A Church Captured: The Battle for Control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi — Part 3

A Church Captured: The Battle for Control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi — Part 3

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Written by: 
Published:
April 24, 2020

Editor’s Note: In this six-part series for Spectrum, journalist Godfrey Sang explores the current tensions in the Adventist church in Burundi. This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal (volume 48, issue 1), and will be reprinted online in full over the next two weeks.

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


The Book Project

In 2016, Secretary Irakoze was impressed by a book entitled Steps to Personal Revival by a German author, that was translated into Kirundi under the title Intambuko kuyindi yo kuzuzwa Mpwemu Yera. The secretary felt that the book would benefit the people of Burundi and decided to print 100,000 copies to be shared out to the 200,000 church members.

The secretary approached a German donor, who agreed to finance the printing estimated at US$50,000. He asked the secretary if he could send the money to him via Western Union. The secretary declined stating that such funds would best be handled through official church channels. He gave him the ECD accounts and the money was wired there. The treasurer, Biratevye at that point, was responsible for handling the money after it was released by the division. He successfully converted the US$50,000 into local currency and banked the funds in the union accounts. The signatories to the accounts were the president, secretary, and treasurer with the instruction that any two could sign the funds provided one of them was the treasurer. The secretary co-signed most of the cheques but did this also because there were times he would have to be away in Kenya as a student at the Adventist University of Africa.

According to Irakoze, there were many issues he noted in the transactions regarding the books, but when he confronted the treasurer about them, no credible answers were forthcoming. So Irakoze reported the matter to the division, which requested GCAS investigate the book project.

By the time the auditors scheduled a visit in 2018 to Burundi Union Mission, various other financial issues had arisen including a change in the treasurer’s position.

For his part, prior to the October 2018 visit by GCAS, Irakoze accepted a call to travel to Australia to conduct a series of evangelistic campaigns with the Burundi community over there, so he was away in Australia when the auditors arrived at the BUM offices.

GCAS sent two auditors, one a Rwandese (a Hutu) and the other a Cameroonian. The primary interviewees were the now removed treasurer, Biratevye, the new treasurer, Bavugubusa, and the president, Ndikubwayo. The secretary returned to find the audit nearing its end and answered queries asked. What he did not realize was that, in his absence, a large part of the explanation of the book project’s finances had been done by Biratevye and the president, who, according to him, used the chance to get back at him.40 Both of them had been bitter that the secretary had occasioned the dismissal of Biretevye, even though the division had not considered the book project in his dismissal, rather the general mismanagement of his docket.

Treasurer Biratevye reportedly told the auditors that he had co-signed the cheques with the secretary and that he had shared the proceeds from the book with him. The auditors also discovered that the invoices and receipts filed in the BUM offices had not emanated from the book printers.

The replacement treasurer, Daniel Bavugubusa, defended the absent secretary, arguing that he could not have been involved in the misappropriation of the funds when in fact he had initiated the whole process and had been the whistleblower to the fraudulent activities of the former treasurer that eventually led to the auditors being appointed.41

The auditors made their findings in a report that was released to the division on October 18, 2018. A section of the five-page document, in French, under the sub-title “Manque d’Integrité et mauvaise gestion de l’Impression de livres” (Lack of Integrity and Mismanagement of Book Printing) stated:

The audit procedures revealed that certain transactions appearing to order books and evangelization materials printed in a certain printing press in the amount of 41,845,380 BIF were fraudulently recorded with the fake vouchers. The outgoing Treasurer has admitted that he has been forced to support 18,174,380 BIF on his own, and two that he has confirmed that he has shared the funds with the Executive Secretary, which he has categorically denied. However, the Executive Secretary confirmed to us that he did not see the 7,131 books (Kwuzuwa, Mpwemu Yera) at the price of 13,050,000 BIF of December 13, 2016 which he was co-signing with the Treasurer. The surprising thing is that on March 29, 2017, the Executive Secretary signed again with the Treasurer another check for 5,585 books (Kwuzuwa, Mpemu Yera) at the price of 10,621,000 BIF he confirmed to us that he did not see those books.42 These two book orders were recorded in the account “Revival Expenses” that the Executive Secretary was in charge because it was the one which had requested the funds for this project.43 Other book orders were posted to the “Evangelism Expense” and “Department Expense” accounts. No vote of the committee authorized the printing of all those books which had false documentation and no control was put in place to monitor the use of these funds by the benefactor who agreed to finance the translation impression of this book because the administration could not provide us with how these books were printed and how they were distributed to the members of the church. With the exception of a general vote BUM 17EXECOM No. 006 of January 30, 2017 which was taken by the Executive Committee which does not indicate the amount and the number to print worded in these terms “Vote to print and distribute to members of the Church delivered it “Kwuzuwa, Mpemu Yera” no other information was mentioned in the minutes in relation to this project.44 In summary, the revenues of 2016 and 2017 that were recorded in the ledger were 169 159 499 BIF while the expenditures were BIF 236 374 252.77 with a difference of BIF 67 214 753.77 which was financed by the Union’s operations in 2016 and 2017 for this project.45

When the questions were put to him, the secretary explained that the funds had primarily been handled by the (now former) treasurer, Biratevye, who had withdrawn the amount in cash from the division accounts, exchanged it into the local currency, and banked it in the church accounts. He explained to the auditors that from the inception, the project had faced challenges including an occasion when the president made a request to use part of the funds to purchase a new vehicle for his personal use. The secretary declined, stating that he would see to it that the funds were only used for the intended purpose. When the writer asked Ndikubwayo about this, he stated that he had only asked that part of the money be used to purchase a vehicle for the office, not for his personal use. He said that some departments did not have a vehicle and a new one would be useful for the work.46

Secretary Irakoze also stated in his defense that there were many opportunities to misappropriate the funds even before they had hit the church accounts, but he had no incentive to do so then and even less thereafter. He stated that he co-signed the accounts and had to leave for AUA where he was pursuing his graduate studies. Speaking to this writer, the secretary wondered why the auditors seemed determined to impute wrongdoing on his part when in fact his conscience was clear, and he had not received a single cent of the whole amount.

Ndikubwayo expressed shock when he had discovered that Irakoze was “heavily indebted” to the BUM. He told this writer that he discovered that Irakoze owed well over BIF 8,000,000 (about $4,200) to the BUM. To this charge, Irakoze stated that all his entitlements were by virtue of his office, and expenses for official duties had been charged to his personal account by Treasurer Biratevye. He explained that one could not draw such amounts without a vote.47

The Removal of Treasurer Biratevye

When the division removed the treasurer on April 30, 2018, the reasons it gave for doing so included the spiraling debt levels at the BUM and failure to deposit trust funds in ECD accounts in the required time. Although Biratevye regularized the financial position regarding the trust funds before he left, the damage was done. The move to dismiss him was quickly interpreted along ethnic lines, and only served to worsen the working relations between the president and the secretary.

The president protested the removal of the treasurer, claiming he was innocent and a victim of ethnic machinations. He denounced the newly appointed treasurer, Daniel Bavugubusa, saying that he had not been consulted first on the appointment. Two days later he was on hand to oversee the handover, but it would not be an easy ride for Bavugubusa who, at some point, suffered a severe beating, allegedly by members of the dreaded Imboneza.

Just before the handover to the new treasurer took place in May 2018, the outgoing treasurer, Léonard Biratevye is said to have forged division signatories and withdrawn BIF 70,000,000 (between US$ 35,000 and 40,000) from the ECD accounts at the Banque de Crédit de Bujumbura (BCB). The money was transferred to his wife’s account held in the same bank. The signatories of the ECD accounts held at the BCB are ECD officers. In this case, the letter had the signatures of the ECD treasurer, Jerome Habimana, and associate treasurer, Michael B. Caballero. The BCB received the letter on May 7, 2018 with instructions to transfer the funds to the account of Léa Ndayizeye (Mrs. Léonard Biratevye) at the same bank.48 The instructions were put into effect immediately.

By the time this happened, Biratevye had already been removed as treasurer just one week earlier, on April 30. It appears the bank had not yet been notified of the change in treasurers. Rather than send him packing, the ECD gave him a soft landing and he was assigned other duties within the BUM. Being an IT specialist, it was thought he could still be of service to the church and so he retained his staff housing and was only given new responsibilities. He handed over to the new treasurer, Daniel Bavugubusa on May 15, 2018. Prior to the handover, he is suspected of having made alterations in the central computer server, rendering it unworkable. The new treasurer discovered that the server was corrupted and there was only one person who had the capability to do this. When he was contacted to come around and work on it, he flatly declined to cooperate. Haggai Abuto, a Kenyan working with the ECD, was sent over to check on the server.

When Abuto arrived, he requested Biratevye to assist him, but he refused to cooperate. He was still living in a house rented for him by the BUM and was still drawing a salary. On August 22, 2018, Irakoze wrote to him asking him why he should be paid a salary and housed if he was not willing to offer his services to the church.49 He never responded but instead sent a letter to the ECD complaining about harassment by the secretary. It is interesting to note that as late as August 2018, he continued to draw a salary from the church, a good three months after the BCB heist.

Biratevye was eventually terminated from his position when his role in the transfer of funds came to light. The move only served to escalate the crisis.

The Ndikubwayo Administration and the Establishment of the Imboneza

One day in 2016, shortly after he had assumed office, the secretary received in his office Élisée Manirakiza, the pastor of Kamenge District in Bujumbura. He reported to him that President Ndikubwayo had visited his district and had met with a group of individuals of questionable character, forming a group called Imboneza. This group, said to be led by one Simbare Aloise, was meant to intimidate those opposed to Ndikubwayo. During the escalation of the differences with the president, the secretary was confronted in his office by a man named Bukuru said to be allied to the Imboneza and who warned him saying, “If you don’t work with the union president, we will work on you.” He was taken aback by the open threat coming from a clandestine group said to be closely allied to the president. When this writer asked Ndikubwayo about the existence of Imboneza, he categorically denied any knowledge of the group.50 Incidents blamed on the group were to escalate the crisis in the months that followed.

At the start of the Ndikubwayo administration, a series of meetings were held involving former church officials and senior church members to discuss the crisis in the church. The meetings were sanctioned by ECD President Blasius Ruguri, who personally asked Ndikubwayo to clean up the issues in the BUM. Just after the departure of Treasurer Léonard Biratevye, there were many documents and letters being sent back and forth discussing the problems in the church in Burundi. Most of these letters, written by anonymous individuals, were exchanged on social media and reached the highest echelons of the church. The letters were forwarded depending on whoever the sender supported or whatever position they wanted to advance. One such letter was written by one Philippe Ndagijimana, thanking the division for the action to remove Biratevye, while another, by one Alexandre Niyonkuru, condemned the action by the division. On June 15, 2018, President Ndikubwayo called for a meeting to discuss the letters just a month after the new treasurer had taken office. It so happened that at that time, Secretary Irakoze was absent, away at the AUA.

It was the letter by Niyonkuru, whom nobody seemed to know, that raised most alarm. He accused Irakoze and Lambert Ntiguma (former BUM secretary and now president of the South West Burundi Field) of being behind the removal of Biratevye. The ethnic dimension introduced by Niyonkuru was obviously designed to ignite ethnic passions against the two persons, both Tutsi. Niyonkuru even roped in Jerome Habimana at the division in a manner as to make it look like a Tutsi conspiracy and widening the scope to include Rwanda, Burundi’s perennial rival.

During the meeting, President Ndikubwayo read out the letter which accused Ntiguma (who was present at the meeting) of looking for the files of Burundian Hutu students when he was a student in Baraton “between the year 2000 and 2004.” Well, Ntiguma graduated from Baraton in 1997, so Niyonkuru got his facts wrong. But the point was made. Placing Ntiguma on the spot seemed to advance the point that he was not to be trusted. His tenure as BUM executive secretary had witnessed divisions in the church and issues had arisen surrounding him in 2000. During that time, he served as the Communication and Trust Services director while Ndikubwayo was the Education director. So, they knew each other very well.51

Yet another letter, written by Ndagijimana, seemed to suggest that Niyonkuru was in fact Ndikubwayo himself disguised as a frustrated church member, and it was not clear whether the said Ndagijimana was only adding another twist to the game. But when this writer asked Ndikubwayo whether he was Niyonkuru, he categorically denied it.

Whatever the identity of the letter writers, one can only imagine the discomfiture visited upon Ntiguma in a meeting where such toxic cross-ethnic charges were being leveled against him. However, Ntiguma brought up a matter during the meeting where he accused President Ndikubwayo of physically assaulting three officers of his South-West Burundi Field (SWBF). Ndikubwayo declined to discuss the matter and called for an early adjournment giving the reason that he had a baptism to conduct at Rutovu the following day and he needed to leave.

Ndikubwayo called a follow-up meeting on July 30, 2018. Secretary Irakoze and the new treasurer, Bavugubusa, declined to attend citing lack of consultation. Irakoze stated that as executive secretary he should have been the one calling the meeting and setting the agenda. He also stated that the minutes of the previous meeting had not even been released ahead of this meeting, which he said was not according to procedure. Crucially, Ntiguma also refused to attend the meeting and so the ethnic card came into play.

The meeting took place anyway. Ndikubwayo, who interpreted the boycott by the three officers as a challenge to his authority, decided that the former BUM president, Uzziel Habingabwa, (now a retired pastor), the North Burundi Field president, Enoch Ntunzwenimana, and union departmental leader for Children’s Ministries and Women’s Ministries, Mrs. Louise Nzeyimana, should meet with Irakoze and Bavugubusa in their offices to find out why they were boycotting the meetings. Irakoze told them that he objected to the non-procedural way of calling the meetings and setting the agenda.

Meanwhile in the meeting itself, the matter of the physical scuffle between the officers of the SWBF and the union president was discussed. Ndikubwayo stated that it was he who had in fact been assaulted because the officers of the SWBF had stood by him in a manner as to suggest that they would want to physically assault him. He played down the matter, but the officers involved had not attended the meeting, including the SWBF president, Ntiguma.

Another matter that came up was the issue of the BUM rented house. The accountant said that BUM Secretary Irakoze had told her that he had received a call from Switzerland Cooperation, an international NGO operating in Burundi which had rented the house, about the bank account number. The NGO had received a different bank account number from the official BUM accounts, and she told him that it was the treasurer (Biratevye) who was responsible for issuing accounts.

A third meeting was called on August 6, 2018. Again, Irakoze and Bavugubusa failed to attend. Lambert Ntiguma attended for a few minutes but left in a huff. Ndikubwayo stated that Ntiguma accused him of working like an “Anglican Bishop,” without the other structures of the church (citing the absence of the secretary). According to Ntiguma, the GCAS report was tabled by Ndikubwayo just to paint Irakoze as a thief. He questioned why the president was discussing financial matters in the absence of the treasurer. Their absence was again interpreted as insubordination and their failure to attend would be interpreted to mean that they were behind the letters sent to the division to tarnish the name of the church in Burundi. One of the twelve resolutions voted for in that meeting was to request Irakoze to “reconsider his call to ministry and work accordingly.” A similar resolution was reached on Bavugubusa and Ntiguma. The meeting attendees also voted to “request that ECD leadership follow-up on the culture of leaders despising leaders.” This was in apparent reference to the trio that had not attended the meeting.

 

Notes & References:

40. Interview with Paul Irakoze, Nairobi, November 15, 2019.

41. Interview with Daniel Bavugubusa, Nairobi, November 15, 2019.

42. According to the secretary, he signed the document and immediately left for school at AUA (Adventist University of Africa) where he was undertaking his graduate studies (MDiv), a program he had started in 2017. Much of the printing was done while he was away.

43. The funds for the project were from a private donor and were not church funds.

44. According to Irakoze, the fluctuation of the volatile Burundian Franc to the USD was the reason they could not determine exactly how many books they would print.

45. Entretien de fin d’Audit, 3–4. (Translated using Google Translate.)

46. Interview with Joseph Ndikubwayo, November 26, 2019.

47. Interview with Paul Irakoze, Op cit.

48. From a letter dated May 7, 2018, purportedly from ECD officers Jerome Habimana and Michel Caballero. The ECD has since distanced itself from the letter and the transfer of funds.

49. From a letter dated August 22, 2018 to Biratevye written by Secretary Irakoze.

50. Telephone interview with Joseph Ndikubwayo, November 26, 2019.

51. Divisions in the church in Burundi are not new. Right from the year 2000, the cross-ethnic accusations had been witnessed, but it was somewhat contained.

 

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 4 here.

 

Read Part 5 here.

 

Godfrey K. Sang is a historical researcher and writer with an interest in Adventist history. He is the co-author of the books On the Wings of a Sparrow: How the Seventh-day Adventist church came to Western Kenya and Strong in His Arms: The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Central Kenya.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain) / SpectrumMagazine.org

 

This article originally appeared in the current Spectrum print journal, volume 48, issue 1.

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