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A Church Captured: The Battle for Control of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Burundi — Part 5


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 herePart 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

Intervention by the Adventist Women and Men Organization

On January 3, 2019, the Adventist Women and Men Organization (AWMO) wrote to President Ruguri at the ECD pleading for his intervention. Witnessing how the church was so deeply divided and the senior official Irakoze remained in prison, the AWMO pleaded with Ruguri to restore “unity, tranquility and cohesion in the church” without which they could not achieve their mission.65 The AWMO stated that they had written to various banking institutions that held church accounts notifying them that the officials of the church had been changed, thwarting attempts by Ndikubwayo to access the funds. It is not clear whether they were successful; however, Ndikubwayo was able to obtain a letter from the Interior Minister Barandagiye overturning any attempts to bar him from accessing the church funds.

According to an AWMO document, they had organized and sponsored a prayer meeting at the North-West Burundi Field to seek unity among church members and “to issue directives to members on how to behave in times such as this including not allowing Pastor Joseph (Ndikubwayo) to address church members anymore.”

AWMO also began a campaign to denounce Ndikubwayo and collected 12,410 signatures from across the country that they submitted to the president of Burundi, Nkurunziza, and to the first and second deputy presidents, the Interior Minister, Barandagiye, the Administrator General of the National Intelligence Service, and the Secretary General of the National Security Council. They attached the church’s Working Policy on how leaders are appointed and some of the actions by Ndikubwayo that had caused his ouster. According to the AWMO letter, the government had chosen to listen to a former BUM president who, apparently, was allied to Ndikubwayo, thereby complicating the situation. The AWMO then requested a high-level intervention session by the church to meet with the government officials in a bid to unlock the stalemate.

In yet another petition to the Interior Minister, the AWMO cited certain “regrettable actions” by Ndikubwayo saying that on November 25, 2018, Ndikubwayo authorized one of his guards to attack and beat up the BUM treasurer, Daniel Bavugubusa.66 This action was said to have been carried out by the Imboneza. The AWMO also said that on December 13, 2018, accompanied by hired goons (read Imboneza), Ndikubwayo “smashed all the doors of the office of the Adventist Church Mission in Bujumbura and began robbing the Mission’s funds.”67

The letter, signed by Evariste Sindayigaya (vice president), Johnson Nikobiri (secretary general), Marc Niyikiza (treasurer) and Floride Buyoyi (assistant treasurer) concluded:

You would understand, Excellency Minister, that your decision to keep this Pastor as President and Legal Representative of the Adventist Church, while the hierarchical authorities of the Adventist Church have removed him, will not miss adverse consequences on all levels. Considering that Burundians are fervent believers in general and Adventists in particular, in the foregoing, we would like to ask you to consider and restore the necessary value to the text that governs the Seventh-day Adventist Church… As for us, we reaffirm our commitment to respect the law and the Constitution of Burundi which gives us freedom of worship.68

The government maintained its position.

Ndikubwayo’s Explanation

On January 4, 2019, Ndikubwayo wrote an eight-page document analyzing the development of the crisis from the moment he was fired onwards. He identified the letter writer Ndagijimana as being Evariste Sindayigaya (the AWMO vice president) but did not disclose the identity of Alexandre Niyonkuru. He then outlined the cause of the crisis, pegging it squarely on the circumstances related to his removal from office. He protested his removal as an unfair dismissal without any reason while Irakoze, whom he insisted had stolen the money with Biratevye, was allowed to remain.69 He also protested the appointment of Barishinga, claiming that his wife Sifa Esther (Mrs. Lamec Barishinga), who served as the BUM cashier, had been an accomplice in the theft “by allowing for five times the embezzled funds to transit through her bank account.”70

He suggested that as a way forward, the ECD should remove Barishinga with immediate effect. He also demanded that the GC send a fact-finding mission to Burundi and stated that the relationship with the government of Burundi be safeguarded. He also demanded that the ECD Treasury leadership (he did not name Jerome Habimana) immediately release the funds for the proposed Burundi Adventist Hospital which he said had been withheld since 2010. He also demanded the immediate replacement of Irakoze.

Finally, he demanded that the ECD leadership, which had refused to recognize his administration, should transfer the BUM to another division or have it attached to the GC directly. The ECD did not act on his letter but instead instituted a series of actions to wrest control of the church from Ndikubwayo.

The ECD Intervention

As things took a downward spiral, the ECD wrote to the BUM Executive Committee to explain the reasons for the removal of Ndikubwayo, because Ndikubwayo insisted that he was innocent since there was no document that had outlined the reasons for his removal. The ECD secretary, Alain Coralie, decided to clear matters. In a letter dated January 15, 2019, Coralie explained the reason for the removal of Ndikubwayo in accordance with Working Policy B45 20:

Here are the points which constituted the argument of gross negligence which were at the basis of the dismissal of Pastor Joseph Ndikubwayo as president of the Union of Burundi:

• Lack of collaboration with his fellow administrators, contrary to the Working Policy Article XI despite the many warnings by the administrators of the higher organization.

• Unilateral decision-making contrary to the Working Policy of the Adventist Church which pronounces that decision-making must be agreed by the three administrators (President, Executive Secretary, Treasurer). See Working Policy B45. There are numerous examples: the attempt to dismiss the four administrators of Lycée Maranatha de Kivoga; an attempt to implant the Adventist University in Kivoga Primary School classrooms.

• Quarrels in public with fellow administrators and other failings of pastoral ethics.

• Lack of follow-up and lack of professional ethics when handing over and taking over the new and former Treasurer of the Union which led to the seizure of 70,000,000 BIF from the accounts of the BCB.71

The belated letter was too long in coming. By this time, Ndikubwayo was no longer working with the ECD-recognized BUM Executive Committee, but rather with the ones he had chosen. He had replaced some of the pastors with those allied to him and even dismissed some of the field presidents that had failed to recognize him. So, in short, there was no one to implement Coralie’s letter, and even if there had been, they were not inclined to obey him. With hindsight, this letter should have been released on the same day Ndikubwayo had been ousted and issued to accompany the ECD officers who had been sent to install Barishinga. Ndikubwayo continued as though nothing had happened.

Ndikubwayo’s Defense

Separately, Ndikubwayo disputed the grounds for his removal. With regard to the issue of the 70,000,000 BIF, he stated that he was not a signatory to that account and wondered why he would be held responsible for the transactions of an account to which he had no access. He said the signatories of that account should have been held responsible for the loss of the money since they should have acted sooner, or at least notified him about it.72

Defending his administration, Ndikubwayo noted he had presided over what was billed as one of the most successful TMI (Total Member Involvement) Evangelism programs in which 44,000 new members were baptized in Burundi in 2018 alone. This increased the membership by 25% in that short window. His administration had also given a greater visibility to the Adventist youth—the Pathfinders marching during national days had impressed many. They had even attracted the attention of the Burundian government and President Nkurunziza (who is a very religious man) was very impressed with them. During his administration, there had had also been an unprecedented growth in income.

However, for some reason, the growth of income had not quite improved the financial position of the union mission which continued to grapple with significantly high debt levels, a situation that had also contributed to Biratevye’s ouster.

The GC Intervention

In the period between March 7 and 9, 2019, Dr. Ganoune Diop, the General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Affairs director, went to Burundi to try and sort out the situation. He met with Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye and with the Organe de Régulation et de Conciliation des Confessions Religieuses (ORCCR). The minister reportedly told the GC team, which included Alain Coralie (ECD secretary), that it would be in the best interest of the Adventist Church to replace both Ndikubwayo and Barishinga with a neutral third person. This was also the position of the ORCCR.

After the meetings, Diop wrote a letter stating that the General Conference did not see a reason to remove a duly elected church official (referring to Barishinga). He then named the treasurer, Daniel Bavugubusa, as the legal representative of the church in Burundi. A native of Kayanza, Bavugubusa was educated in Bujumbura at the University of Burundi where he obtained a diploma in commerce and at the University of Bugema (2006–2009) where he obtained a BBA in accounting. Diop accidentally identified Bavugubusa as a “pastor” but he was actually an accountant by profession.

Those allied to Ndikubwayo immediately identified the mistake and convinced the Interior Minister that it was further evidence that the General Conference could not be trusted. They also stated that the positions of legal representative and union president could not be separated quoting the Church Manual as their evidence.

This position angered the Interior Minister who now stated that he would not recognize Barishinga but would only recognize Ndikubwayo. Ganoune Diop fired back a letter dated March 26, 2019, stating that he would report what he termed as Burundi’s violation of religious liberty to the Africa Union, United Nations, the European Union, and the World Bank. This only served to further anger Burundi, a nation which at that time was grappling with international criticism on the issue of the presidential term limits, crackdowns on dissent, and other human rights violations.

While in Burundi, Diop also met a senior military officer who was friendly to Adventists, having grown up in the Adventist church. The officer was a member of the National Security Council which is chaired by Burundi President Nkurunziza. This is also the body of which Ndikubwayo is a member. The officer promised to lobby the government on behalf of Barishinga. Interestingly, this senior officer was relieved of his job at the CNS early in November 201973 and was later redeployed. By then, Ndikubwayo had already been removed from his membership in the National Security Council.

Irakoze Released and Situation Worsens

Irakoze successfully appealed his case at the Court of Appeal, and was released with the condition that he not leave Bujumbura. His passport was withheld. He walked out of Mpimba on April 3, 2019 after nearly five months in jail.

The failure by the Burundi Government to recognize Barishinga created a serious power vacuum in the church. Factions loyal to either side regularly disrupted the meetings of the other causing, in some cases, the intervention of the police. Gihosha SDA Church witnessed sectarian skirmishes and videos of police beating up members allied to one of the factions were widely circulated on social media. At Kamenge SDA Church, Communion was disrupted by factions allied to the opposing sides. The Imboneza were said to have been behind the chaos witnessed in the church. Various other churches’ services continued normally but many Adventists chose to remain at home altogether, fearing getting caught in the wrong place.

On May 4, 2019, worshippers at Jabe SDA Church in Bujumbura saw skirmishes when busloads of people disrupted worship and attacked the pastor for allegedly supporting Ndikubwayo. Police were called and running battles were witnessed in the church. A few days later, Barishinga and Ntiguma were arrested because of that and were released on a bond for good conduct. Police thereafter were placed on high alert on Sabbaths and kept watch on Adventist facilities just in case there was violence.

On July 7, 2019 the Rusenyi SDA Church in Muyinga province witnessed skirmishes in which a police officer was injured. Shots were fired in the air. Later that month, on July 27, Buganda Mission in Cibitoke also witnessed running battles with the police. The vehicle belonging to the commune administrator was damaged. On September 21, 2019 Ngozi SDA Church witnessed battles with the police and on October 12, at Musenyi SDA Church, a similar situation unfolded with their youth led by Alfred Miharurwa.

At Muramvya Province, the governor, Laurent Nicimbeshe, issued a decree suspending the operations of the Adventist Church until the wrangling parties found a solution. He had met with them twice but failed to find consensus. The bone of contention was the appointment and deployment of Elie Manirambona on October 5, 2019, by the faction associated with Ndikubwayo. The church congregants rejected the new pastor stating that they did not recognize actions by Ndikubwayo, despite the fact that Ndikubwayo controlled church accounts and funds. Ndikubwayo did manage to get the Muramvya governor to suspend his decree. But that was not the end of the violence.

A Road to Nowhere

At the time of Ndikubwayo’s removal as president, the ECD wrote to freeze the union’s bank accounts. However, he was able to obtain a letter from the Interior Minister Barandagiye to unfreeze the accounts. Then he appointed new field presidents loyal to him, but the ECD countered by withdrawing their pastoral credentials.

On 15 April 2019, Barishinga lead a team to meet with the government ombudsman tasked with hearing complaints against the government. Barishinga complained that Interior Minister Barandagiye was seeking to impose a leader on the Adventist Church by failing to recognize Barishinga’s appointment. Then he met with journalists from local and international media, including the VOA and BBC. This action angered the government. It was assumed to be the implementation of Ganoune Diop’s plan to shame the government with the international community. The ombudsman asked them to meet for another hearing on April 18. The day before, on April 17, Interior Minister Barandagiye wrote to GC President Wilson stating that the insistence that Barishinga be the union president, was “a contradiction to the discussions we had with your delegation.”

Government Intervention

To mediate the situation, Minister Barandagiye invited both Barishinga and Ndikubwayo to a meeting at the Hotel Source du Nil in Bujumbura the following day, when the Barishinga team was scheduled to meet with the ombudsman. Instead of going to the Minister’s meeting, Barishinga chose to attend the meeting with the ombudsman. The ombudsman decided that he could not go ahead with the meeting when in fact Minister Barandagiye was trying to bring the two factions together. He directed them to attend the meeting with the Minister. Barishinga declined, giving the reason that he had not been cleared by the ECD to attend that meeting.

The meeting took place anyway, with Ndikubwayo in attendance. Minister Pascal Barandagiye explained that Diop had gone against what had been agreed upon, which was to remove both Barishinga and Ndikubwayo and install someone else. Ndikubwayo probably should have at least explained to the Minister that it was difficult, unless under exceptional circumstances, for the GC to overturn decisions of the ECD Committee. Minister Barandagiye then declared that Ndikubwayo would have to continue in the position now that the GC had reneged on the earlier agreement. As a lawyer, and formerly the Justice Minister, Barandagiye stated that the law had to be followed in the matter and that anyone disagreeing with him could go to court to challenge his decision. He called for the church to hold fresh elections (which was not actionable because the status of Burundi Union Mission did not allow that). Only a union conference that has a constituency can do that. Under Working Policy, any change in a union mission presidency would have to be made by the same the ECD Committee.

ECD and the Kenyan Crisis

About this time, the crisis in the Central Kenya Conference (CKC) was unfolding. Church members there who were unsatisfied with the church elections at the CKC, had created a new unsanctioned Nairobi Cosmopolitan Conference (NCC) to rival the CKC. The pro-Ndikubwayo group in Burundi quickly pointed to the crisis in Kenya stating that the ECD had failed to resolve a local matter and that the stand-off in Burundi was yet another illustration that the ECD was incapable of being a neutral arbiter.

Meanwhile, Ndikubwayo was operating the church like there was no issue at hand. He began making key personnel changes, removing field presidents, starting with Ntiguma. He also transferred pastors allied to Barishinga and installed new pastors in congregations he felt were against him.

To contain the worsening situation, in March 2019, the ECD Committee decided to revoke the credentials of key pastors who refused to recognize its decision to install Barishinga as BUM president.

Four pastors, Eric Steven Nsengiyumva, Benjamin Bidandaza, Nyandwi Elie, and Pascal Ntirandekura had their credentials revoked. According to the official communication, they had continued to resist church policy and the ECD’s orders to recognize Lamec Barishinga. They were removed by the BUM Executive Committee, a decision then ratified by the division. In April 2019, Ndikubwayo’s credentials were also revoked.

Prior to the credential removal, Nsengiyumva had been appointed by Ndikubwayo to take over from Ntiguma as president of the South-West Burundi Field in December 2018.74 (It was seen as Ndikubwayo getting back at Ntiguma over their longstanding rivalry.) Nsengiyumva is a third-generation Adventist, the grandson of Kaduha, the very first Burundian to be ordained a minister. Earlier in 2018, Nsengiyumva had distinguished himself while serving as the BUM Communication director and evangelism coordinator by conducting a very successful TMI (Total Member Involvement) Evangelistic campaign. By engaging all the Burundi members to bring friends to the campaign, some 44,000 new members were added to the church roles, swelling the union’s membership by an unprecedented 25%.

Another of the pastors, Benjamin Bidandaza, had served as the president of the East Burundi Field while Elie Nyandwi was the BUM departmental director for Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, Education, and Youth Ministries.75 Nyandwi was appointed president of the North West Burundi Field by Ndikubwayo. He also appointed Pascal Ntirandekura president of the North Burundi Field in what was clearly a reward for loyalty to him. Nyandwi and Bidandaza were doctoral students at the AUA. When their credentials were removed, their student scholarships were also terminated.


Notes & References:

65. From a letter dated January 3, 2019 written to Division President Dr. Blasius Ruguri by the Adventist Women and Men Organization of Burundi.

66. From Petition Sur La Destabilisation De L’eglise Adventiste Du Septieme Jour au Burundi. (Petition on The Destabilization of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Burundi) authored by the Adventist Women and Men Organization of Burundi, dated January 3, 2019. It was presented to government authorities as protest at the continued recognition of Ndikubwayo despite certain “regrettable actions” that befell his calling as a pastor.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Letter by Ndikubwayo dated January 4, 2019

70. Ibid.

71. From a letter dated January 15, 2019 by ECD Secretary Alain Coralie to the Executive Committee of the Burundi Union Mission. The letter, written in French, was translated through Google Translate.

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

73. Presidential Decree No. 100/167 of October 31, 2019 relating to the appointment of the Permanent Secretary of the Conseil National de Securité signed by President Pierre Nkurunziza and First Vice President Gaston Sindimwo. Col. Pierre Claver Nzisabira was appointed to replace him.

74. The West Burundi Field was split in 2014 to create the South-West Burundi Field and the North-West Burundi Field

75. Ibid.


Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Look for Part 6 on Friday, May 1, 2020.


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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