation should occur. (...) The false remarks and gratuitous statements of the [opposition, Ed.] 14 February Group, alleging that we are in some way responsible for this tragedy, are only the visible parts of a coldly calculated plot by politicians on the way down, who are willing to fish in troubled waters".

After the opposition declared a national period of mourning of 48 hours on 21 December, it was the turn of the press to organise a stoppage on Thursday 24 December. The journalist’s death came as L’Independant was conducting a campaign for a full investigation of the murder of David Ouédraogo, the driver of François Compaoré, the president’s brother.

5. The David Ouédraogo case

In December 1997, François Compaoré handed David Ouédraogo over to members of a military barracks, alleging that the driver had stolen money from him. David Ouédraogo was reportedly tortured to death, and his body was never found. François Compaoré was due to be charged with "murder and concealing a corpse", but he was out when an official came to give him the papers and he failed to turn up to answer a court summons. Norbert Zongo was organising a committee of support for David Ouédraogo’s family.

Norbert Zongo’s newspaper had thrown itself into getting to the bottom of the case, which was the lead story in practically all the last 15 issues of the weekly. This led to a large number of threats, which he referred to in number 274, dated 8 December, of L’Independant: "Let us suppose that L’Independant ceases publication definitively for one reason or another (the death or imprisonment of its publishing manager, or a ban on publication...). We would remain convinced that the David Ouédraogo issue must be faced, and sooner or later resolved."

6. Might it have been an accident?

Almost all the people the RSF delegation spoke to, including those close to the investigation, thought that the theory of an accident did not stand up. Speculation that a fire may have started due to an electrical short-circuit was refuted by the various people who examined the vehicle. They did not believe it was possible that a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a diesel engine could catch fire so suddenly and violently. Only the driver managed to get out. One of the employees of Norbert Zongo’s ranch, who went to the scene of the blaze the next day, said: One of the bodies was bent as if there had been an explosion. The lower parts of the legs were severed. It might have been an incendiary grenade. It was the work of experts. It’s not possible that it was an accident. A diesel engine doesn’t catch fire just like that."

A report by Dr Guira Oumar, of the hospital in Léo, 40 miles from where the car was found, carried out the initial autopsies. He said the driver’s body, found two yards away from vehicle, had the following injuries to the head: "Three lateral wounds about half an inch long with clean edges in the right zygomatic-jugular region, a distortion of the columella with a bilateral epistaxis, a frontal contusion about one inch long with a local haematoma, sunken eyeballs. The skull and face were smeared with dried blood." He added that the body had "second- and third-degree burns, mainly located in the lower half, the left hemithorax and hemiabdomen, covering an estimated surface area of 27%". Dr Guira also mentioned "traumatism of the bones". In other words, some of the driver’s facial wounds were probably caused by a "sharp object". Dr Guira continued: "It is very unlikely that the burns to Ablassé Nikiema’s body are sufficient to explain his death". In the case of the three other bodies, whose lower limbs were severed: "It is hard to say if that was due to the fire or if there was another reason. Nothing can be excluded."

A witness the delegation spoke to in the village of Sapouy, who asked to remain anonymous ("I’m scared", he explained), said: "On Monday 14 December, at around midday, I met a Peul who told me he had seen what had happened. Two men in a car fired their guns at the vehicle, then set fire to it. They were wearing civilian clothes. The driver gave a shout. Then they went back to Sapouy." The witness added: "The Peul won’t tell you anything. He’s as scared as I am."

Another witness, also from Sapouy, said: "I was in my field which is about 400 yards away from the road. I heard a car engine - it was very loud. The noise frightened me, so I didn’t go and look. I saw some smoke. I was afraid people would say it was me that had caused the accident." Contradicting the account of the first witness, he added: "I didn’t hear any shots. There was no shouting."

Two more people in Sapouy said there had been some "strange events" that day. The manageress of a village bar said: "A blue Toyota, with a tarpaulin over the back, went past at full speed about 15 minutes after Norbert and his friends stopped here. It had no number plates. It went past again about 15 minutes later, still going very fast. It seemed suspicious." Her account was corroborated by a neighbour: "We were playing cards about 100 yards away from the road. I noticed the vehicle because it was going so fast. There was a sign on the front door saying "State property".

7. The murder theory: a journalist under threat

Quite apart from these accounts and Dr Guira’s report, the circumstances in which Norbert Zongo died also point strongly to the possibility that he was murdered. The investigation carried out by L’Independant into the death of François Compaoré’s driver had already led to serious threats against Zongo. On this point, all the witnesses are in agreement. Germain Nama, a professor of philosophy, a member of the Unesco National Commission and chairman of the MBDHP’s arbitration committee, said: "I knew he was severely threatened. But by the time he took the threats seriously it was too late. They even went to see him, saying them had been sent to bump him off. As proof, they recounted his schedule in such detail that Norbert was afraid. The plan was to get rid of him and arrange for his body to be found in the bush a few days later. The men said they had been sent by François Compaoré. He saw them at least twice during October. The man who was to kill him, known as D., belonged to the commando that murdered opponent Valentin Kinda in Abidjan, at the time of Thomas Sankara’s government".

Geneviève Poda, Norbert Zongo’s wife, was in no doubt that he had been threatened: "As far back as 1997, he had been followed by a car while he was on his motorbike. In October 1998, Frank Alain Kaboré, with whom he had business dealings, came to see him here at home. He said he had been sent by a minister, who had been asked by François Compaoré to warn Norbert".

S., a close friend of Norbert Zongo, was even more specific: "On 27 October he told me about the threats he had received. An informer known as D. had told Norbert he was planning to murder him. To prove that he was serious, he told him he knew all the details of his schedule, quoting, for example, the number of times we had been together to such and such a restaurant. He even said he would be murdered on his ranch, and that François Compaoré would have hired the killer." Like Mrs Zongo, S. said that Frank Alain Kaboré had been given the task of warning Norbert Zongo. A member of the government apparently told him, quoting the president’s brother: "I don’t understand why he [Zongo] insists on talking about that case [David Ouédraogo]. I’ve protected him in the past, but now I can’t do anything more for him."

Bénéwendé S. Sankara, the Ouédraogo family’s lawyer, was just as categorical: "On several occasions, he told me there was a chance he would be killed. I could discern in him the anguish of a hunted man." Confirming other accounts, including that of the director of a haulage firm, the lawyer said Norbert Zongo was approached by men from the government who told him to stop writing about the Ouédraogo case. "At the start of 1998, when he was starting to take an interest in it, Oumarou Kanazoé, a wealthy businessman, met with him. Just like Frank Alain Kaboré. Each time, the idea was to get Norbert to drop the matter."

8. François Compaoré was behind several "cases"

It should be recalled that the David Ouédraogo case was not the first time Norbert Zongo had crossed François Compaoré’s path. Zongo had already had dealings with the president’s brother when he accused François Compaoré’s mother-in-law of enjoying a monopoly on leather exports. This became known as the "Tan-Aliz case". S. said: "The day before he died, Norbert told me he had received a phone call from Mrs Dupuch, the wife of the Frenchman at the centre of the CEMOB scandal, a massive gold mining fraud. Mrs Dupuch had talked about a new element in the scandal, and Norbert said the Compaoré family was involved." S. added: "Every time he came to see me, he said he was afraid. On Friday 11 December, he didn’t want to go to an appointment at the town hall on his moped. He took a taxi and explained: ’The threats are becoming more specific.’ When he came back, he said: ’They’re going to murder me.’"

The threats and pressure did not prevent L’Independant from receiving a grant of 7 million CFA francs from the State Subsidy Fund for the Private Press in 1998. Communications and culture minister Mahamoudou Ouédraogo said: "The only criteria are technical ones."

The "attempted poisoning" of Norbert Zongo, in Kaya on 8 November, offered further evidence that some people were willing to go to any lengths to reduce him to silence. That day, after giving a lecture, he went to eat with friends. The whole family suffered from food poisoning, but Zongo was particularly badly affected and was taken to hospital. A few days later, he wrote about "rotten food" in his newspaper because, his friends said, he was convinced it was an attempt to poison him. One of his brothers said: "We looked at the date on the tin of tomatoes that was thought to be responsible, but it was not past the limit."

9. Norbert Zongo and "Safari Sissili"

While Norbert Zongo had made some serious enemies through his writing, he had another occupation that had also caused him a few problems. Since 1992, he had held a hunting concession on over 12,000 acres of land, which was known as "Safari Sissili". Salif Diallo, minister of state responsible for water and the environment: "Although the area has been protected since 1935, in the early 1980s the National Office for Animal Resources had allowed a group of farmers to use the forest. The ministry protested at this." There were also difficulties with the new concessionary: "Although Norbert Zongo had the law on his side, the Peul farmers continued to occupy a large part of the land. That explains why the journalist was paying a contribution to the state covering roughly a third of the area for which he was theoretically responsible."

After a series of incidents, an agreement was finally reached. The minister of state went on: "In August 1998, we decided to force the farmers to leave the area. But as they had already sown crops, we decided to wait until after the harvest." Robert, Norbert Zongo’s younger brother, was even more specific in his allegations: "We have problems with the Peuls. They cut down trees and allow poachers onto the land. The poachers shoot animals to sell their meat in Ouaga. So we had set an ultimatum of 16 December for them to get out. Now that Norbert is dead, that’s all fallen through." He added: "All the people in high places have herds in the Sissili, such as that minister, who is a relative of the Peuls. I think he didn’t appreciate our wanting to get rid of his family."

It is only a short step to deduce from these facts that Norbert Zongo’s death might have been connected with problems over his hunting land, and some people have taken that step. But the journalist’s family and friends are convinced this is not the case, such as the ranch worker who told the RSF delegation: "I have the feeling that it wasn’t a hunting problem. I think we should look more towards small-time criminals, underlings, who were of course being paid by someone." The minister of state shared this view. "A consensus had been found", he said, pointing out that there was even a budget for setting aside a new area of pasture for the Sissili farmers.

10. Conclusions: Police inquiry ends suddenly

The initial findings of the RSF investigation show that the police inquiry was not started immediately after Norbert Zongo’s death, as one would normally expect. On 31 December, not one of the witnesses questioned by RSF had been interviewed by the police. Neither family, friends, colleagues, ranch employees nor those who claimed to have seen the "accident" had been asked to make statements. In fact, they were not asked anything at all. A national police chief tried to explain why: "We were confused. Should the police continue with their inquiries when the government had decided on 18 December to set up a committee of inquiry?" Although we didn’t specifically tell the local superintendent to call off the investigations, we did think it was not wise to have two inquiries going on at the same time." Other officers pointed out that more thorough investigations outside the scope of the independent committee of inquiry might have been regarded as biased. But an official legal investigation, with examining magistrate Wenceslas Ilboudo in charge, was only opened on 24 December - which seems a long delay for anyone seriously wanting to shed light on the case.

Harmful delays in the setting up of a committee of inquiry. The question of the composition of the committee of inquiry - over which the government disagrees with the opposition, which in turn has the support of human rights organisations - should on no account absolve the authorities of their responsibilities. On 31 December there had been no local police inquiry, no interviews of the chief witnesses, no selection of ballistics experts, no full autopsies. As one national police officer rightly pointed out: "The more you delay matters, the more leads you lose." Not forgetting that it will be necessary to call on expert witnesses from abroad, as those working on the investigation in Burkina Faso do not necessarily have all the proficiency required, concerning explosives, for example. The political squabbles over the setting up of the independent committee of inquiry do nothing to advance the cause of those anxious to find out the truth.

Unfounded rumours. A full and thorough investigation would get rid of certain rumours that are weighing down the atmosphere. For instance, the RSF delegation only had to meet one of Norbert Zongo’s colleagues to be able to state firmly that the flask found at the scene, and which some people saw as proof that petrol had been thrown at the vehicle before it was set on fire, belonged to the driver. As for the 12-calibre cartridges found near the Toyota, they were the same as those used by Zongo for hunting. It is also worth pointing out that although a suspicious bullet hole was found in the right side window, the holes in the back right door came from inside the vehicle, and not from possible attackers outside. It is possible that ammunition belonging to Norbert Zongo and his friends exploded because of the heat.

Frightened witnesses. In a country that claims it is trying build a law-governed state, the fear felt by most of the people the RSF delegation spoke to is worrying. It is based on the conviction that "the people at the top" always manage to escape justice. "It wouldn’t be the first time a committee of inquiry appointed by the authorities had come up with nothing", one said. This was true of the murder in 1991 of Clément Oumarou Ouédraogo, who was killed when a grenade exploded in his car. The justice minister said at the time that the investigation had reached "no firm conclusions". The fact that François Compaoré, the president’s brother, had managed to evade a court summons concerning the investigation of the death of his driver only serves to reinforce this impression. This fear, shared by all the witnesses, also affected Norbert Zongo. "He no longer felt safe", one of his employees said. "He felt he was being watched", his younger brother added. He told a friend the day before he died: "I think they’re going to kill me." It is still difficult to talk about Norbert Zongo. The edition of the national television programme "Médiascopie" that was to have been devoted to the case was not broadcast as scheduled on the Sunday after his death; nor did it go out on Sunday 27 December. "The order came from above", said a state television official.

It was not an accident. It will be easier to give an opinion on the exact cause of Norbert Zongo’s death when fuller investigations have been made by a ballistics expert and the autopsies have been carried out. But there is every indication - including the findings of the initial medical examination - that the accident theory is wrong. Observers who have been following the case closely have said the circumstances surrounding the death of Zongo and his companions were "suspicious", and while they are reluctant to say so categorically, they tend to favour the murder theory.

Murdered by whom? Hard-to-check rumours have been making the rounds. There has been talk of hold-ups, trafficking between Ghana and Burkina Faso ("Safari Sissili" runs alongside the border) and groups of extremists trying to destabilise President Blaise Compaoré’s government - but there is not a shred of evidence. The theory of a hunting dispute also seems hard to justify, as everyone interviewed admitted that the problems were being sorted out. "I think they had found a solution that suited the authorities and the farmers. He no longer mentioned it much", said Basile Baloum, a subeditor with L’Independant. What remains is the theory of a murder due to Norbert Zongo’s investigative journalism, and in particular to his inquiries about the death of François Compaoré’s driver and the immunity from prosecution apparently enjoyed by the president’s brother in the case.

Staying vigilant. The Zongo case has to be resolved if the impunity that has tainted political life in Burkina Faso for too long is to be ended. After playing the card of transparency initially, the Ouagadougou authorities seemed to be hesitating. The opposition is equally wary - and it is true that the past does not include much reason for optimism. Everyone involved suspects everyone else of more or less Machiavellian plotting, and the shortcomings in the inquiry so far are numerous, as the RSF delegation observed. But this is not the time to put anyone on trial. The investigations that have not been carried out must go ahead now as a matter of urgency. RSF, which aims to take a constructive view, is ready to follow the case and, if asked, to make its own contribution to resolving it.

Ouagadougou, December 31

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