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A Church Captured: The Battle for Control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi — Part 4


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, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Matters Implode

In August, Ndikubwayo sent summaries of the meetings to the ECD and complained that the two officers who failed to attend the meetings were undermining his authority. Irakoze also decided to write to the ECD to object to the “distorted report” and denounce the meetings as not having been called according to procedure. Two days after the last meeting, on August 8, 2018, Irakoze privately sent a draft of his letter to the ECD treasurer, Jerome Habimana, to see if it would be acceptable to the ECD. After reading it, Habimana wrote back to him stating that it was okay and made personal remarks in Kinyarwanda that were seemingly against Ndikubwayo. He accused Ndikubwayo of being bitter at the removal of Biratevye and for being “a politician.” He accidentally copied the letter to the ECD president, Dr. Blasius Ruguri, ECD Secretary Alain Coralie—and to President Ndikubwayo.52

The email deeply angered the subject of the discussion. Ndikubwayo wrote back to Ruguri stating that he had always said that his problems emanated from the ECD.53 This became an issue of the perennial ethnic animosities between the Hutu and the Tutsi and the evidence was now in black and white. The age-old rivalries and accusations that the Rwandese were interfering with the work in Burundi now came to the fore. If nothing else, this unintended action (we can only assume as much) would end up being the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In response, Ruguri asked Ndikubwayo not to escalate the matter, hoping that it could be dealt with internally. He even promised to meet him on the sidelines at a meeting held in Rwanda with the GC leadership. That meeting did not take place. Information about the email was only revealed when the ECD decided to replace Ndikubwayo with Barishinga. In the ensuing crisis, Ndikubwayo used the email to affirm his position and to support his innocence. This then reduced the crisis to a Hutu-Tutsi rivalry: Jerome Habimana and Paul Irakoze on one side and Joseph Ndikubwayo and Leonard Biratevye on the other side.

Ntiguma’s Altercation with Ndikubwayo

On October 26, 2018, Ndikubwayo called for a meeting of all the field officers to take an audit of all the books (Intambuko kuyindi yo kuzuzwa Mpwemu Yera) that were delivered to the field offices. Ntiguma attended the meeting as the president of the South West Burundi Field. During the meeting, Ntiguma could not hide his discomfort at the subject of discussion and also the fact that the secretary and treasurer were not in attendance. He told Ndikumwayo, “I wonder how you, alone are sitting in front while your colleagues cannot come.” Ntiguma walked away but not before telling Ndikubwayo that he would not finish his term. He said, “You used to talk about me and Pastor Jethron, but we, were able to finish out term, but you, will soon be removed.”54

Ndikubwayo did not take the words kindly and coming from an individual of another ethnic group only served to worsen the matter. Ndikubwayo and Ntiguma had not been friends for many years; their differences had seemed to grow exponentially when both were officers in the BUM. Ntiguma’s words would turn out to be prophetic.

Removal of Ndikubwayo

Two days later, on October 28, 2018, Ndikubwayo, Irakoze, and Bavugubusa were all summoned to the division offices in Nairobi. They were given the chance to air their issues in separate meetings. Two days later, on October 30, 2018, Ndikubwayo was given the chance to explain himself at a meeting chaired by ECD President Blasius Ruguri. Present were ECD Secretary Alain Coralie and ECD Treasurer Jerome Habimana. Ndikubwayo was asked why he was leading a dysfunctional Secretariat. He replied that he and Irakoze did not have a good working relationship, noting that Irakoze refused to attend the meetings he had called. He also pointed to the GCAS audit report stating that it had severely implicated Irakoze for colluding with Biratevye to steal church funds. Those privy to the meeting, who requested anonymity, say that Ndikubwayo was asked why he was working with a report that was clearly marked as “an Interim Audit” and not a final one. What would he do if the final one was released with information materially different findings from the interim audit? He was also asked why he was handling a document that was only meant for the ECD, the entity that had called for the audit and not him. He was unable to offer any credible explanations to the questions.

During the meeting, Ndikubwayo was also taken to task about the BIF 70,000,000 (about US$37,000) which had been fraudulently removed from the division accounts at the BCB by Biratevye. The letter authorizing the transfer had been signed on May 7, 2018, the same day Ndikubwayo had written a letter to the ECD protesting the dismissal of Biratevye and refusing to sanction the handover to Bavugubusa. Ndikubwayo replied that he was not aware of the fraudulent transfer of the money by the former treasurer, Biratevye. He said that since he was not in any way a signatory to that account, he was not aware of any movement of funds in the account. The ECD officers also asked Ndikubwayo about his confrontational attitude with regard to some of the staff in the BUM.

Another accusation against Ndikubwayo was that he sat on the National Security Council (Conseil National de Securité), a government position, while at the same time he held an ecclesiastical office. He was appointed to the largely advisory position by President Pierre Nkurunziza in 2015. When asked by this writer about this, Ndikubwayo stated that on a trip to Kenya in 2015, he received a call from the Burundian presidency stating that he had been appointed a member of the CNS. On arrival at the division in Nairobi, he informed President Ruguri that he had been appointed to the organization. Ruguri congratulated him for it, as did the GC president, Ted N.C. Wilson, when he heard about it. They said that the church would receive favor in the eye of the government of Burundi. The CNS met once every three months and he was not paid for that.55

Those opposed to Ndikubwayo said that he could not hold a government position while serving as a senior official of the church even if that role was only advisory and unpaid. The question arose that if the ECD and the GC were aware of it, why had they not acted sooner in removing him?

After the meeting with the ECD officers, Ndikubwayo asked if they could have a joint meeting with Irakoze and Bavugubusa. This was not to be. It appears that the decision to remove Ndikubwayo from the position of union president had already been made. He was privately approached by Secretary Coralie and the GC associate secretary, John H. Thomas, who asked him if he would consider resigning. He declined, stating that he did not see a good reason why he should.57

The following week, on November 6, 2018, a full session of the ECD Executive Committee met. Ndikubwayo, a committee member by virtue of his office, was not given the chance to defend his position. The Committee voted to replace him with immediate effect.58

A Botched Transition

To replace Ndikubwayo, the ECD Committee appointed Lamec Barishinga, a native of Bujumbura Rural, who had trained at the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) in Mudende, Rwanda where he obtained an education degree. He also studied at University of Eastern Africa Baraton where he obtained an MEd He was ordained in 2002, on the same day as Joseph Ndikubwayo and Lambert Ntiguma. While they were kindred in calling, they couldn’t be further in ideology.

To oversee the handover, the ECD sent Associate Secretary Tom A. Ogal and Assistant Treasurer Dan Agwena, both of them Kenyans, to Bujumbura. Ndikubwayo was on the same flight. News of the removal of Ndikubwayo had already made it to Bujumbura and when they landed they met a hostile environment on the ground. In the airport they were met by church members, including the newly appointed President Barishinga.59

They went to the BUM offices where an advance party had come to meet them. Some of those who had come were said to be members of the Imboneza. The ECD representatives Ogal and Agwena convened the union staff and the departmental directors. Perhaps sensing the tension, they did not state the reasons behind the removal of Ndikubwayo and declined to answer any questions but promised that in two weeks other officials would come from the ECD to formally announce what had happened. They went to Ndikubwayo’s office to oversee the handover but he requested more time saying he would be ready on Friday.

Ogal and Agwena did not expect Ndikubwayo would cause any trouble and assumed the handover would happen on Friday as he had promised. They returned on the evening flight back to Nairobi. Barishinga agreed to wait until Friday for the handover. It was not to be.

When the plane carrying the ECD officers took to the skies, the situation in Burundi began to unravel, beyond what anyone had anticipated. Some individuals allied with Ndikubwayo quickly wrote to the government to stop Barishinga’s assumption of office. The legal structure in Burundi is such that any leader of any organization must first receive recognition by the government. Due to years of instability, one cannot make such changes affecting the population without the knowledge and approval of the government. The Interior Minister must sign a letter of approval for any such official to be recognized by the government and to operate legally.

On November 8, 2018, Secretary Irakoze wrote to the Minister for the Interior, Pascal Barandagiye, to inform him that Barishinga was the new union president. By the time the letter reached him, the protest letter by those opposed to the removal of Ndikubwayo had already reached him. The Interior Minister responded on November 29, 2018 stating that Ndikubwayo was elected for five years and had been removed after just three years without grounds. He stated that he considered his removal was illegal.

Ndikubwayo Fights Back

The ECD had probably not anticipated Ndikubwayo’s capacity to fight back. He argued that he had been unfairly treated by the division committee which had voted for his removal “without a reason.” He placed his predicament squarely on the workings of Paul Irakoze and Jerome Habimana at the division who had profiled him behind his back. He used Habimana’s email as his evidence. The argument soon changed to the impending ECD elections of 2020 and the speculation that a Rwandese was eyeing the presidency of the ECD and so he (Ndikubwayo) had to be removed because he was perceived to be against such a candidacy. While it was not clear which Rwandese he was referring to, the mere mention of a Rwandese being the effective leader of the eleven-nation region, including Burundi, was enough to make his case.

Ndikubwayo was able to convince the authorities in Burundi that Jerome Habimana, being a Rwandese Tutsi, sitting in the ECD Committee, was against him only because of his ethnicity. Although Jerome sits on the committee, he has only one vote out of thirty-one and the other members could easily overrule his interest if he had one. Of course, Ndikubwayo also sat on the same committee. Exploiting the traditional suspicions of Rwanda, Ndikubwayo successfully made his case with the authorities who interpreted the actions of the ECD Committee (which is made up of foreign nationals), as interference in the internal affairs of Burundi. The Burundi authorities now refused to recognize his replacement, Barishinga.

Ndikubwayo had only served three of his five years in office and as such he made the point that it was unfair to remove him when he was not yet done with his term. According to Ndikubwayo, the law in Burundi prohibited the removal of the head of a non-profit before the end of their term. This made a strong argument for him because the Burundian president, Nkurunziza at that time, was embroiled in a dispute about the limitation of his term of office.

A Fractured Church

The church was now properly divided between church members supporting Ndikubwayo and others supporting Barishinga. The government backed Ndikubwayo, while Barishinga had the ECD/GC defending him. To back up his claims of injustice, Ndikubwayo had the GCAS Interim Audit report which did not accuse him of any wrongdoing, but which instead accused both Irakoze and Biratevye of financial impropriety, but for which only Biratevye had been fired. These were, in Ndikubwayo’s thinking, serious injustices. The argument now took the dimension that Irakoze could not be fired because he was working closely with fellow Tutsi, Jerome Habimana, to foster a Rwandan interest in Burundi. It was easy for Ndikubwayo to make the case that he had been unjustly treated.

In addition, Ndikubwayo also had with him the written confession of deposed treasurer Biratevye, stating that he (Biratevye) had shared the stolen funds with Irakoze and even enumerating the amounts. When asked by this writer about this specific allegation, Irakoze categorically denied having received any money from Biratevye. He suspected that Biratevye had been pressured by Ndikubwayo to implicate him.60 He stated that during the interview with the auditors, Biratevye had implicated him, but the new treasurer, Daniel Bavugubusa, strongly objected to it, arguing that Irakoze being the whistleblower, could not have reported the problem if he knew he too was dirty.61

Irakoze Arrested

It was on the basis of the documents provided by Ndikubwayo that individuals allied to him filed a case at the anti-corruption court. They also wrote to the Interior ministry and the Organe de Régulation et de Conciliation des Confessions Religieuses demanding the immediate arrest of Irakoze on charges of corruption and abuse of office. They went to court under a certificate of urgency on Thursday, November 8, and Irakoze was arrested on Monday, November 12, 2018, the day Irakoze had called together the executive committee to install Barishinga. As Irakoze sat in his office waiting for the meeting to start, Ndikubwayo entered his office with five police officers and pointed them to Irakoze. He was arrested just before the meeting could take place and it was consequently called off.

Irakoze was taken into custody in what would be a five-month stint in prison.

Initially, he was marched to the BSR (Bureau Spécial du Recherche or Special Bureau for Investigation) a special section of the police force where he was kept for two days. The ECD acted fast and sent a letter to the authorities stating that the Anti-Corruption Authority could not act on an interim audit report and that Irakoze should be discharged pending the release of the final audit report. On receiving the letter, the Anti-Corruption Authority realized that Irakoze had not misappropriated public funds and so released him into the civil courts. Here, Prosecutor Thacien took up his case. Instead of presenting him to a judge, he sent him to the Central Prison at Mpimba.

Two other church officials were also arrested on November 12, Ntiguma and Fidelite Niyomubutazi, an accountant at the union. All three are Tutsi, illustrating the ethnic dimension of the crisis. Some church members (majority Hutu) came to their defense pleading their innocence. From their intervention, Fidelite was later released because she was the mother of young children, but Ntiguma was kept in police custody for a night and released the following day. Irakoze remained in prison.

After three weeks, Irakoze was presented to a judge at the Mukaza court but the case had changed. Instead of being accused of stealing church funds, he was accused of “atteinte à la sûréte intérieure et extérieure” (undermining internal and external security). He was basically being accused of being a spy—for Rwanda.62 They said he wanted to give BFI 800,000,000 (US$ 428,000) to Rwanda-based Burundian rebels. He faced a jail-term of up to thirty-two years.

ECD Officers Arrive to Testify for Irakoze

The lawyers in charge of the case requested that the ECD send officers to testify for Irakoze. Tom Ogal and Dan Agwena were sent to testify and to try to secure the release of Irakoze. On December 12, 2018, they arrived on the first flight to Bujumbura and went to their hotel to await the meeting with Irakoze’s lawyer. The lawyer had gone to court and stayed longer than he had expected. He arrived at 2 p.m. and it was difficult to go to court thereafter, so they secured another appointment for the following day and rescheduled their evening flight.

The following morning, they were in court and gave their testimony, which was translated into French. As soon as they finished, they received word that they had been accused of being Rwandan spies who had come to bribe the judges to release Irakoze. Knowing they were in danger, they made their way to the airport to see if they could immediately fly back to Kenya. But they could not get an immediate flight out of the country. While they chose to await a 6 p.m. flight, it was then only midday. They felt insecure sitting out the six hours ahead of them. Fearing that security agents could pounce on them at any moment, they left the airport for their hotel to plan their escape, possibly by road through Tanzania.63 Their Burundian associate made frantic calls to find out what was happening and they informed the ECD in Nairobi about the sudden turn of events. The ECD officials in Nairobi acted fast and contacted the Kenyan Embassy in Bujumbura, requesting them to secure the safety of the two officers. The Embassy in turn reached the Burundi Government which gave the assurance that they would not be harmed. They returned to Nairobi on the evening flight.

It later emerged that the Imboneza may have been behind the messages.

Irakoze Fails to Secure His Freedom

Back in court, the prosecutor Thacien told the judge that Irakoze had an Australian visa and was a flight risk. The judge agreed with him and kept Irakoze in prison indefinitely. Later, Irakoze learned word had gone around that he held a Rwandese passport and had, using that passport, travelled to Australia. Irakoze showed this writer a copy of his Burundian passport and the Australian visa in it. The charges made things worse for him. He was sent back to the Central Prison of Mpimba, where 4,800 male inmates and 300 female inmates are housed in a space designed for about 800 people. Dangerously congested, violence, drugs, delinquency, and disease were the norm at Mpimba.

Doubtless, being incarcerated in Mpimba represented a difficult position for Paul Irakoze, who had never been in jail before, but like his Biblical namesake, he chose to spend his prison time doing God’s work. He conducted Bible studies and organized an evangelistic campaign attended by a quarter of the prison population. Many joined regular Bible study classes. A baptism followed and forty-seven people were brought to the Adventist faith.64


Notes & References:

52. From an email written by Moise Niyuhire dated November 11, 2018. The document and its attachments were widely circulated on social media.

53. Ibid.

54. Document authored by Ndikubwayo on January 4, 2019 trying to explain the origin of the crisis.

55. Interview with Ndikubwayo, November 26, 2019.

56. Those objecting the removal of Ndikubwayo on the grounds that he sat in the National Security Council, cite the fact that a previous Burundi Union president, Uzziel Habingabwa (1994–2005), had served as a member of the Elders Council of Burundi and the church had not objected. His father, Senkomo, was also a presidential advisor. Those opposed to them state that the positions held by his predecessors are not exactly comparable to his and the context of their service was also, as we have seen in the history of Burundi, markedly different

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

58. Vote number ECD2018-105 of November 6, 2018.

59. Interview with Dan Agwena, Nairobi, November 26, 2019.

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

61. Ibid.

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

63. Interview with Dan Agwena, Nairobi, November 26, 2019.

64. From an article written by Paul Irakoze entitled “There is Hope in Signing with the Knees” about his prison experiences.


Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 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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