‘The worst is not the meanness of bad people, but the silence of good people.’
These words by Norbert Zongo, have repeated themselves several times in his writing. More than just a call to action, this sentence sums up a whole philosophy of life. Norbert Zongo was one of those great men who dedicated their lives to defending the lives of others, to justice, to freedom and to equality for all before the law.
Being a journalist … to defend freedom and justice
Besides his excellence in the field of journalism, his life was devoted a fight against injustice, dictatorship and violations of human rights.
It started when he was only in the 6th grade at the Cours Normal in Koudougou, where he created his first newspaper La Voix du Cours Normal in 1964. Early in the morning, he used to listen to international radio stations, selected the information he considered interesting and made short summaries on sheets of lined school notepaper. He then stuck these pieces of paper on walls and trees so that the pupils could read them before classes started.
He also reported on local events and denounced the problems within the school system. The newspaper ended up being labeled subversive and banned by school officials. In 1969, he obtained his first cycle study certificate (BEPC) but was banned from entering into all high schools in Burkina without any official reason. In desperation, he became an assistant teacher from 1971 and at the same time continued his studies. He obtained the Baccalaureate in 1975.
He was then admitted to the Press Institute of the Counseil de Entente at the University of Lomé in Togo in 1979, but he ended up fleeing this country to escape the hired thugs of Gnassingbé Eyadema. Norbert had by then finished the manuscript of his first book Le Parachutage which denounces dictatorship, magnifies democracy and invites Africans to free themselves from the shackles of autocratic powers. He sent the manuscript to a Senegalese publisher who advised him against publishing the book while being in Togo, which would have risked provoking the wrath of the regime. The letter was intercepted by the secret service in Togo who decided to arrest him. He had to save his skin by fleeing to neighboring Ghana but was then repatriated to Togo and imprisoned for a year.
Once again, his dream of becoming a journalist was shattered due to his commitment to the rule of law. However, he did not give up. In 1984, he obtained a scholarship for the School of Journalism of Yaoundé in Cameroon. In 1986, his diploma in hand, he returned home and joined the editorial staff of the state daily Sidwaya and then the weekly Carrefour Africaine (also state media). He also collaborated with private media such as Le Journal du Jeudi and La Clef. His critically important articles published in these media annoyed Blaise Compaoré who decided to assign him to Banfora, in the province of Comoé, located more than 440 km from Ouagadougou.
However, he refused to submit to this sanction and to be silenced by the state. He then resigned from the civil service and created the weekly L’Indépendant in June 1993. Specializing in investigation, L’Indépendant soon became the most widely read newspaper in the country. It was more than a newspaper but a platform to fight for justice, the respect for human rights, freedom and the rule of law.
A lonely hero who has impacted national public life
From economic crimes (embezzlement of public funds, corruption, tender fraud, exploitation of mineral resources, etc.) to political crimes (assassination of opponents and of pupils and students who demonstrate against the authorities) to rigged elections and political deals, Norbert Zongo denounced the crimes committed by those in power at the time.
For Norbert Zongo, journalism must serve to defend the cause of the people, to defend and promote freedom and justice. It was with this conviction that he refused to dip his quill in the deadly ink of corruption and blackmail. His pen stayed sharp until the very end. Indeed, after several unsuccessful attempts at bribery and intimidation, the regime’s strongmen finally decided on his physical elimination.
This was while he was investigating the assassination of the driver (David Ouédraogo) of François Compaoré, younger brother of Blaise Compaoré. His investigations came too close to the centre of power and the President’s brother.
Convinced that journalism alone is not enough to raise awareness among his people and bring them out of their torpor, Norbert Zongo organised public conferences in high schools and colleges, spoke during meetings of youth movements, trade unions, etc. More than a journalist, Norbert Zongo was an intellectual committed to the cause of the weakest, of his people, a fighter for freedom, for justice and democracy. He also did not miss the opportunity of the rare TV shows or radio shows where he was invited to denounce the practices and political cultures of predation and corruption and call on his fellow citizens to be brave and to take their fate in their own hands.
In spite of himself, Norbert Zongo had become the spokesperson for a whole people silenced by a ruling elite who ruled through violence. Alone against the system, Norbert Zongo refused to give up.
He was however sadly murdered on December 13, 1998. But his sacrifice awakened sleeping consciences. The citizen mobilizations that followed lit the flame, the kindling of which was the victorious popular insurrection against the predatory regime of Blaise Compaoré in October 2014. Norbert Zongo, just like Thomas Sankara, was a model for these millions of young people who took to the streets to chase Blaise Compaoré from power! As a good man, he refused the comfort of silence in the face of the wickedness of bad people. He is now elevated to the rank of national hero. “The worst thing is not the meanness of bad people, it’s the silence of good people.” I salute you Le combattant!