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Burkina Faso coalition campaigns for justice in journalist Zongo’s death, 1998-2001
In Burkina Faso from December 1998 through September 2001, protesters demonstrated against the government’s supposed cover-up of journalist Norbert Zongo’s homicide. Prior to his death, Zongo, a prominent writer for an independent magazine, was known for his criticisms of the government with regards to its policy of impunity (that is, perpetrators of violent crimes are neither taken to court nor punished).
In fact, at the time of his death, Zongo was investigating the death of David Oedraogo, the chauffeur of the President’s brother, whom Zongo believed died at the hands of presidential guard members. Three of Zongo’s companions were also killed on December 13, 1998. The bodies were found in a burnt-out vehicle in the city of Sapuoy, and the deaths were originally declared an accident by the national radio service. Immediately, students went to the streets to protest, accusing President Blaise Compaore of being involved in the killings. Their campaign goal was to bring justice to the case, utilizing internal pressure but also getting international attention so as to force external pressure as well.
Just a few days after Zongo and his companions’ deaths, Burkina Faso activists and students began their protests and demonstrations. Several of these demonstrations did indeed lead to violent clashes with the armed forces (police, gendarmerie, and army). With the public’s outrage, the government actually established an independent commission in January 1999 to investigate Zongo’s death. Yet, opposition parties and civil society organizations persisted with the protests.
One notable leader of these protests was Halidou Ouedraogo, head of the Burkinabe Movement for Human Rights and the new umbrella organization, the Collective of Mass Democratic Organization and Political Parties. The Collective, in addition to organizing various strikes and demonstrations, also took the initiative to start its own investigation. It sought out media attention by giving several press conferences on the investigation. Fifty-seven unions, human rights organizations and opposition political parties joined this coalition. Together, the Collective documented 91 political killings.
By the end of January, the government-started commission began its investigation. Lawyer Kassoum Kambou, a human rights activist, headed the commission. Despite the ongoing investigation, nonviolent tactics did not cease. Participants utilized political debates, writings, and petitions to serve their goal. In May 1999, the commission finished the investigative report (although the three commission members representing the government refused to sign it) and made it public. The report specifically named six men in the President’s security forces as an inner circle likely to be involved in the killings.
After the report was made public, people in Burkina Faso resumed their demonstrations. Several leaders were actually interrogated and arrested by the gendarmerie. Electrical workers embarked on a strike that actually shut down the nation’s power supply.
On May 21, 1999, President Blaise Compaore made a public address to Burkina Faso, announcing several new initiatives. He promised financial compensation for the families of the deceased, the creation of a new advisory board to deal with the crisis, amongst a few other things.
Yet on December 1, 1999, leading members of the Collective were arrested. This list of leaders included Halidou Ouedraogo (president of the human rights organization), Tole Sagnon (leading trade unionist), Benewende Sankara (lawyer), Andre Tibiri (student leader), and two journalists. They had issued a statement calling on security forces to protect demonstrators during a November 27th protest.
Demonstrations after this period became a little more violent, from both ends. In April 2000, the armed forces stopped a march, leading to violent clashes. In October 2000, the government actually chose to invalidate the prior academic year (1999-2000) because strikes put students out of school for too long.
In February 2001, Sgt. Marcel Kafando was charged with the murder of Zongo but the charges were dismissed and he was permitted to live in the comfort of his own home.
In March 2001, under the new control of Prime Minister Ernest Paramanga Yonli, the government announced a National Day of Forgiveness in which the State asked for the people’s pardon for various injustices occurring since 1960.
In the span of the two and a half years of the campaign, Europe and the U.S. discontinued giving Burkina Faso international aid. The protesters also gained the support of opposition parties in Burkina Faso who were generally hesitant to speak out against the government openly.
In July 2006, nearly eight years after the murder, the investigating Judge ruled that the investigation of the murder of Norbert Zongo must be abandoned. This ruling was then confirmed on appeal.