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 is reprinted online in full.
The ADRA Burundi Debacle
After the problems in the Burundi Union Mission started, the next frontier in the battle to control the church opened at ADRA Burundi. The country director, Joel Ngba, a missionary from Cameroon, faced a serious a dilemma: to work with a church leader appointed by the ECD but not recognized by the government, or to work with the one removed by the ECD but recognized by the government of Burundi.76 Ngba believed that ADRA Burundi’s interests as a humanitarian organization would best be served by staying neutral and refraining from getting involved in the leadership crisis. He refused to attend meetings called by either Ndikubwayo or Barishinga, stating that he needed a clear position from the ECD or GC on the leadership in Burundi.
This position did not sit well with either side of the divide. But Ngba was in a difficult spot, not wanting to rub the government the wrong way, given its sensitivities with international NGOs. In fact, all international NGOs had already been suspended from operating in Burundi in October 2018 by the government, including ADRA Burundi. At the start of November, ADRA Burundi was exempted because of the nature of its work, its track record and its affiliation with the Adventist church. Now that it had been exempted, Ngba did not want to annoy the government. It was only after an intervention by the ADRA network hierarchy that Ngba was finally asked by the Africa regional office to remain neutral.
Then, in the middle of the battle for the control of church in Burundi, the ECD Committee recommended the shutdown of ADRA Burundi and Ngba was given permanent return to his native country. The ECD had decided to employ a “scorched earth” policy to limit the influence of Ndikubwayo. To do so they were willing to scuttle ADRA Burundi.
Ngba had been appointed in December 2016 by the General Conference on a five-year contract to serve as ADRA Burundi country director. He arrived with his family and placed his children in local schools. When he was terminated via email on May 16, 2018, he was only given three days to leave Burundi. Bjorn Johansen from ADRA Denmark was appointed to replace him.
Ngba tried unsuccessfully to protest the move saying that he needed time for his children to at least complete the school year. Ngba received Johansen and used the short window he had to introduce him to government officials and arranged a handover. But the change in leadership did not go down well with the government officials who said that Johansen’s appointment was an affront to the people of Burundi. They also interpreted it as part of the ECDs effort to control the church in Burundi.
The government accused Johansen of coming to Burundi without a work-permit and slapped him with a persona non grata, forcing him to leave Burundi. He was accused of not following the law in obtaining the consent of the Ministry of Cooperation before taking office in Burundi. Knowing the sensitivities that the Burundi government had with international NGOs and foreign interference, it was probably a bad idea to replace Ngba with a European expatriate. It might have been better if it had been another African. On the converse, the ECD committee had probably not expected Ndikubwayo’s hand in the turn of events.
Ndikubwayo declared that if Ngba was to leave, then he would have to appoint the new country director himself. Seeing the danger of that, the ECD decided to close ADRA Burundi altogether. They asked Ngba to calculate the entire costs of winding up. He made the calculations and informed the ADRA Africa regional office that it would take at least $320,000 in liabilities to be settled immediately. There would be more costs. He informed them that were also legal issues and cases in court that needed to be settled before winding up. When he sent the numbers to the division, it presented them with a difficult position since the money was not immediately available to make the settlements. The ECD then decided to withdraw the ADRA license, preventing use of its name or logo.77 According to Ngba, what was at stake were the jobs of seventy staff members, and the welfare of their families and thousands of vulnerable Burundians benefiting from ADRA’s programs.
The government of Burundi immediately issued a license to former ADRA Burundi (now without a name) but this time as a local NGO. It continues with its activities and Ngba remains in Burundi in the same capacity. Currently funding comes from Germany and Norway and a long-expected partnership with the UN/FAO was nearly scuttled by the leadership crisis. Naturally, this turn of events has caused great satisfaction to Ndikubwayo’s camp. And he remains the chair of the board.
Anti-Corruption Authority Gets Involved
In July 2019, just after Ngba was given a permanent return (and failed to leave), he was summoned by the Anti-Corruption Authority to answer charges against him and ADRA. ADRA had supposedly not followed hiring and procurement procedures, among other charges. He was interrogated for three hours, confronted by what he described as misinformation believed to have been deposited by those opposed to Ndikubwayo.
The Anti-Corruption Authority later went to ADRA Burundi and requested several items, including financial statements and documents related to procurement since January 2018, which corresponded to the period when Mrs. Ndikubwayo joined ADRA Burundi. They are yet to press any charges, if at all.
In August 2019, Ngba and his family went back to Cameroon. While there he was informed by his union that no official information had reached them about his permanent return. In September he went back to Burundi and continued working. Donors (ADRA Germany and ADRA Denmark) requested him to help supervise the closing of their projects and are paying his salary. He told this writer that he plans to go back home at the beginning of next year though his permanent return has not been confirmed by the Cameroon Union at the time of this publication.
The hiring of Mrs. Ndikubwayo as the finance director at ADRA doubtless escalated the crisis in ADRA Burundi. For a while, ADRA Burundi had operated without the position. Country director Ngba got the consent of the board and the ADRA regional office to hire one. After the hiring announcement was issued, Ndikubwayo told Ngba that his wife had been out of work for a while and she wanted to apply for the job. He also said that he was opposed to his wife’s request, because he would be attacked for it. Ngba told the president that he did not see any problem in hiring her and in fact insisted that she should apply if she was qualified. Besides, he argued, the hiring decision was made by the HR committee and the board. Ngba insisted that if Mrs. Ndikubwayo was qualified, she should apply. He did not anticipate any problem. He was wrong.
Treasurer Biratevye got wind of the vacant position and went to see Secretary Irakoze to discuss the situation, telling him that he had heard the president wanted to employ his wife as head of finance in ADRA. Biratevye already had someone else in mind for the position and wanted Irakoze to assist him in getting the other person the job. Biratevye then said that it wouldn’t be a good idea for the president’s wife to take the position because it would be a conflict of interest. Irakoze agreed. They decided to speak with Ndikubwayo about it and tell him that he could not be the chairman of the ADRA Board while his wife was at the same time head of finance at ADRA. Ndikubwayo rebuked them and sent them away.
Mrs. Ndikubwayo had been out of work for seven months after the end of her contract with a USAID-founded project. For the position of finance director, ADRA Burundi received eight applications and résumés, including hers. The résumés were evaluated by the Human Resources Committee headed by the programs director, Samuel Nzokirantevye. Mrs. Ndikubwayo turned out to be the best. Her previous experience at an international NGO (USAID) doubtless helped. It is important to note that Mrs. Ngba was the head of HR at ADRA Burundi and was a member of that committee.
Irakoze called Ngba and told him about his concerns on the issue of conflict of interest. Apparently, Ngba went to Ndikubwayo and told him what the secretary had said. Ndikubwayo then confronted Irakoze and told him to keep out of the matter.
In October 2017, Ndikubwayo was scheduled to attend the annual meetings at the GC in the USA. It happened that the board date was set for October 8, 2017 when he would be away. Ndikubwayo suggested that the board meeting be postponed until he returned from America. Ngba stated that there were pressing matters that needed to be dispensed of and suggested that the president could assign someone else to chair the meeting while he was away. It then fell on the secretary, Irakoze, to chair. He added it was proper for him to chair the meeting considering that Ndikubwayo’s wife was the subject of a vote. Irakoze agreed to chair the meeting.
On October 8, 2017, Irakoze arrived at 10 a.m. at the ADRA offices to chair the meeting. When he looked at the agenda, he immediately picked out Mrs. Ndikubwayo’s name and pointed out that he still felt that there would be a conflict of interest if she were to take up the position. Ngba objected and for an hour their discussion went back and forth. Ngba explained that he would be her direct supervisor and not Ndikubwayo and that the possible conflict of interest situation would be explained during that same board meeting for all to understand. Irakoze was not convinced. Ngba asked him where his wife was employed. He said that his wife was the cashier at the Bujumbura Mission. He asked if that was not in fact a “conflict of interest.” Besides, Ngba’s own wife was the head of Human Resources at ADRA Burundi and he did not consider that it created a conflict of interest as he did not supervise her directly. He had also reported that situation in his declaration and his wife had also declared in her contract that she was the spouse of the country director.
Irakoze picked up his phone and said he would call the division to find out what they would have to say. Ngba objected to the call and told him that he didn’t find it necessary to consult the division on a matter concerning ADRA when the ADRA regional office had already been consulted. Irakoze finally started the meeting and Ngba, who was the secretary, introduced the matter of Ms. Ngahibare. She was approved. Even though he chaired the meeting and the name had passed, Irakoze was still uncomfortable with the appointment. Shortly afterwards, he approached the president to see if he could revoke the appointment, a fact that would escalate their differences.
Mrs. Ndikubwayo’s Tenure at ADRA Burundi
Mrs. Ndikubwayo was hired in October 2017 on a one-year contract which was to end in December 2018. When she began working there, attacks on ADRA Burundi by those opposed to Ndikubwayo increased substantially. Ngba presented this concern to the regional office in Nairobi. Closer to the end of her contract, in November 2018, Ndikubwayo was relieved of his position. For Ngba, the new development would mean that if Ndikubwayo was to be deployed far from Bujumbura, Mrs. Ndikubwayo would have to go with him, and considering the conflict that had arisen following her hiring, he opted not to renew her contract. Neither Ndikubwayo nor his wife objected to this action.
The hiring of Mrs. Ndikubwayo was repeatedly mentioned as evidence that Ngba supported Ndikubwayo, particularly after Ndikubwayo had declined to vacate office, leading to a major standoff. In May 2019, he was terminated and given a permanent return to go back to his native Cameroon. The hiring of Mrs. Ndikubwayo doubtless, contributed to his woes.
Lamec Barishinga was first arrested on May 7, 2019, because of some violence that broke out in the Jabe SDA Church in Bujumbura. The youth who were arrested implicated Barishinga, saying that he and Lambert Ntiguma were the ones who had sent them to cause disruptions in that church.78 Both pastors were arrested based on the testimony. It is not clear if the youth were sent by them or by another with the purpose of putting the two in trouble. It is also not clear if they were part of the Imboneza. What happened can only be interpreted as part of the tensions associated with the transition. The prosecutor took them to a judge and they signed a document pledging that they would not break any laws of the country. They were all released together with the youth based on that pledge.
Early in October 2019, Barishinga was due to travel to the US to attend Annual Council at the General Conference.79 He failed to obtain a US Visa and sent instead a video message to the GC. In that video, he pleaded for support from the world church. After the video had been played, GC President Ted Wilson and the attendees offered a special prayer for Burundi.
Barishinga then wrote a six-page letter to the church members in Burundi using the official letterhead of the church. Those opposed to him immediately accused him of impersonation of the president, as Ndikubwayo remained the legal representative of the church despite his ouster by the ECD. The interior minister, Barandagiye, had issued a letter in April 2019 stating that Ndikubwayo would remain the legal representative of the Adventist Church.
On his way to attend the year-end meetings at the ECD, on October 24, 2019, Barishinga was arrested and sent to Mpimba Prison. He occupies the same cell which Irakoze occupied earlier in the year. At the time of writing this paper, he remains in prison. Others have joined him lately including Lambert Ntiguma, Élisée Manirakiza (the pastor of Kamenge District), Deo Sabimana, and Saidi Gilbert Bimenyimana, among others. Some of them have since been released but Ntiguma, at the time of this report, was yet to be released.
The Matter Goes to the Burundian Parliament
In October 2019, just after Barishinga was arrested, Interior Minister Barandagiye was asked by members of Parliament to explain the crisis in the Adventist church. He stated that he personally did not care whether Ndikubwayo or Barishinga oversaw the Adventist Church and that his only concern was that their appointment had to be done within the law. He said that the removal of Ndikubwayo was not fair since he had not completed his term, and the ECD had not given any reason for his removal.80 He said, “We fail to understand if these people are doing God’s work or doing another business.”81
He also stated that after the Barishinga faction had appealed his decision to the head of state, he was no longer responsible for the case since the head of state was to make the final decision. He stated that the presidency advised that the General Conference should be invited to resolve the matter and they were duly invited. They agreed that Joseph Ndikubwayo would remain interim leader until they could elect a new leader to replace him.82
The complexities of the situation in the Adventist church in Burundi are greater than we can cover in these pages. On the face of it, the problem is a battle for control between the GC/ECD on the one hand and Joseph Ndikubwayo and the National Government of Burundi on the other hand. But it is much deeper than that. The elephant in the room is toxic ethnicity where the actions of an individual are viewed through an ethnic prism and as such, the individual is despised and can do nothing honorable despite professing the same faith. Ethnic nationalism compounded by limited opportunities, the traditional rivalries between the two nations of Burundi and Rwanda, as well as the former’s sensitivities about interference in its internal affairs, have all played their part in the whole affair. Institutional corruption, noted in the whole issue, reflects waning spirituality and a deviation of the collective moral and ethical calling. In the process, the credibility of the Adventist church and its institutional legitimacy in Burundi has been badly dented, undermining its mission and weakening public trust in the institution. At the heart of concerned observers are the 44,000 new members who in 2018 joined the church following the successful TMI program and who are probably wondering whether they made the right decision. The church in Burundi needs someone to climb down from their high horse if only for the sake these new members, young in the faith. All the players must realize that the church is bigger than all of us and that further escalation threatens the ability of the Adventist church to meet its local and global mission.
Notes & References:
76. Interview with Joel Ngba, November 25, 2019.
77. The first plan was to immediately close ADRA Burundi in June 2018. The high cost of compensating staff and providers was estimated to be in excess of $500,000, which discouraged the action initiated by the ECD and ADRA International who decided to allow some donors (in particular ADRA Germany and ADRA Denmark) to complete their funded projects by end of December 2019. This is the date when all ADRA Burundi staff contracts naturally end. This allowed ADRA International to withdraw the license given to ADRA Burundi to operate as ADRA. Withdrawing the license meant that ADRA Burundi could no longer use ADRA’s name and logo or initiate any action in the name of ADRA.
78. Interview with Paul Irakoze, op cit.
79. The Annual Council was due to be held between October 10–16, 2019 in Silver Spring Maryland. Thereafter, he would attend the ECD Annual Council later that month.
80. He had probably not seen Coralie’s letter of January 15, 2019.
81. Video clip from the Burundian Parliament in which Barandagiye is responding to members.
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Eggers, Ellen K. Historical Dictionary of Burundi, 3rd ed. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2016.
Gahama, Joseph. Le Burundi sous administration Belge: la période du mandat, 1919-1939, 2nd rev. ed. Paris: Karthala, 1983.
Langford, Peter. “The Rwandan Path to Genocide: The Genesis of the Capacity of the Rwandan Post-colonial State to Organise and Unleash a Project of Extermination.” In Civil Wars 7, no. 3.
Lemarchand, René. “The Burundi Genocide.” In Century of Genocide, edited by Samuel Totten, et al. New York: Routledge, 2004: 321–337.
Lemarchand, René. The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Ndikumana, Samuel. The Fruit of a Work String: Beginnings of Seventh-day Adventism in Burundi. Research Paper. Friedensau Adventist University, 2010.
Totten, Samuel, William S. Parsons, eds. Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. Routledge, 2004.
Tshimba, David-Ngendo. “2015 As a Repeat of 1965 in Burundi: The Stubbornness of Political History.” Thinking Africa. (ThinkingAfrica.org). 2016.
Weinstein, Warren, Robert Schrere. Political Conflict and Ethnic Strategies: A Case Study of Burundi. Syracuse University, 1976.
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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