Last week, on May 23, Callixte Nsabimana aka Major Sankara was produced before court to answer 16 criminal charges against him─including terrorism, forming an armed group, conspiracy and denying genocide.
Sankara is the spokesperson for the ‘National Liberation Front (FNL)’; a rebel outfit that is fighting to overthrow the government of Rwanda and an armed wing of Paul Rusesabagina’s Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change.
In circumstances not yet explained, Sankara was arrested in April in the Comoros and extradited to have his day in court.
Before his arrest, Sankara had taken responsibility on behalf of his organization for attacks inside Rwanda late last year that left a couple of people killed and vehicles burnt in the western and northern parts of the country.
Captivatingly, when his time came to speak and defend himself in court, he, forthrightly pleaded guilty to all the 16 charges and apologized for his criminal acts!
He told court: “I apologise to the victims’ families, all Rwandans and the President of the Republic”.
And then added: “What I can add is that as a person who studied law, I know the consequences of a long legal process. I can confirm that am not ready to continue fighting the charges against me because whatever I did was in the open, in fact even birds in the sky can be witnesses”!
And that wasn’t all!
After this stunning self-incrimination, the man who used to talk tough on foreign radios and boasting about his rebels’ determination to defeat the national army, also named their accomplices and supporters.
In particular, Sankara named Uganda and individual Burundian officials as offering varied support.
On Uganda he said: “We asked them for military and diplomatic support against Rwanda, and they were willing to help us” while on Burundi, he said they are facilitated by Burundian intelligence officials.
Interestingly, while Sankara incriminated Ugandan institutions like the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), in Burundi, he only named individuals as, seemingly, lone facilitators.
In the larger scheme of things, this confession solidifies Rwanda’s publicly stated accusations against Uganda; which is that it aids and facilitates the country’s dissidents and armed groups bent on destabilizing it.
Remember, this testimony adds to a body of evidence and incidents that point not only to the probable hand of Uganda and Burundi in rebel activities against Rwanda but escalation of the conflict that has already affected peace and free movement within the EAC.
The first evidence is discernable from a December 31, 2018 UN Group of Expert report that pointed to the formation of new rebel groups based in the DRC like “P5” headed by Kayumba Nyamwasa and rejuvenating old ones like FDLR but also of the existence of a network of recruitment of fighters stretching from S. Africa to Uganda to Burundi, Tanzania and beyond.
The second evidence was the arrest of the FDLR spokesman LaForge Fils Bazeye together with his organisation’s intelligence chief Lt. Col Jean Pierre Nsekanabo last year reportedly on their way from meeting Ugandan officials and Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC representatives.
The two rebel chiefs were extradited by DR Congo and are now before courts of law in Rwanda.
The third evidence was a couple of armed attacks inside Rwanda last year in the north and west of the country that left scores dead and assailants escaping to Burundi through Nyungwe forest.
The fourth piece of circumstantial evidence is President Museveni’s letter to Kagame of March 10, 2019 that, while denying supporting his neighbours dissidents, claimed to have met Kayumba Nyamwasa’s RNC officials “by accident”.
The sixth piece of evidence are the increasing border-area security incidents that are claiming lives; plus accusations and counter-accusations that this or that country is to blame.
Even yesterday, the Rwanda National Police tweeted that: “Today, at 12:30pm…Uganda’s Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) abducted two Rwandan Nationals, Samvura Pierre, 47, and Habiyaremye Eric, 25”
Two days earlier, on May 24, the Ugandan police claimed in a statement that Rwandan soldiers had crossed the border and shot two people dead; one a Rwandan and the other a Ugandan.
Later, Uganda’s foreign ministry stated in a statement: “The government of Uganda protests in the strongest terms the violation of its territorial integrity by Rwandan soldiers and the criminal, brutal and violent act… against unarmed civilians,”
Rwanda responded by saying that the “incident took place in Tabagwe Cell, Tabagwe Sector, Nyagatare District [in the] Republic of Rwanda”; adding that: “The Ministry would like to inform that on the above named dates, Rwandan security forces intercepted a suspected smuggler on a motorcycle who had just crossed the border from Uganda at night through an ungazetted border point”.
In March 2019, the two countries also engaged in accusations and counter-accusations over the cause of death of a Rwandan lady at Cyanika border post.
And Uganda’s minister of Justice who is also the chairperson of the Global Pan-African Movement used the celebration to mark 56 years of liberation to attack Rwanda as “backward”
In a statement hailing the achievements of the Pan-African movement in the continent’s liberation, he said of Rwanda: “We condemn the irresolvable close of borders by Rwanda to her neighbors and also anywhere in Africa where this backwardness move takes place”
Rwanda, of course says it hasn’t closed any border but only advised its citizens not to go to Uganda since it can’t guarantee their security.
These security incidents and war of words point to an escalation and the uncertainty over where all this will end.
That said however, listening and reading Sankara’s confession, it’s plausible to conclude that this trial isn’t really only about Sankara but also a litigation of East Africa’s biggest problem and, if history services us well, the Community’s original sin.
That problem is the place of armed rebellion in dealing with political questions or disagreement and the role of neighbors in these rebellions.
For example, while a lot of ink has been used to explain the role of ideological differences between Tanzania and Kenya in the breakup of the first EAC in 1977, the real killer was the military overthrow of Milton Obote in Uganda in 1973 by Gen Amin Dada and Tanzania’s response to it.
At the time, the challenge was what to do with Amin. Tanzania decided to throw its weight behind Ugandan dissidents and, later, directly got involved in the armed overthrow of Amin in 1979.
While many perceive this Tanzanian intervention as legitimate on account of Amin’s brutal rule, the point is, this intervention gave us the first armed rebellion supported by a neighbor against a neighbor in the region and since then, the region has never been free from the danger of this or that rebel group supported by this or that neighbour.
That tells us that, for the region to sustainably thrive, what’s critical is to break this cycle of armed rebellion supported by neighbours.
If that can be achieved, even if leaders don’t give us a political federation or common currency, the private sector oiled by people-to-people relations can drive us to economic prosperity we desire.
Seminally then, what that also reminds us is that the critical problem to EAC and indeed Africa’s economic and political integration are its leaders and their penchant for fueling political and armed violence.