On March 28, 2014, the Justices at the Arusha-based African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) finally dismantled the fortified walls of impunity that had stood in the way of justice for a widow and her family for the last 15 years. It was the day of victory for Genevieve Zongo, wife of the late celebrated Burkinabe Journalist, Norbert Zongo.
The venue was the Kibo Hall of the Julius Nyerere Conservation Centre, which served as the seat of the ACHPR. The Law Lords delivered a seminal verdict upholding a complaint by Genevieve and the chamber of justice resonated with a harmonious chorus of the three words “justice at last” which came from a sobbing Genevieve and family members who had endured the pain of a palpable denial of justice for a decade and a half.
The matter dates back to 1998 when Zongo, an iconic investigative journalist and Director of the weekly newspaper, l’Indépendant,was gruesomely murdered alongside three others. The other three were Abdoulaye Nikiema, Blaise Ilboudo and Ernest Zongoa. Their charred corpses were found in the car which was transporting them at a few kilometers from Sapouy, in the south of Burkina Faso.
At the time of their murder, Zongo was said to be investigating a serious case of corruption involving the brother of Burkina Faso’s President, Blaise Campaore. Subsequent investigations into the murder led to the indictment of a member of the Presidential Guard, Marcel Kafando, as having a hand in the murder of the four.
In mid 2006, charges proffered against the Presidential guard were dropped by a Court in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou. In August the same year, an Appeals Court upheld the dropping of charges against the Presidential guard, to the utter disappointment of family members of the deceased and free expression advocates in the region.
After several years of prolonged and fruitless attempts to find justice in the local Court rooms of Ouagadougou, Mrs. Zongo filed a complaint before the ACHPR in 2011. She was supported in the case by a multi-national team of human rights lawyers from Burkina Faso, Senegal, Tanzania and Nigeria.
The road to justice was long and tortuous. It involved going through a long stretch of stormy waters of impunity and constant threats to her personal security but Mrs. Zongo was ready to weather the storm to get to the island of Justice. The fight against impunity meant moving from the local Court rooms of Ouagadougou in West Africa to the continent’s highest Court in East Africa. Nonetheless, Mrs. Zongo was ready and did fly over Kilimanjaro several times to Tanzania to fight for what she deserved – justice.
In Arusha, it wasn’t an uncontested legal battle. Burkina Faso was fully represented in Court by a team of state lawyers ready and willing to fight against justice.
In their pleadings before the highest Court of the continent, Mrs. Zongo’s legal team argued that Norbert Zongo and his companions were assassinated in 1998 but those responsible for the odious crime had not been identified and no justice had been rendered to the victims and their families. The state lawyers however objected to the claims by the plaintiffs, by throwing their first legal punch.
The first argument by the state lawyers was that “the African Court, only fully established in 2005, could not hear a case about a killing that occurred in 1998. The court wisely threw out the objection, ruling that the failure to diligently look for and find the killers, if true, was a continuing one, which had not yet ended,” the Guardian newspaper of Nigeria reported.
As was reported by the Guardian newspaper, the state lawyers for Burkina Faso continued to fire other legal missiles in their attempt to quench the blazing tornado of facts from the complainants but to no avail.
After suffering the first technical knock-out from the Court, the state lawyers went on to fire their next and apparently most lethal legal weapon, which had some connection to the United States. This was it: “Burkina Faso could not be held responsible for failing to find the killers of the late journalist. After all, no one has held the United States of America – the most powerful country in the world – responsible for failing to find the killers of John F. Kennedy.” But this too was repelled by the Court as the Law Lords roundly rejected the argument.
Massive Boost for Free Expression and International Justice
The ruling of Africa’s highest Court represents not only justice for the families of Norbert Zongo and his colleagues, but also offers a massive boost for press freedom and freedom of expression on the continent. Significantly also, the ruling accentuates the invaluable role of international justice mechanisms.
For example, the Court explicitly held that “ the failure of a government to diligently seek and bring to account the persons responsible for the assassination of a journalist, intimidates the media, has a chilling effect on free expression, violates the human rights of journalists, endangers truth and should not be allowed.”
Such a profound declaration from the Court offers hope and impetus for successful advocacy for freedom of expression and press freedom, which are guaranteed by several international and regional instruments. The ruling will also, hopefully, send a strong signal to governments that endorse, orchestrate or perpetrate free expression violations, that ultimately they will face justice.
Governments and supporters of governments who abuse journalists and other human rights defenders should also know that they may find only temporal solace in the non-independent and government-controlled local Courts, but ultimately justice awaits them at the ACHPR, the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other international justice institutions. This is why institutions like the ICC remains critical for justice and peace in Africa.
Congratulations, Mrs. Zongo, for your determination and well fought battle.
By Sulemana Braimah,
Media Foundation for West Africa.