Cameroon: Zogo Murder Inquiry Turns Into Political Drama

The inquest into the murder of Cameroonian journalist Martinez Zogo is stalled one year after his body was found. For many, there are mounting questions in a case that implicates the country’s most powerful individuals.

The naked and lifeless body of radio journalist Martinez Zogo was discovered a year ago on the outskirts of Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. The exact date of the discovery of his body was January 22, 2023.

A group hooded men abducted the well-known media personality five days earlier after leaving the privately-owned radio station Amplitude FM, which he headed. The 50-year-old journalist was known throughout the country for his vocal criticism of Cameroon’s powerful elites.

Zogo’s body showed signs of torture, including severed fingers and a twisted tongue. He had apparently been sodomized with a stick and had been subjected toelectric shocks, according to reports by press freedom organizations, including Reporters without Borders (RSF).

The investigation into the violent death, however, has been anything but straight-forward, with those charged with various levels of complicity in the murder being the same powers which Zogo tried tirelessly to bring down.

Cameroonian justice: torture without murder

According to the AFP news agency, there are sixteen suspects in custody in connection with the events. However, they have only been charged with “complicity in torture” to date.

“Here are the sticking points: we don’t know if Martinez was murdered. We know he was tortured, but we don’t know by whom,” says Calvin Job, the lawyer representing Zogo’s family.

“We don’t know what’s going on in the investigation,” he told DW, despite the fact that “(i)t’s been a year,” since the gruesome discovery of his disfigured body.

Among those in custody under torture charges are several commando members from Cameroon’s intelligence services — the General Directorate for External Investigations, or DGRE. One detained suspect, DGRE special operations director Justin Danwe, has reportedly confessed to leading a commando team tasked with kidnapping and torturing the journalist.

RSF conducts own inquiry into murder

Danwe and other commando members have denied, however, that the unit played an active part in killing Zogo; other DGRE officials implicated include the director general of the organization, Leopold Maxime Eko Eko, who is also in pre-trial detention.

Local media tycoon Jean-Pierre Amougou Belinga has also been linked to the events; Danwe accuses the powerful player of being the mastermind behind the abduction.

However, both deny their involvement according to a report published by RSF on the one-year anniversary of Zogo’s killing.

RSF says that in compiling its investigation, it has had access to some of the interrogation statements from the past year.

An explosive dossier

For years, Zogo was the star host of the daily radio show Embouteillage, which translates as “gridlock” in English. He had repeatedly used the program as a platform to vociferously accuse Belinga of wide-scale embezzlement of public funds.

Zogo went as far as claiming that he had compiled a dossier showing payments from government coffers straight into to Belinga’s pockets.

The implications for Belinga and his media empire could be of gargantuan proportions, according to those who say they have had access to the dossier: The dossier is reported to include printouts of government bank transactions, bank slips and tables of government payments to Belinga’s companies — to the tune of $79 million (€72 million) over a span of ten years.

To make matters worse for Belinga, Zogo is believed to have circulated the document among numerous government departments as well as to other journalists during the month before his death. He even publicized its explosive nature on his radio show:

“Are you going to let state coffers be robbed … by bandits?” Zogo asked listeners on his program on the day of his abduction.

“No, my brothers, wake up, the situation is critical,” he concluded in his last broadcast — not realizing just how critical the situation was about to become for him.

Proxy wars against journalism

The magnitude of Zogo’s killing is nothing short of a political drama of the highest degree, say some of those who have been following the case closely. Rather than an issue of free speech, the murder is likely rather related to political dynasties in the making, says Aristide Mono, a Cameroonian political analyst who worked closely with Zogo.

“We’re convinced that Martinez Zogo was liquidated as part of these clashes between the different clans positioning themselves to assume [Cameroonian President] Paul Biya’s legacy,” he told DW.

“We’re talking about proxy wars. These are not choirboys.”

The narrative of Zogo’s killing has meanwhile given rise to a series of theories and conspiracy narratives, which may highlight just how little stability Cameroonians see in their political future — especially amid declining press freedom: Some people now say they believe that the murder served as a way to effectively sideline Belinga, who up until then was regarded to be top among those jostling to succeed ageing President Biya.

The autocrat, who has ruled the central African nation with an iron fist for 41 years, turns 91 next month — without any clear succession. But with Belinga potentially facing prison time, the question of who Biya’s successor might now be even more chimerical.

Contradictions impeding progress

Meanwhile, the head of RSF’s Investigations Desk, Arnaud Froger, says that one of the reasons why such narratives are spreading like wildfire is the fact that the charges of torture against Belinga and members of DGRE are filled with “contradictions.”

Froger highlights inconsistencies “between members of the commando trying to limit their responsibility to [being responsible for] the beating of the journalist, other statements affirming that there was a desire to kill the journalist, and the autopsy reports establishing that Martinez Zogo could not have escaped alive from the abuse inflicted on him.”

Froger told DW that there remain a “lot of unanswered questions,” which include failure to formally identify the scene of the crime, negligence in pinning down the roles of those presumably involved, and — especially — the inadequate analysis of phone data.

“For now, there is very little in the way of telephone evidence, which is a basic requirement in criminal matters to know who was in contact with whom, and who was where,” Froger highlighted.

However, he also praised the initial inquiry for the “colossal amount” of work it had to do during the first year of the case.

Rumors hanging over investigation

In December, Cameroon appointed a new investigating judge to head the military court overseeing the case — the third such appointment in ten months since Zogo’s killing.

His predecessor had reportedly ordered Belinga and Eko Eko’s release from detention, which Froger referred to as an “extraordinary development” highlighted “the enormous pressure being exerted on this case, and the obstacles preventing this journalist’s murder from being solved.”

Meanwhile, the Cameroonian public continues to follow the case like a political whodunit mired in rumors and scandal. One particular claim that appears to have grabbed the public’s attention more recently, according to RSF, is the idea that a second team took over after the first commando unit had finished torturing Zogo, and that it was this this team that killed the journalist.

Froger says that the facts to support this line of inquiry were “pretty weak at the moment” but stressed that “there are still a lot of shadows” hanging over the investigation, as unanswered questions appear to bog down both fact and fiction.

Hope — despite everything

With so many aspects of the case still in need of clarification and further investigation, Zogo’s family is yet to being to find a semblance of closure.

His remains are yet to be returned to them — a whole year later; the fate of his body, much like the case itself, is still in limbo, as authorities have decided to keep it in a morgue — in the event of a new autopsy needing to be ordered.

Zogo’s wife Diane is hopeful that “with all the people who mobilized after [his] death … justice will be done,” adding however that as long as the investigation is pending, “we can’t even talk about having a funeral.”

“So I trust that the government and the military tribunal will find my husband’s killers,” she told DW.

Paul Chouta and Sandrine Blanchard contributed to this article.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson

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