Norbert Zongo’s Death And The Roots Of An Uprising

We end up talking about Norbert Zongo.

It seems that you cannot meet with a local investigative journalist in Ouagadougou without the conversation turning towards Zongo–him as an example, and his assassination as a turning point in Burkina Faso history. “Before Zongo’s killing, I was happy doing regular journalism jobs at Zongo’s paper L’Indépendant.” Idrissa has invited us to the offices of his newspaper which are located on the top floor of a three-story residential building. “The period after Zongo’s assassination were tumultuous times for the country.” He tells me, as I scribble notes sitting across from him in his small office.

The afternoon sun is bright, and streaming in through the window behind him. He sits facing me across a desk surface that has nothing on it–no paper, pens, notepads, newspaper or magazines. Nothing. I remember thinking that this was the oddest journalist’s workstation I had even seen. There are no file folders or books or other printed material anywhere, and even the steel cabinets standing in the corner, their door slightly ajar, appear to be empty. It is his office–there is a nameplate on the door confirming it. There is however a laptop set to one side of the desk. “But Zongo has shown us that an investigative journalist could be a one-man opposition party to the national regime.” Idrissa is speaking excitedly, as if happy to have someone to tell the story too. “After they killed him, I too wanted to be an investigative journalist.”

Norbert Zongo is fast becoming the unexpected character in my project. I wasn’t prepared for this, and end up spending my evenings back at the hotel researching his story, and that of his assassination.

Today, Zongo has become a national hero. Some link him with former president Thomas Sankara. Both Sankara and Zongo are sometimes treated as ‘saints’: neither was afraid and both always said what they thought. In October 1999 L’Independan (12.10.1999) republished an article written by Zongo on the 1oth anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara. The introductory note states that both Thomas Sankara and Norbert Zongo were killed, because they dreamt about the same thing for this people of peasants: dignity and social justice. The salient point is that Sankara and Zongo dared to tell the truth and therefore had a lot of courage. In other words, they made public what had long been kept secret and silenced. Such idealised statements about a former president and an influential journalist cannot be accepted at face value, but nonetheless reveal significant clues to morality. And even though such a comparison is unfair to Zongo – Sankara was a head of state and had taken power by force – it is striking that the connection between the two is often made in public debate. [Hagberg, 2002]

There was a massive outpouring of anger, dismay and sorrow after his death. Tens of thousands walked alongside his coffin as it was carried to the Gounghin cemetery. This was a pivotal moment for many, but perhaps also when the first signs of the growing collaboration and coordination between various civil and political groups that would eventually lead to the uprising of 2015.

The days following the killings gave rise to a protest movement that came to be called Trop c’est trop (‘Enough is Enough’). The common theme was that people were fed up with what they considered the ‘culture of impunity’, that is, that those in power may undertake illegal actions such as killings and economic crimes without any punishment whatsoever…The independent press widely debated the Zongo affair, and people were very upset about the killings that came to indicate the ‘culture of impunity’. Zongo’s weekly L’Independant (22.12.1998) published photos of the carbonised remains of Zongo and his three companions. After a few days the government decided to establish an independent commission to investigate Zongo’s death, but this did not calm people. Different opposition parties – notably those of the so-called I4 February group – and civil society continued to protest. In particular, the Burkinabe Movement for Human Rights (Mouvement Burkinabé Droits des l’Homme et des Peuples, MBDHP), headed by Halidou Ouddraogo, took the lead. The movement Trop c’est trop was organised within a few days as an umbrella organisation. Halidou Ouedraogo became the leader of a new called organisation Collectif d’organisations démocratiques de Masse et de Partis Politiques. The uniting theme of this umbrella organisation was essentially that all possible light should be shed on the death of Norbert Zongo, and that the culture of impunity should be stopped. The Collectif organised a series of demonstrations and strikes, so as to maintain the mobilisation and keep the pressure on ‘the power’ (that is, the government and ultimately the president himself). The Collectif also pursued its own investigation of Zongo’s death; in early 1999 Halidou Ouedraogo gave several press conferences on the investigations of the Collectif, an action which was repeatedly criticised by members of the government. [Hagberg, 2002]

“But for many years, we just talked.” Idrissa looks down at the floor as he says this, and chuckles. “By 2010, we were embarrassed to realise that we had been talking, but achieved nothing.” Junior staff members come and go from the office, asking Idrissa some questions, or leaving behind sheets of paper for him to review. I suspect that these are the articles and columns that he will look over and edit later in the afternoon. “We would hang out that Norbert Zongo Press Centre cafe, and just talk. It was really embarrassing.” For a moment he seems to have gone back into himself, as if lost in thought. His eyes are still on me, but I sense his distraction. “Justin Zongo’s murder finally pushed us into action.” Justin Zongo (no relation to Norbert Zongo) was a young high school student who died in unknown circumstances when in police custody. “What that happened, we knew it was time to act.”

The story of the creation of Le Balai Citoyen has many versions and the one you hear depends on whom you are speaking to. Some trace its creation to 2013, but others, like Idrissa, claim that it was first thought of in 2011, when people started to get together at the Norbert Zongo Press Centre and talk about getting organised and reaching out to the people. The date of its birth people reach for depends on their conception of the organisation, and how they want to place themselves in its story. The artists date it from when the rappers and slam poets started to perform under the title Le Balai Citoyen. But the others–the lawyers, the journalists, the academics and the intellectuals who are the behind-the-scenes part of the movement, claim earlier dates. Regardless, it was the musicians who were and have remained the popular and celebrated face of the movement. “They were musicians–the regime did not take them seriously. So they got away with it.” He laughs. “But the rest of us worked in the background, and kept a low profile.” 

Le Balai Citoyen was always going to be more than the sum of its parts. As I go through my work here in Ouagadougou, I can’t help but feel that the real story of the movement remains to be told. Whereas the musicians and celebrity artists have taken all the attention, and the media has revelled in peddling the story of a ‘people’s uprising’ that toppled a dictatorship, sitting here, now, with men like Idress, I can’t help but think that this goes far deeper than just some musicians, a street protest, a burning and a deposal. I can’t help but feel that much of what was achieved that day in October, 2014, actually began its journey in nondescript offices such as the one I was sitting in now, and with quiet, self-deprecating men like the one I was talking to now.