Thursday, December 13, 2007

Norbert Zongo affair: How many times must we write this story?

How many years can people commemorate the same death? How many years can calls for justice go out regarding the same murders? In the case of assassinated Burkinabé journalist Norbert Zongo, the number is at least eight.

Today marks the ninth.

It was nine years ago today that Norbert Zongo and three others – a chauffer, his brother and the man who ran his ranch – left a bar outside the village of Sapouy, Burkina Faso and were never seen alive again. Not more than a few miles from that bar, unknown perpetrators shot three passengers at close range, then doused the car with gas and immolated the entire scene. The chauffeur had fled the car, but he was quickly cut down by bullets. His body, also, was burned.

The fire’s heat was so intense that it charred a nearby tree on the side of the road. The tree never died, and became a mini memorial for people to leave flowers and other objects in remembrance of the crusading journalist, much to the consternation of the local gendarmes. Finally, the tree was removed a few years ago to make room for the new asphalt roadway going through the village.

The Zongo Case
Zongo spent much of the last year of his life investigating the death of David Ouedraogo, the personal chauffer for François Compaore, the brother of Burkina Faso’s president. Ouedraogo was secretly held at a base for the Presidential Guard, tortured and eventually killed for allegedly stealing money from his employer.

Zongo had long decried the fact that no one had bothered to question François Compaore, nor members of the Presidential Guard, regarding the extra-judicial murder of Ouedraogo. Zongo’s dogged pursuit of the Ouedraogo case brought on a series of death threats and a bout of food poisoning, just weeks before the Sunday in December when he was gunned down.

Soon after word spread of the Zongo murders the country erupted in protest. The government of Blaise Compaore, fresh off of an 87 percent presidential election victory in a mostly boycotted contest, created an independent commission to investigate the deaths. Soon afterwards, six leading suspects were named.

From Reporters Without Borders:

Sgt. Marcel Kafando and two other presidential guard members were convicted in August 2000 of kidnapping Ouédraogo and torturing him to death. In February 2001, the public prosecutor went on to charge Kafando with murder and arson in connection Zongo’s death. But despite the gravity of the charges, Kafando was allowed to continue living at his home in Ouagadougou all these years.

Investigating judge Wenceslas Ilboudo finally ruled on 19 July 2006 that the investigation against “Marcel Kafando and any other unidentified person” for the murder of Zongo should be abandoned on the grounds that a prosecution witness had withdrawn a statement he had made eight years before. The ruling was confirmed on appeal, meaning that no further attempt would be made to find out who murdered Zongo.

At that stage, the investigation could only be reopened if “new evidence” was produced. This is what Reporters Without Borders did on 20 October 2006, when it gave the Burkina Faso state prosecutor a copy of the original draft of the CEI’s report, before it was toned down on the insistence of two of the commission’s members, who represented the government.

Passages about the contradictions in François Compaoré’s statement and the attempts by businessman Oumarou Kanazoé to silence Zongo prior to his murder were completely eliminated from the final version of the report. The conclusions of the original report were also much more positive and detailed, and much more specific when identifying the “six leading suspects,” all members of the presidential guard.

The Compaore Case
After all these roadblocks, local and international organizations continue hunting down leads in the case. Reporters Without Borders’s October 2006 dossier was published in a local independent paper L’Evenement, along with an editorial criticizing the judge for closing the case and a third story investigating the role of Francois Compaore. The cover of the newspaper, a tabloid, had a photo of François Compoare under a headline that began: “So it’s him, François Compoare?”

Compaore filed a libel suit a few weeks later, and in January the trial began. The judge soon ordered that publisher Germain Bitiou Nam and editor Newton Ahmed Barry guilty of libel. Each received two month suspended sentences and ordered to pay a 300,000 CFA fine (about $650).

The People’s Case
In a country with a haunted past of political assassinations, government-induced fear and public paranoia, the idea of asking pardon is very important. Burkina Faso – and the Compaore regime – has moved on in so many ways since the killings of nine years ago. People breathe easier; the press is freer; Civil society grows. Yet this black spot of the past continues to rear its ugly head every December 13.

A few years ago, François Compaore, apparently still one of the president’s most trusted advisors, gave a series of interviews relating his growing spirituality and the place God plays in his life. Most people thought he was laying ground for a public mea culpa.

It has never come. At least not in public, it hasn’t. And those were the days before the libel lawsuit. Since then, he’s appeared much more recalcitrant about the case.

But back then, people were ready for an apology, a forgiving and the chance to wipe the slate clean. Burkinabé, like many other Africans, remain very clear eyed regarding the parallel justice system governing people from such a high stratosphere.

The people I speak to claim something needs to give so the country can move beyond this. Those responsible – for the killings, for obstructing justice, for threatening journalists – understand what needs to happen. Today, the streets of downtown Ouagadougou will be once again full of people with their signs and cries for justice. It’s the ninth time they’ve done this. But silence is the only response they will get.

After nine years, isn’t it time? The ball is in their court.