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Burkina Faso15 December 2003

Norbert Zongo case: a new and devastating testimony against the presidential guard

Five years on, the investigation into the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo on 13 December 1998, was simply ticking over. But now new testimony could see examining judge Wenceslas Ilboudo reopening his investigation. Although six suspects were named by the independent commission of inquiry set up the day after the death of the publisher until now only warrant officer Marcel Kafando has ever been charged.

The office of the president of Burkina Faso announced on 7 October 2003 that it had just foiled an attempted coup and that the ministry of defence had already arrested some of those who were suspected of playing a part in the plot.

On his arrest, one of the soldiers volunteered the information that he had revelations to make concerning the Norbert Zongo case. He was Sergeant Naon Babou, aged 38, a former member of the presidential guard regiment (close to the President of the Republic Blaise Compaoré) and now accused of undermining state security and treason.

The examining judge, Wenceslas Ilboudo, immediately asked to interview him. The military authorities refused and he repeated his request on 5 December. Under guard at the headquarters of the Gendarmerie, Naon Babou could still not be produced for him because he was being questioned over the "coup attempt" by a military examining judge.

According to information gathered by Reporters Without Borders, the civilian judge nevertheless received assurances that he would be able to question him very soon. The first interview could take place from 12 December. Two other soldiers arrested for this same "coup attempt", Abdoulaye Konfé and Souleymane Zalla, were also to be interviewed by the same judge Ilboudo in the following days.

The two were being held at the Gendarmerie in Ouagadougou. They were named by Sgt Naon Babou as two former members of the presidential guard, who along with a third, Sié Poda, who had since died, had been contacted to take part in the murder of Norbert Zongo at Sapouy, on 13 December 1998, but had refused.

Sgt. Naon Babou’s revelations:

Sgt. Babou was not in Ouagadougou at the time of the murder of Norbert Zongo. He was accompanying President Blaise Compaoré on a visit to Sudan. It was only on his return on 14 December, that is the day after the murder, that he said he learned of the death of Zongo and his three companions.

Sgt. Babou was interviewed several times by the military examining judge, Francis Somda, over the coup attempt against the current regime. Reporters Without Borders has obtained a copy of his testimony: On 30 October 2003 at 15.15 he said, "Everything began for me in 1998 on the death of Norbert Zongo. The events occurred on 13 December and we came back from our trip with the president on 14 December. It was on returning home that I heard the news on the radio.

One month later, on 15 January 1999, I went to see François Compaoré to inform him about my concerns. That day I told him that if those who killed Norbert were members of the presidential guard they were doing no service to the president because the timing was bad given that the investiture was about to take place.

"It was then that François asked me if I knew Norbert Zongo. And I told him no. Also he explained to me that Zongo thought that the president of Faso was in the process of preparing him to take over, also Norbert had started to malign him in every possible ways. Also he, François, could not understand why some elements within presidential security disapproved of what had happened to Norbert Zongo and even less so the officers.

"He then said that in relation to that, I, Babou, did not know that people could find themselves at Dori (a town far from Ouagadougou and thus from the centre of power, in the north of Burkina Faso). I immediately understood the meaning of this last statement. When I said goodbye to François, he gave me an envelope that turned out to contain 50,000 francs CFA."

Babou continues: "The same day François Compaoré got in touch with Marcel Kafando about my meeting with him. On the 18 January, Colonel Diendéré summoned me to his office where he asked me what was going on.

"Since I had no idea what he was talking about, he then told me that the president had called to tell him, that according to me, Naon, it was he, Colonel Diendéré, who had had Norbert Zongo killed with the aim of destabilising him and taking his place. "I told Colonel Diendéré Gilbert that I had never said such a thing and I repeated to him what I had said to François Compaoré. The Colonel then told me that according to intelligence, it was me, Naon Babou, who was behind information leaks giving the number plate of a car that was linked to the death of Norbert Zongo. In reply, I told him that I had had the courage to go to tell François what I thought and that at no time could I have been behind this other rumour."

Further on, Babou adds: "I believe myself at this time to be dead meat because I know that they are out to get me." His fears were given weight by the fact that he had, according to his statements, already suffered two poisoning attempts. The weekly, L’Evènement, reported on 25 November 2003 that the Conseil de l’Entente, where the presidential guard is billeted, had also - and very curiously - asked if it could take care of feeding the prisoners in the case of the "attempted coup", on the pretext that some of them were former presidential guard members, even though they were held by the Gendarmerie!

Sgt. Babou’s statement was taken within the framework of the investigation into the coup attempt against the current president of the Republic. It is crude testimony, which has gaps in it and no questions were put to the witness. It is now up to the judge, Wenceslas Ilboudo, to probe the different points and to confront the various protagonists implicated by Babou. Confrontations between the various parties, including Marcel Kafando, Gilbert Diendéré and François Compaoré, should be organised very quickly.

The Marcel Kafando case

The judge will also have to act promptly to demonstrate his good faith in the case because, after a five-year investigation, the results have proved somewhat minimal. The only man accused in the case, former warrant officer Kafando was dismissed from his job after being sentenced to 20 years in jail for acts of torture and the murder of David Ouédraogo, the former driver of François Compaoré.

In June 2001, while he was serving his prison sentence in Ouagadougou, he fell seriously ill and had to be admitted to hospital on several occasions. Later he was said to be on the point of dying and his death was even announced in January 2003.

Today, Kafando is better, much better. Reporters Without Borders managed to meet him briefly on 10 December 2003. He has been living at home since August 2001, with the agreement of the judge Wenceslas Ilboudo, who had given signed permission allowing him to do so, to limit, so he said, expensive hospital charges. Kafando is not under guard.

A few minutes after the arrival of the Reporters Without Borders representative a man was seen to leave in a car. After checking it turned out to be the aide-de-camp of Chantal Compaoré, wife of the president. Kafando seems to have kept close ties with the presidential family, all the more so since the aide-de-camp of the president himself, Commandant Kiéré, was also seen by local journalists leaving Kafando’s house a few months ago.

The ex-warrant officer’s state of health seems therefore be improving. His state had been viewed as "critical" two years earlier and his doctor had given up all hope for him, according to his wife.

He himself told Reporters Without Borders that he had been in a coma throughout the month of October 2001. He is now fully conscious and gets about by means of a wheel chair. He has returned to his normal weight and looks healthy. His legs are swollen but he said that he was slowly recovering the use of them, after being almost totally paralysed before.

He still cannot walk but said that a physiotherapist came regularly to give him treatment. He said that he and his doctor were now optimistic about the outcome of his illness. Asked about the details of his treatment, Kafando replied that it combined traditional medicine with a triple therapy, confirming reports that he is suffering from AIDS.

He also said that he was gradually recovering his memory. His state was so serious that he no was longer in complete control of his mental faculties, he said, adding. "I have had two scans which showed that all the left side of my brain was blank."

The judge, Wenceslas, has also continued his visits to Kafando. He met him at the beginning of December 2003 and was able to verify that there had been an improvement in his state of health. He even wrote to the ex-warrant officer’s doctor on 2 December to ask if he would be able to return to detention. No reply had been received by 10 December.

Kafando continues to deny any involvement in the Norbert Zongo case. He reportedly told the judge that he is not aware of the statements of Sgt Babou. A confidant of Kafando said, "Things have changed and he won’t talk."

No-one really knows why he is still covering for the authorities. Money and a certain loyalty to the military are the reasons most often put forward. However and according to revelations in the local press the judge Ilboudo was reportedly informed in November 2002 that Kafanda had been deliriously ranting, "People are ungrateful. I have done everything for them and now they abandon me to my fate."

Conclusion

The judge, Wenceslas Ilboudo, has interviewed 189 people to date in the framework of the Zongo case. He was appointed on 30 December 1998, but officially began his work on 4 January 1999. The case is the only one he is examining at the moment.

Despite this, it appears that his examination is less far advanced than the report of the independent commission of inquiry that was published in May 1999. In fact, some key individuals in the case - including military people and more particularly members of the presidential guard - have refused to come to testify in front of him or have retracted statements even though they had previously testified to the independent commission of inquiry.

Many agree to speak off the record but do not want to see their statements entered as part of the record of the hearing. Finally pressure appears to need applying frequently to witnesses "to make arrangements for" their deposition.

Even if the judge is not actually prevented from working, there are nevertheless certain obstacles to his proceeding. And the Zongo case remains so sensitive that the revelations of Sgt. Babou could well give rise to new attempts at intimidation.

Reporters Without Borders saw for itself in Burkina Faso the extent to which the latest revelations by Sgt. Babou have brought fresh hope. Many see them producing one last chance for light to be shed on the Zongo murder and for the judicial case to bear fruit.

Others unfortunately believe that the sergeant "will not get to the trial", or to put it another way, that he will be prevented from telling what he knows. For this reason it is essential that Judge Ilboudo does everything possible to obtain the statements of those concerned and arrange the necessary confrontations as quickly as possible.

The background to the case

Four men employed by François Compaoré, presidential advisor and brother of the President, Blaise Compaoré, were arrested by members of the military at the beginning of December 1997 on suspicion of stealing money. They were held for several weeks at the Conseil de l’Entente, that serves as barracks to the presidential guard.

During their detention, the four men were interrogated and tortured by members of the presidential guard. David Ouedraogo died as a result of the torture on 18 January 1998 in the infirmary of the office of the president.

Norbert Zongo, publisher of the weekly L’Indépendant and a specialist in investigative journalism, decided to probe the David Ouedraogo case. He questioned and challenged the fact that a case of theft should have been handed over to the men of the presidential guard who had no authority in judicial investigations. The story made the front page of almost all the last 15 issues of the weekly paper, exposing Zongo to numerous threats.

On 8 December 1998 he wrote, "Let us imagine that today, l’Indépendant for one reason another completely ceased publication (death of the publisher, his imprisonment or an indefinite ban on publication). We would still be convinced that the David question would remain outstanding and that sooner or later it must be resolved."

On 13 December 1998, a burned-out vehicle was discovered around seven kms from Sapouy (100 kms south of Ouagadougou). Inside were the charred bodies of Norbert Zongo, Blaise Ilboudo and Ernest Yembi Zongo. The driver, Abdoulaye Nikiema known as Ablassé, was found dead next to the vehicle, burned on the lower part of his body.

The post-mortem investigation showed that all four had been shot dead at point-blank range. Faced with unprecedented rallies throughout civil society in the country for the truth to be uncovered, the government set up an independent commission of inquiry by decree on 18 December 1998, amended by decree on 7 January 1999.

This commission, which was given wide-ranging powers, was tasked with "every investigation that could lead to finding the cause of death of the occupants of the four-wheel drive vehicle number 11 J 6485 BF on 13 December 1998, on the road from Ouagadougou (Kadiogo province) to Sapouy (Ziro province), including the journalist Norbert Zongo."

Interviews, ballistic tests and fire experts led the commission to conclude that "Norbert Zongo and his companions were the victims of a criminal attack" which could be described as murder.

The inquiry commission found that "the methods deployed (at least three vehicles, two types of weapon including a Valtro gun, generally used by the armed forces and the police), the setting up of an ambush all showed that nothing had been left to chance. Everything pointed to a minutely prepared and planned operation. It was murder".

In its search for those responsible and after following several leads, the commission decided that the "most plausible conclusion was that the murder of Norbert Zongo, on 13 December 1998, was linked to his journalistic activities as publisher of l’Indépendant. The murder of the other three could only be explained by the desire to leave no witnesses."

The commission also established in its study of the motives for the murder, that Norbert Zongo has been killed following his investigations into the Ouedraogo case.

Threatened several times, he was in fear of his life. In fact on 11 December 1998, he confided to an acquaintance that "the threats are very precise, they are going to kill me."

The commission concluded that "if everything had been done on the legal front to clear up the circumstances of the death of David Ouedraogo, there was reason to believe that the events at Sapouy would probably never have happened. But it has to be pointed out that the case was not investigated with the diligence it required."

Investigation: Emmanuelle Duverger 7-10 December 2003



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