Who Killed Central Africa’s Most Notorious Spy?
Adolphe Nshimirimana made a lot of enemies
The assassins, dressed in camouflage and riding in a military vehicle, closed in on their target.
Lt. Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimana, Burundi’s top spy and one of the most feared men in Central and East Africa, knew he had a lot of enemies. On the day of his murder, Adolphe — as nearly everyone called him — traveled in an armored, black SUV.
He neared the central roundabout in Kamenge, a neighborhood in Burundi’s capital city of Bujumbura and his personal stronghold. The assassins overtook his SUV and began spraying it with AK-47 fire and rocket-propelled grenades. In the end, the armor gave way.
Photos from the morgue showed Adolphe’s body, covered in blood and with his brain oozing from his smashed-in head.
The Aug. 2 killing was a fitting end for a man who has spent much of his life intimidating, brutalizing and murdering others. A man who gave his best to bring the cliché of the brutal warlord to life.
His death is also deeply intertwined with Burundi’s current political crisis, a confrontation that is becoming more violent by the day. Whatever the consequences, it’s without a doubt that the RPG-wielding attackers took out one of the most influential and dangerous players in the region.
The question is, who killed him?
Adolphe gained prominence as one of the highest military commanders of the CNDD-FDD, a Hutu-dominated rebel group during Burundi’s civil war. When the war ended in 2005, Adolphe found himself in the role of political kingmaker.
He favored Pierre Nkurunziza — the CNDD-FDD’s leading civilian politician — over military leader Hussein Rajabu for the party’s presidential candidate, which effectively cleared the way for Nkurunziza to become the president of Burundi’s first post-war government.
Adolphe then had Rajabu arrested and imprisoned. Later, as the boss of the Burundian intelligence agency SNR — locally called “the documentation” — Adolphe emerged as the most powerful man in Burundi, arguably even more powerful than Nkurunziza himself.
Adolphe built his own power base, and deftly combined political populism with diverse economic ventures, both legal and illegal. Apart from profiting from the general corruption of Burundi’s government, he heavily invested in the region’s arms and drug trades.
He sold weapons and ammunition to Congolese rebel groups such as the FDLR. In turn, the rebels paid him with gold, extracted illegally — and in some cases with forced labor — from mines in eastern Congo and smuggled over the border to Burundi. In 2012, Burundi officially exported $105 million worth of gold, despite producing only a fraction of this value locally and having no official gold imports.
He controlled the flow of South American cocaine to markets in Asia, much of which passes through Burundi. Both the gold and the cocaine trade began to slip out of his grasp towards the end of 2014. Other big men in the region have since taken over these rackets, potentially preparing the ground for Adolphe’s ultimate demise.
Adolphe invested his ill-gotten profits into his private militia, the Imbonerakure. Officially the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure has its base in Kamenge and filled its ranks with unemployed youths and veterans of the civil war.
Nkurunziza, Burundi’s president, is now serving an unconstitutional third term as president. His re-election campaign sparked violent protests in the country, and the Imbonerakure frequently poses as an official police force, willing to intimidate or kill anyone who opposes him.
Reports indicate that the militia is acquiring weapons and conducting paramilitary training, likely at Adolphe’s behest.
But it was Adolph who was the main driver behind the Nkurunziza’s third term. Probably the strongest ideological hardliner in the government, the spy chief had the most to lose if there was a transition of power. Hated and feared by virtually everybody outside his own entourage, any new administration would have made it their first priority to eliminate him, no matter by what means.
Of course, like the bizarrely cliché villain that he was, Adolphe had a lair — a base of operations to match his mirrored sunglasses and gold chain with its dollar-sign pendant. He ran a bar in Kamenge called Iwabo wa Bantu, which translates to “Amidst the People.” Defended by presidential guard soldiers armed with RPGs, Adolphe used this spot to run his spy ring, organize his smuggling rackets and to get drunk.
A dedicated alcoholic, his favorite drinks were beer and whiskey.
When a tentative coup d’etat threatened to dislodge Nkurunziza in May, the loyalists met in Adolphe’s bar to organize a resistance group, which ultimately succeeded in keeping the president in power.
Adolph lost the job as the country’s top spy in late 2014 in a government reshuffle. Aiming to placate the political opposition and dissidents in his own party ranks, Nkurunziza placed Gen. Godefroid Nyombare as head of the SNR and gave Adolphe a post in the presidency.
But “Patron Adolphe” never lost control over Burundi’s massive spy apparatus. Running parallel chains of command, Adolphe continued to use the SNR to further his goals. Most importantly — his mission was to suppress any opposition to Nkurunziza’s candidacy.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly alleged the SNR is responsible for human rights abuses in Burundi. There are also rumors that the intelligence service runs torture chambers in a hotel attached to Adolphe’s bar in Kamenge.
The death of Burundi’s brutal godfather brings up many questions, but nobody has publicly claimed responsibility for his death and so far only speculation exists. Ironically, both his sworn enemies and his closest allies are among the chief suspects.
At the top of the list is Nkurunziza himself. Adolphe had put him in power, but he also had Nkurunziza’s head in a vice. More powerful than the actual president, Adolphe did not accept any form of compromise with the opposition, putting himself in the crosshairs of everyone opposing Nkurunziza’s third term.
Adolphe seemed ready to abandon Nkurunziza if he had to retain power. A few days before the attack on Adolphe, Whatsapp messages began to circulate in Bujumbura, claiming Nkurunziza had been killed. The rumor turned out to be false, but its source could have been the SNR … and thus Adolphe.
If true, this could have been a trial balloon — a war game that gave Adolphe an idea about what to expect should he have to kill or depose Nkurunziza.
Then there are the opponents of the current regime. A nascent rebel movement formed to challenge Nkurunziza by military means. Because these rebels have so far not attracted the support from neighboring states they might have hoped for, especially Rwanda, decapitating the regime could be a viable alternative to waging a protracted insurgency.
But Adolphe had no shortage of long-term enemies. His erstwhile ally Hussein Rajabu — whom Adolph later had arrested — is now in exile in Uganda. And then there is Agathon Rwasa, Nkurunziza’s main political challenger.
Rwasa lost the presidential election to Nkurunziza, not surprising given the current circumstances. But instead of aligning with the rebels, Rwasa seems to be set on extending his power in a government of national unity under the leadership of Nkurunziza. Adolphe could have been opposed to such a deal, as he was not on friendly terms with Rwasa.
The ultimate consequences of Adolphe’s death are equally unclear. It certainly gives Nkurunziza more room to maneuver and make concessions to the opposition, perhaps reducing the likelihood of an open civil war.
The assassination has led to a slew of revenge killings. Human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was seriously wounded in an attempted killing attributed to the Imbonerakure. And Col. Jean Bikomagu, a former chief of staff and one of Adolphe’s political opponents, was killed on his way home from church on Aug. 15.
Whatever the ultimate result, Adolphe’s death has accelerated Burundi’s spiral of violence.