Burkina Faso

Head of state: Blaise Compaoré
Head of government: Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo
Capital: Ouagadougou
Population: 10.9 million
Official language: French
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice
1999 treaty ratifications/signatures: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its (first) Optional Protocol; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Public outrage generated by the death of prominent independent journalist Norbert Zongo and three others in December 1998 resulted in social unrest and calls for an end to impunity for human rights violations. Widespread demonstrations led to arrests and ill-treatment by the security forces. Leading opposition political figures and human rights defenders were intimidated and detained. Although the government attempted to defuse the political and social crisis, there was no effective action to end impunity.


Opposition political parties, human rights organizations, trade unions, and journalists' and students' organizations formed a coalition – the Collectif d'organisations démocratiques de masse et de partis politiques – which called for those responsible for the death of Norbert Zongo to be brought to justice and for an end to impunity. Demonstrations, some violent, and strikes took place throughout the country in the weeks following Norbert Zongo's death. There was also unrest after a commission of inquiry into the death published its findings in May. Women, young people and intellectuals were among the many sectors of Burkinabè society who joined the call for an end to impunity. Scores of people were arrested and detained briefly.

In June, faced with a deepening political and social crisis, the government established a committee of prominent people, the Collège des sages, to examine the causes of the crisis and propose solutions. The committee, which included former heads of state and traditional and religious leaders, recommended the formation of a government of national unity and early legislative elections. The committee also called for constitutional change, reform of the judiciary, and a commission to investigate unresolved crimes.

Three members of smaller opposition parties were brought into government in October. However, more significant opposition parties, grouped together in the Groupe du 14 février, 14 February Group, refused to participate unless President Blaise Compaoré resigned or suspects identified by the inquiry into Norbert Zongo's death were arrested. In October the government also announced the formation of two consultative commissions, bringing together government, opposition and civil society, to elaborate political reforms and promote national reconciliation. The 14 February Group, however, refused to participate, claiming that the legislation establishing the commissions did not guarantee genuine debate and democratic decision-making.

Extrajudicial executions

Norbert Zongo, editor-in-chief of the newspaper l'Indépendant, and President of the Société des éditeurs de la presse privée, Association of Independent Newspaper Editors, was killed with three other people in December 1998. Norbert Zongo was renowned for his independence and criticism of the government. In particular, he had persistently pursued the death in custody in January 1998 of R. David Ouédraogo, the chauffeur of President Compaoré's brother and presidential adviser, François Compaoré (see below).

Independent Commission of Inquiry

The composition of the Independent Commission of Inquiry, established in January, was modified after the Collectif requested stronger representation for human rights organizations. The Mouvement burkinabè des droits de l'homme et des peuples (MBDHP), Burkinabè Movement for Human and Peoples' Rights, a non-governmental human rights organization, refused to participate unless all those arrested in connection with protests against Norbert Zongo's death were released, no sanctions were taken against those who had participated in strikes, and discussions began on ending impunity for past human rights violations. Its conditions met, the MBDHP agreed to participate, and the judge appointed to head the Commission also represented the MBDHP.

In late March the Commission ordered the garde à vue detention of several members of the presidential security force, the Régiment de la sécurité présidentielle. The Public Prosecutor refused, however, to extend the detention of a high-ranking member and all were released shortly afterwards.

The Commission published its conclusions and recommendations in early May. It concluded that Norbert Zongo had been killed for purely political reasons because of his work as an investigative journalist, including his investigation into the death of David Ouédraogo. The other three men who died with him had been killed in order not to leave any witnesses. The Commission named six members of the presidential security force as suspects, although proof of their culpability had not been established. It recommended that judicial proceedings be brought against them and that the judge assigned the case be provided with adequate resources. Although a judge was subsequently appointed, there had been no progress in the case by the end of 1999. (However, three of the suspects were subsequently arrested and charged in connection with the death of David Ouédraogo.)

AI called for those responsible for Norbert Zongo's death to be brought to justice and for the judiciary to be allowed to act with complete independence.

The Commission's recommendations also included: compensation by the state for the dependants of those killed; respect for distinctions between military and police functions; limiting the role of the presidential security force to ensuring the security of the head of state; and resolution of all unexplained cases of "disappearances" and killings.

The Secretary General of Reporters sans frontières, a non-governmental human rights organization based in France, who had participated in the Commission, was arrested on 9 May and questioned for two hours before being taken to the airport by police. He had referred to the killers of Norbert Zongo as "thugs" in a radio interview. A delegation of Reporters sans frontières was refused permission to visit Burkina Faso in July.

Arrests of political opponents and ill-treatment

Intervention by police to disperse demonstrations in Ouagadougou in early January resulted in a three-day strike. Demonstrations also took place in other towns throughout the country, including Bobo Dioulasso and Koudougou, the home town of Norbert Zongo. Demonstrators clashed with police who used tear gas. As many as 100 people were reported to have been arrested but all were released after a few weeks. Some were reported to have been ill-treated while in custody by being beaten and having their heads shaved.

Members of the MBDHP were harassed and intimidated; some received death threats. Leading members of the Collectif were also arrested and detained during 1999.

  • Halidou Ouédraogo, President of both the MBDHP and the Collectif, was arrested and detained for two hours on 17 May. A week earlier his home had been surrounded by a group of at least 100 people who threatened and insulted him, apparently at the instigation of the mayor of Ouagadougou, who was at that time Secretary General of the ruling party, the Congrès pour la démocratie et le progrès, Congress for Democracy and Progress. The police and gendarmerie reportedly took two hours to respond to requests for assistance. AI urged the government to take all possible measures to protect Halidou Ouédraogo and others defending human rights in Burkina Faso.
  • A leading member of the opposition and member of parliament was also arrested on 17 May. Hermann Yaméogo was accused of being responsible for violent disturbances in his constituency of Koudougou but was released uncharged after three days. AI called for his immediate and unconditional release if, as it appeared, he had been arrested and detained solely because of his legitimate political activities and his demands for an end to impunity for human rights violations.
  • Prominent members of the Collectif, including Halidou Ouédraogo, Tolé Sagnon, a leading trade unionist, Bénéwendé Sankara, a lawyer, and André Tibiri, a student leader, were arrested in early December after issuing a statement calling on the security forces to ensure the safety of demonstrators during a protest against impunity. They were detained for three hours by the police State Security Department in Ouagadougou. They and two others were subsequently charged with undermining the morale of the armed forces and inciting disobedience within the army. They were, however, acquitted of all charges by a court on 27 December.

Two journalists, Boureïma Sigué of Le Pays newspaper and Paulin Yaméogo of San Finna newspaper, were also arrested for publishing the Collectif 's statement. Paulin Yaméogo's arrest was also apparently linked to the publication by San Finna of a photograph of Hamidou Ilboudo, who had been arrested with David Ouédraogo in 1997, which showed clear signs of torture. Boureïma Sigué was released the same day. Paulin Yaméogo was held for three days and later acquitted of inciting disobedience within the army.

Deaths in custody

At the centre of the case of Norbert Zongo was the death in custody as a result of torture of David Ouédraogo in 1998. A further death as a result of torture occurred in January 1999.

David Ouédraogo had been arrested in December 1997 with two others, accused of having stolen a large amount of money from their employer. He died the following month, apparently as a result of torture, in the custody of the presidential security force. No autopsy was carried out. Official investigations were obstructed during 1998 by the refusal of François Compaoré to cooperate with the judicial authorities.

François Compaoré was charged on 18 January 1999 with the murder of David Ouédraogo and with harbouring the body. He was not, however, arrested and the charges against him were not made public until 30 March. The following day, the Criminal Appeal Court in Ouagadougou ruled that it was not competent to hear the case and referred it to a military court. The judge of the military court was apparently obstructed in pursuing the case, which failed to advance.

Three members of the presidential security force suspected of being responsible for the death of David Ouédraogo were arrested in June at the request of the Collège des sages and charged. They remained in detention at a prison in Ouagadougou, the Maison d'arrêt et de correction de Ouagadougou (MACO) but had not been tried before the military court by the end of the year. All three were also among the suspects identified by the commission of inquiry into the death of Norbert Zongo.

  • Auguste Pépin Ouédraogo, a trade unionist and employee at SONABEL, the national electricity company, was arrested on 11 January following an altercation with a gendarmerie commander in plain clothes in Bobo Dioulasso. He was severely beaten and died in hospital as a result of his injuries some 10 days later. Strikes demanding that those responsible be arrested followed. Six gendarmes, including the gendarmerie commander, were arrested on 24 June and imprisoned at the MACO. Five were convicted in December by a court in Ouagadougou of assault occasioning death and complicity in assault occasioning death and sentenced to prison terms of between two and five years.


The government failed to respond effectively to the overwhelming public demand for an end to impunity for human rights violations. Although three suspects in the case of David Ouédraogo were arrested and charged, they had not been tried by the end of the year. There were no legal proceedings against those identified by the Commission of Inquiry into the death of Norbert Zongo.

No steps were taken to clarify past deaths in custody or in suspicious circumstances, such as those of university teacher Guillaume Sessouma in 1989, student Boukary Dabo in 1990 and opposition leader Clément Ouédraogo in 1991.

AI country reports

  • Burkina Faso: Those responsible for the death of Norbert Zongo must be brought to justice (AI Index: AFR 60/002/99)
  • Burkina Faso: a year after Norbert Zongo's death – still no justice (AI Index: AFR 60/004/99)

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