Credit: Mwinda
Credit: Mwinda

After mysterious fire, online columnist dead in Congo

New York, February 6, 2009–An online columnist known for criticizing the government and alleging high-level corruption was buried in the Republic of Congo today following his death in a military hospital on Monday, according to local journalists. Bruno Ossébi, left, was badly burned in a late-night fire at his residence on January 21, although he was said to be recovering and his death was unexpected. Authorities have not provided any information on the cause and circumstances of the fire, which coincided with a similar fire at the French home of an exiled political dissident. 

Ossébi, who had dual Congolese and French citizenship, suffered second-degree burns in an unsolved fire that killed his girlfriend and her 8- and 10-year-old children, according to local reports. French Embassy press attaché Bertrand de Marignan told CPJ that Ossébi died a day before a scheduled medical evacuation to France.

In an interview with CPJ, national police spokesman Col. Jean Aive Alakoua said the circumstances and cause of the fire have not been established. “We don’t know at the moment whether the fire was criminal or accidental,” he said. There were indications the fire could have had an electrical origin, Alakoua said, but he would not elaborate. Speaking to CPJ today, Public Prosecutor Alphonse Dinard Mokondzi said the first eyewitness accounts reported a television exploding in Ossébi’s home.

The Congolese Observatory of Human Rights said it would conduct independent investigations into the fire and the cause of Ossébi’s death, Executive Director Roger Bouka told CPJ.

“We mourn the death of Bruno Ossébi and extend our condolences to his family and friends,” CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, Tom Rhodes, said. “We call on authorities to ensure a thorough and transparent investigation is conducted.”

In an interview with CPJ today, Communications Minister Alain Akouala, who visited Ossébi in the hospital, deplored Ossébi’s death and said an official investigation was under way. “It’s sad because it was someone who took part in his own way to the debate of ideas,” he said.

The January 21 fire at the Ossébi home coincided with a blaze at the house of exiled political dissident Benjamin Toungamani. The fires came three days after Mwinda published an exclusive interview with Toungamani in which he accused President Denis Sassou-Nguessou of corruption, according to CPJ research. Toungamani was not injured.

Both Ossébi and Toungamani were planning to become co-plaintiffs in an international legal complaint against Sassou-Nguesso and the presidents of neighboring Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, according to Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere, a lawyer with France-based transnational justice organization Sherpa. In December, Sherpa and anticorruption group Transparency International called for a probe into how the leaders of the three oil-rich African nations had amassed private assets in France.

At least two counter-complaints have been filed by the leaders. In addition, Gabonese authorities arrested a plaintiff in the case and two journalists in late December after suspending a newspaper months earlier for republishing French daily Le Monde‘s report on the Paris assets of Gabonese President Omar Bongo.

Ossébi had also alleged in a January column that the state-run national petroleum authority had requested US$100 billion in financing from a French bank due to government mismanagement of oil profits, according to CPJ research. There was no official reaction to those allegations, according to local journalists.