African Court Orders Remedies and Damages in Case of Murdered Journalist
By Chidi Odinkalu
It is 17 years now since the killing in Burkina Faso of Norbert Zongo, a leading investigative journalist and publisher— an event which sparked protests against the country’s then military ruler, Blaise Campaore. To this day, the case remains unsolved, even as it remains emblematic of the violence that still threatens journalists in Africa, and around the world.
But this month, the long search for accountability for Norbert Zongo’s murder marked an important victory before Africa’s still-fledgling regional human rights tribunal, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. On 5 June, the court ordered the government of Burkina Faso to re-open the investigation into the killing of Zongo and three others, and to pay damages totaling over one million US dollars to the victims’ families. It also ordered Burkina Faso to take measures to prevent further recurrence of such violations, and to report back to the court within six months on the state of implementation of the judgment.
These are the most extensive measures of reparation ever to be considered or issued by the African Court. The Zongo ruling marks only the second case in the decade-long life of the tribunal in which a claim for remedies has been successful (the other involved a 2013 ruling on the conduct of elections in Tanzania).
The court’s ruling on remedies in the Zongo case follows its March 2014 finding that Burkina Faso had breached the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights when it failed to diligently investigate the killing of Zongo with a view to finding his killers and bringing them to justice. The court also found that Burkina Faso had violated the obligation to protect the human rights of journalists under the Revised Treaty of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Following these findings, the judges invited the parties to make submissions on the question of remedies and reparations for the violations established. Over the next year, until March 2015, the court took evidence from the parties on the issue of remedies.
The history of this case began nearly 17 years ago. Around 13 December 1998, passersby found four bodies in the badly burnt wreck of a car in Sapouy, a settlement about 100 kilometers from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The bodies would later be identified as those of Norbert Zongo and of his brother Ernest, together with Blaise Ilboudo, another staffer of Zongo’s L’Indepéndant weekly, and their driver, Ablasse Nikiema.
At that time, Zongo was preparing to print a story based on his investigation into the unsolved murder nearly two years earlier of David Ouédraogo, a former driver to Francois Compaore, the younger brother of the president. The newspaper story alleged that Ouédraogo had been tortured to death for stealing considerable sums of money from the house of Francois Compaore.
Zongo’s killing in December 1998 marked a peak in lawlessness under the dictatorship of former president Compaore. Zongo was Burkina Faso’s leading investigative journalist and was also the publisher of L’Indepéndant; his killing led to massive unrest in Burkina Faso.
The government initially responded by establishing a commission of inquiry, which identified six suspects and recommended they be prosecuted. Ultimately, only one of them, Marcel Kafando, a warrant officer in the presidential guard, was charged, only to be then cleared.
In 2006, the government declared the search for Zongo’s killers closed, citing lack of evidence. By coincidence, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, created in Ouagadougou in June 1998, began work in Arusha, Tanzania, in the same year in which the government of Burkina Faso closed its investigation.
Burkina Faso had by this time accepted the jurisdiction of the African Court. In 2011, Zongo’s wife, Genevieve, and his children, assisted by the nongovernmental organization, Le Mouvement Burkinabé des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples (MBDHP), sought legal assistance to take their search for justice to the African Court in Arusha.
In its ruling this month, the court began by affirming that under the African human right system, the state has a duty to ensure remedies where there is a human rights violation. It equally held that such remedies should afford the victims “measures tending to eliminate the effects of the violations committed.” In this case, the court declared that the class of victims included the spouses, children and parents of the Norbert Zongo and his three assassinated colleagues.
The court ordered Burkina Faso to undertake a package of measures in order to redress the killings. First, by a majority of 10 judges voting in favour with one vote against, it ordered the re-opening of the investigation. Second, the court ordered the payment of monetary damages and costs totaling over one million US dollars to 14 named victims including the wife, mother and children of Norbert Zongo. Third, to guarantee nonrepetition of similar violations in future, the court also ordered Burkina Faso to publish “the French summary of this judgment prepared by the clerk once in the official gazette and once in a widely disseminated daily national newspaper and on the government’s official website for a year.” Fourth, the Burkina Faso is also to “submit within a period of six months a report on the state of implementation of all decisions taken in the present judgment.”
In the immediate aftermath of the decision, the legal representatives of the victims will work with the authorities of the African Court and Burkina Faso to ensure compliance with the decision. The likelihood of compliance has been helped by the overthrow in a popular uprising in October 2014 of Compaore, whose regime blocked accountability for the killing.
The court’s full bench of 11 judges of the African Court sat in and voted on the ruling. The victims were represented by, Chidi Odinkalu and Ibrahima Kane, both of the Open Society Foundations; Donald Deya of the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU); and Sankara Benewende, a senior lawyer with the MBDHP in Burkina Faso.
Until November 2021, Chidi Odinkalu was senior managing legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative.