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A Church Captured: The Battle for Control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi — Part 2


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.

Burundi Adventist Church Placed Under the Africa-Indian Ocean Division

Meanwhile, in 1979, DeWitt S. Williams replaced Werner at the Central African Union.29 In 1980, the Africa-Indian Ocean Division was organized to replace the dissolved Southern African Division. Part of the territory of the Southern African Division went to the Trans-Africa Division based in Harare, Zimbabwe. The Africa-Indian Ocean Division was based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Within the Burundi church, in 1980, Saul Senkomo took over as president of the East Burundi Field. Senkomo, a veteran translator of Adventist literature and the Sabbath School lesson into the Kirundi language, would eventually rise to become Burundi Union Mission president.

In 1980, President Bagaza instituted reforms in the country’s sole party, Uprona, which was dominated by the Tutsi, and thus largely ignored by the Hutu. In November 1981, a new constitution established Burundi as a single-party nation with a directly elected president. The most vocal opposition to the government became the clergy, creating frosty relations between the church and the state.

A national referendum was held and the constitution passed with 98.6% of the vote. The nation’s sole legal political party at that time remained the Uprona. The constitution reaffirmed freedom of religion and freedom for private schools (these were mostly run by the Catholics, who were at odds with the state already).

In August 1984, Bagaza was reelected to the presidency as the single candidate of Uprona, garnering 99.63% of the 1.7 million votes cast. The Hutu majority only had five of nineteen ministerial positions and ten of the sixty-five seats in the National Assembly. Frosty relations with the church saw the expulsion of ten Belgian missionaries accused of spreading slanderous information about Burundi in Europe. This was the culmination of suspicion by the government that foreign missionaries favored the Hutu majority and were blamed for being responsible for the mass communal violence between the Hutu and Tutsi, which had occurred in neighboring Rwanda before and after independence in 1962, and also in Burundi itself in 1972 and 1973.

Closure of the Adventist Church in Burundi

In 1984, President Bagaza issued a decree to ban all denominational activity including church attendance. All churches, including the Catholic church where two-thirds of Burundians belonged, were closed and Catholic schools were nationalized. Bagaza banned weekly religious services and nationalized the Catholic radio station. Adventists resorted to meeting in homes and conducting their affairs clandestinely.

The previous year, DeWitt Williams had left his position as the Central African Union president and the position remained vacant until Ntwali Ruhaya was appointed in an acting capacity. For the first time, the union was coming under non-European hands. Ntwali Ruhaya had served as the field secretary for the Africa-Indian Ocean Division, now based in Harare, Zimbabwe, as well as the president of the East Zaire Field.30

Dissolving the Central Africa Union Mission

The police violence, press censorship, and religious suppression in Burundi were criticized by human rights groups internationally. As a result of the closure of denominational activity, the Africa-Indian Ocean Division dissolved the Central Africa Union Mission and designated Burundi as an “attached field” under the division (then based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast). This meant that the entire country was downgraded to “mission field” status and consequently the West Burundi and East Burundi Fields were dissolved. The affairs of the church (now in hiding) were managed in the first year by U. Habingabwa as the secretary and D. Barute as treasurer. There was no president.

On the other hand, Rwanda was elevated to union mission status and Robert G. Peck was appointed as its president.31 Robert Peck, an American, had been the secretary of the Iowa-Missouri Conference.32 The Rwanda Union Mission offices were now located in Kimihurura in Kigali. Just like the Catholic church, the Adventists in Burundi lost prime church property, including their address at 126 Avenue Prince Louis Rwagasore.

Meanwhile, home churches flourished and denominational activity continued to thrive in the absence of a formal church structure.

Restoration of the Adventist Church in Burundi

On September 3, 1987, Bagaza’s eleven-year rule ended when he was deposed in a military coup while attending a conference of French-speaking nations in Quebec, Canada. He was not permitted to reenter the county. The new leader, 38-year-old Major Pierre Buyoya, also a Tutsi, became the head of the Military Committee of National Redemption. The National Assembly was dissolved and the constitution was suspended, as the Military Committee for National Salvation assumed executive and legislative authority. Two weeks into his presidency, he eased restrictions on the church and released more than 200 political prisoners.

There was joy in Burundi in Adventist circles when the government lifted the ban on religious activities towards the end of 1987. The Africa-Indian Ocean Division quickly reorganized the church and appointed Silas Senkomo, formerly the head of the East Burundi Field, as the new president of the Burundi Mission. While under the ban, the church grew, with evangelism work continuing, baptisms taking place under the cover of darkness, and mission work going on in silence. The church added to its numbers well over 10,000 in that short period, with membership now over 31,000, compared to about 19,000 members prior to the closure. The number of churches also jumped to ninety-two.33 The growth of the church remained largely in the Cibitoke province which held more than 70% of all Adventists in Burundi at that time.34

In 1988, ethnic violence erupted in northern Burundi, ignited by a particularly inflammatory speech by a Tutsi administrator. President Buyoya moved to assuage Hutu resentment of their subordinate status by appointing a Hutu prime minister, Adrién Sibomana, who was the governor of the Muravya Province (see map). He also appointed more Hutu to the Cabinet to match the number of Tutsi.

In 1989, the Adventist church in Burundi regained its properties that had been nationalized, including the address at 126 Prince Louis Rwagasore Avenue. There was a revival in membership with the baptism of many who could not be baptized in hiding.35

In May 1990, President Buyoya launched a draft “National Unity pact” which came from the recommendations of the National Commission on the Question of National Unity. It was to be submitted to the extraordinary session of the Uprona and subjected to a national referendum. Buyoya instituted a National Security Council to replace the Tutsi-dominated Committee for National Salvation. The new National Security Council would have both military and civilian members, including the Hutu prime minister, Adrién Sibomana.

The following year, the charter was passed in a national referendum by 89% of the votes cast. Concerns about the unrest in Rwanda (led by exiled Tutsi rebels based in Uganda) spilling over to Burundi continued to cause tensions. Further political reforms were instituted with President Buyoya announcing a new draft constitution that would create a part-presidential and a part-parliamentary system of government. There would be a prime minister appointed by the president and accorded a wide range of powers.

The new constitution, adopted in March 1992, introduced a multi-party system, with a directly elected president as head of state, an eighty-one-member National Assembly, and a prime minister as head of government. Shortly before the referendum however, Buyoya survived an attempted coup. About thirty Tutsi soldiers were arrested. The government blamed the former president, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, and former Tutsi ministers Isidore Nyaboya and Cyprien Mbonimpa for the coup attempt. By this time, Buyoya’s reforms were strongly opposed by the clandestine Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People (Palipehutu), which had been engaged in armed struggle against the Tutsi-controlled military. Burundi accused Rwanda of sheltering and financing the Palipehutu fighters.

More Conflict in Burundi

With the new constitution in place, elections were called and on June 1, 1993, history was made when the nation elected Melchior Ndadaye the first Hutu president, resoundingly defeating incumbent Pierre Buyoya. Ndadaye appointed Silvie Kinigi a Tutsi, as the new prime minister, the first (and only) woman to hold the position.

In October that year, after only three months in power, Ndadaye was deposed in a Tutsi-led military coup and killed. Kinigi fled to the French Embassy in Bujumbura and the Organization of African Unity sent in 200 troops to protect the government. The coup however collapsed as senior military officers failed to back it and there was also little popular support for it. Meanwhile thousands died in the ensuing ethnic violence and hundreds of thousands more fled to neighboring countries as refugees.

When the coup collapsed, another Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, came to power. While attending a regional peace meeting with Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, their plane was shot down as they approached Kigali, killing both of them instantly. This triggered an ethnic bloodbath in Rwanda unlike any that had been witnessed anywhere in the world, save perhaps the Holocaust. More than one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed in what become an international tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Reprisals were muted in Burundi and this was partly attributed to efforts by previous governments aimed at national unity and reconciliation between the two ethnic groups. Sylvestre Ntibantunganye, then president of the National Assembly, announced the death of Ntaryamira and appealed for calm. He saved the day for Burundi.

Meanwhile, on March 10, 1994, the General Conference hosted two Burundi cabinet ministers at a luncheon in their honor while on tour in Washington, DC. The two, the minister of finance, Salvator Toyi, and the minister of state for external relations and cooperation, Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, were received at the General Conference in Maryland, a sign that that the Adventist church was receiving favorable regard back in Burundi.36

Burundi After the Rwandan Genocide

The Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power in Rwanda, while in Burundi the Hutu-led Frodebu entered a power sharing-deal with the Tutsi-led Uprona. Frodebu got the presidency and the foreign ministry while Uprona got the premiership and the interior ministry. Defense and justice ministries would go to “neutral” figures. They also agreed that presidential decisions would have to be countersigned by the prime minister. Sylvestre Ntibantunganya of Frodebu became president on September 30, 1994. His rule, however, lacked real power, which remained with the army. Reprisal attacks by both sides of the ethnic divide caused significant tensions.

According to Human Rights Watch, foreign governments actively took sides in the Burundi affair which kept the conflict alive. They accused the French, Chinese, and South African arms dealers, in league with Colombian drug syndicates, of fanning the conflict. In January 1996, President Ntibantunganya warned that Burundi was on the brink of collapse. In March, the Security Council voted against recommendations by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to send UN guards to protect aid workers in Burundi and to establish a force in Zaire capable of intervention in Burundi. Further proposals for bringing stability, particularly by the armed Hutu opposition Forces for Defense of Democracy (FDD), came to nothing.

In 1995, President Ntibantunganya appointed Sylvestre Mvutse, an Adventist, as the governor of Cibitoke province, the traditional heartland of the Adventist Church in Burundi. Mvutse was a former student of the Adventist University of Central Africa and was married to the daughter of Silas Senkomo, the late union mission president.37

The Return of Buyoya

The constitution was suspended and the National Assembly dissolved after another Tutsi-led military coup on July 25, 1996. Ntibantunganya was deposed and former president Buyoya was reinstalled. A transitional constitution was adopted in June 1998 that made the president both head of state and head of government and eliminated the position of prime minister.

In July 1997, sporadic fighting broke out in Cibitoke and Bubanza provinces. Remember that Cibitoke was the traditional birthplace of the Adventist church and lots of Adventists were affected by the fighting.

On August 28, 2000, an important milestone was achieved when a transitional government was agreed upon following the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. It would be in place for five years. This failed to create a ceasefire but created an important background for future power-sharing agreements. Then, in October 2001, a new constitution was approved that provided for a three-year transitional administration designed to share power between Hutu and Tutsi parties. It also created a new, two-chamber legislative body. In 2003, a new cease-fire agreement was signed between the government and the largest Hutu rebel group, now known as CNDD-FDD (created by the merger of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy and the Forces for the Defense of Democracy).

Nkurunziza Comes to Power

The CNDD-FDD performed well in the elections of 2005, and the National Assembly voted in Pierre Nkurunziza as president. He was sworn in in August for a five-year term. He won the next election and was sworn in for a second term in August 2010. In April 2015, Nkurunziza caused controversy by announcing that he would be seeking another term in office in what his opponents interpreted as a third term, against the constitution. Tensions mounted when demonstrators opposed to him took to the streets in protests. Several people were killed, and a government crackdown saw the closure of some radio stations. This prompted the intervention of the international community, including the United Nations and the African Union. Tens of thousands fled the country.

In May 2015, Nkurunziza survived a coup attempt mounted by his former head of intelligence, General Godefroid Niyombare. The elections, held in July 2015, saw Nkurunziza beat his closest rival, Agathon Rwasa, by a total of 69.41% of the ballot to Rwasa’s 18.99%. In May 2018, Burundi held a national constitutional referendum to establish a seven-year term limit in what would have seen Nkurunziza remain in office until 2034 (if he ran in 2020 and remained for two terms). The referendum raised tensions and was condemned by the opposition, the Catholic bishops, and the international community. He continues in his third term with elections due in August 2020. In June 2018, he announced that he would step down after the 2020 elections.

PART II: The Present Crisis in the Adventist Church in Burundi

In September 2015, the Burundi Union Mission was reconstituted and the new officers named by the East Central Africa Division (ECD) were Joseph Ndikubwayo as president, Paul Irakoze as executive secretary, and Léonard Biratevye as treasurer. Due to the ethnic situation in Burundi, the national government had adopted a system of ethnic balancing where if the president was Hutu, it would follow that the first vice president would be a Tutsi. This arrangement was adopted by many organizations across the board, including the Adventist church. The only problem was that there were only two Tutsis serving as ordained ministers in the Adventist church in Burundi. These were Lambert Ntiguma and Paul Irakoze. Ntiguma had already served his term as executive secretary in the outgoing administration. So, it fell on Irakoze as the next available Tutsi to take up the position.

Paul Irakoze was born in October 1979, in Cibitoke in North West Burundi. He studied at Bugema University in Uganda and graduated in 2010 with a BA in theology. After his graduation, he became a pastor in Gitega District for a year and then became field secretary in the East Burundi Field. He was ordained in 2013 in Bujumbura. In 2015 he became executive secretary, taking over from Ntiguma who had held the executive secretary post for five years.

President Ndikubwayo is a second-generation Adventist, the son of Silas Senkomo, a veteran Adventist pastor and translator of Adventist literature. Ndikubwayo was born in March 1963 in Bujumbura and attended the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) in Rwanda before proceeding to the Adventist Seminary of West Africa in Nigeria (now Babcock University) where he obtained an MA in religion (issued by Andrews University) in 1994. When he returned, he was appointed chaplain at Lycée Maranatha de Kivoga. Afterwards he became the Education director for the Burundi Attached Territory, which at that time was under the Africa-Indian Ocean Division (AID). In 2014, he obtained a DMin in global mission in leadership from AUA (issued by Andrews University). In September 2015, he was appointed the president of the Burundi Union Mission.

Ndikubwayo became the second president of the Burundi Union Mission after it had been elevated to union mission status in 2012 and the fourth head of the church since the ban on denominational activity had been lifted by the government in 1987. In 2000, the Burundi Mission was authorized to create three fields— East Burundi, North Burundi, and West Burundi. In 2003, the Burundi Field had been transferred from the Abidjan-based Africa-Indian Ocean Division (AID) to the Nairobi-based East-Central Africa Division (ECD) and it retained its status as an attached territory. In 2012 it was elevated to a union mission, so its officers would still be appointed by the division.

The Making of a Dysfunctional Administration

In the early days after their appointment in 2015, Secretary Irakoze pointed out what he considered to be mistakes in their administration. First, he was uncomfortable that the president’s wife, Blandine Ngahimbare (Mrs. Ndikubwayo), worked at ADRA Burundi as the head of finance. Being a senior position of accountability that requires independence of action, the secretary amicably approached the president about it, asking if he would have her serve elsewhere or at least in another capacity. He reasoned with the president that finance was normally sensitive, particularly when handling donor funds, and the position could easily attract a conflict of interest since he (the president) was the board chair of ADRA Burundi.38 The president strongly objected to the secretary’s sentiments and even dismissed his concerns as a non-issue. This issue refused to die and would set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the dissolution of ADRA Burundi. (For more on the hiring of Mrs. Ndikubwayo, see the section under ADRA Burundi).

A Crisis of Accountability

In 2017, Secretary Irakoze commenced his MDiv studies at the Adventist University of Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. He needed a ticket to fly to Nairobi to attend classes. Treasurer Biratevye blatantly refused to grant him the ticket stating that it was not in the budget. Irakoze argued that he was entitled to travel by air by virtue of his office and did not see why he should be denied the ticket. He explained that he felt insecure travelling by road since many roadblocks were manned by some of the militia operating in Burundi. Biratevye complied and issued the ticket, but he charged it to Irakoze’s personal account. Eventually, the charges to Irakoze’s personal account, even for official duties, would amount to over BIF 8,000,000 ($4,200) all of which were treated as a personal debt.

Housing was another point of contention. President Ndikubwayo discovered that Secretary Irakoze and Treasurer Biratevye had rented houses costing more than the agreed-upon allowance. The treasurer was paying BIF 600,000 ($320) instead of the agreed BIF 500,000 ($267). Both the secretary and treasurer were entitled to be housed by the BUM at a cost of BIF 500,000, while the president was entitled to BIF 600,000 in housing. The treasurer was paying the same for all of them. The president asked that the difference be charged to their personal accounts, but the treasurer did not act.

On another occasion, the secretary discovered that the treasurer had been transferring funds from a church-owned rental house ($600/month) into his private account for more than two years. He also discovered that the lessee had been provided with fake church receipts. When Irakoze pointed out the matter to the president, Ndikubwayo played it down and warned Irakoze to keep off the matter. The secretary wondered why he would protect what was clearly a case of theft by a senior officer of the union. When asked about the matter for this story, Ndikubwayo stated that he was not aware of the house rental funds going into the personal account of the treasurer.

Seeing that there was no action by the president on the errant treasurer, Irakoze reported the matter to the division. The move only served to escalate their differences. Ndikubwayo began to suspect that Irakoze was working closely with the treasurer at the division, Jerome Habimana, to frustrate him. Habimana is Rwandese but, like Irakoze, is a Tutsi. The matter now took on an ethnic dimension, fanned by the traditional cross-border rivalry between Burundi and Rwanda. When a General Conference Auditing Services (GCAS) audit conducted in October 2018. covering the financial years 2016 and 2017, discovered that six months’ rent in that period amounting to US$3,600, “was not recorded in the accounts of the Union…,”39 it exonerated the secretary, but the same report also implicated him in a book project which he had initiated.


Notes & References:

29. Adventist Yearbook 1980 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1980), 296.

30. Ibid., 307.

31. Adventist Yearbook 1985 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1985), 42.

32. Adventist Yearbook 1984 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1984), 231.

33. Adventist Yearbook 1991 (Takoma Park: Review & Herald, 1991), 54.

34. Record Magazine 100, no. 10 (March 18, 1995): 5.

35. Ibid., 94, no. 21 (June 3, 1989): 8.

36. Ibid., 5.

37. Telephone interview with Samuel Ndikumana, Germany, November 19, 2019.

38. Interview with Paul Irakoze, Nairobi, November 13, 2019.

39. Burundi Union Mission Entretien de fin d’Audit. Resume d’Audit des Etats Financiers au 31 decembre 2017 (Burundi Union Mission Audit Interview. Financial Statement Audit Summary as of December 31, 2017), 4.


Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 3 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) /


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

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