When you mention name “Sankara” in any African country, it has become synonymous with revolution, modesty and doing good. But for Rwandans, in and outside the country, the same name has gained additional tags; loud, domineering, manipulative and a blamer. Welcome to the world of Nsabimana Callixte.
The genocide survivor has filed appeal against a 20year-jail term for various serious charges including genocide denial, and first hearing comes up this Monday January 17, 2022. The Chronicles sat with him for more than four hours to try to connect the dots about a man who is many different things to different audiences. He accused Rwandan media of “spreading lies” about him, maintains he is the victim. The journey from Rwanda to Tanzania, Madagascar to South Africa, and then back northwards ending up in the Indian ocean Islands of Comoros where he was captured. And by the way, there is just one thing that makes him emotional; a fiancé he desperately wants to speak to. For the first time, we reveal when exactly he was arrested.
We arrived for the interview around 11am. “Sankara” was in the gym. We waited for about 40minutes. Finally, the slim hairy figure steps into a room where we sit with just him. First, we want to know his birth names and all the others he gained. He tells us Nsabimana Callixte, born March 10, 1982 in the current Rwabicuma sector, Nyanza district, southern Rwanda. As for the other names, he goes into a lengthy monologue.
“It has become apparent to me that Rwandan media has the agenda to demonise me, deliberately distort my history. I’m glad you have come. I’m also writing a memoir. When Rwandan media is reporting about me, they say ‘Nsabimana Callixte wiyise Sankara’ (Nsabimana Callixte who baptized himself Sankara), as if I don’t merit having a nickname. As if I’m that terrible Satan. How come they don’t use same wording with singers Knowless or King James, or other people? The name Sankara was given to me in South Africa after I had joined the struggle. My [Rwanda National Congress] comrades saw a Thomas Sankara in me.”
“When we formed a rebel force, I also deservedly gained names Major Sankara Callixte. But Rwandan media mockingly reports about them saying ‘He should have given himself General’. They want to portray me as a no-body. I wish they knew what I had accomplished before I ended up here (prison).”
Nsabimana has memorized quotes of Thomas Sankara, the Burkina Faso revolutionary icon. Nsabimana has read books about Sankara that, he outlines them with so much ease. He even tells us Thomas Sankara’s diet. Nsabimana narrates he loved Sankara so much he visited a retired Malagasy General Danielson Ralijoana, who trained Thomas Sankara at the renowned Madagascar Antsirabe Military Academy in early 1970s.
“FLN rebel force gave me ‘Titre revolutionaire’ (revolutionary title) of Major Sankara Callixte, which was bestowed upon me since I was Spokesman, but I would have had to work for it going forward.”
“Before that ceremony, my superiors asked if I knew how to use a gun. I do, a skill we learnt from Ingando which we underwent before going to university,” he said. “Actually, I didn’t want that Rank, because I was a founding member in the movement. My status put me at same level as overall commander General Wilson Irategeka. Yet being at rank of Major meant that I was working under Commanders such as General Moran and others. They were giving me orders.”
Speaking for 30minutes or so about Thomas Sankara and his other names, had we not shifted the discussion, Nsabimana would have spoken about those subjects the entire interview.
Nsabimana attended Kamatongo primary school in the birth village beginning 1990. “I was always among the first four positions in class,” he said. By the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Nsabimana was sixth in family of eight; four boy and four girls. It is only he and fourth-born sister that survived. “The impact the Genocide left on my sister is unimaginable. My mother hid me in a home of an Aunt who was married in a Hutu family. The Inkotanyi saved us, a story I will tell in my Memoir,” he said.
The youngster moved into Ruhuha orphanage in Huye district which was owned by an Aunt and he was forced to restarted school in P3. He didn’t want school due to trauma. The orphanage was closed in 1996. He moved to Kigali to live with a cousin brother Rangira Adrian, continuing primary school. Rangira was a lawmaker in the post-genocide parliament. He also appeared in local media denouncing Nsabimana following the FLN rebel attacks in 2018.
“I saw all those interviews Rangira gave. But he is the person who gave me hope. He raised me. He gave me everything. I will forever respect him for that, and won’t respond in any way to whatever he said. I owe him that gratitude,” said Nsabimana.
Expelled from secondary school and university
From primary, he got admission at Groupe Scolaire Shyogwe, currently one of the top schools in Rwanda. But due to the rebel insurgency of the Bacengezi, a genocidal force which operated in northwestern and central regions, Nsabimana relocated to Groupe Scolaire de Butare (Huye) for S3. He stayed in same school for S4. Then he was involved in another fracas at that school which led to his expulsion.
“This is another subject that Rwandan media has spread so much lies,” claims Nsabimana. It has been widely reported that he was a trouble-causer who beat up a teacher. Nsabimana tell us that he was a quiet student because of the genocide trauma.
He narrated what happened. “The school was located in a very cold forested area, yet I was allergic to cold weather. There is this Congolese mathematics teacher who always called students that were poor in Maths as ‘Déchet’ (gabbage). Can you imagine a teacher calling his students as such! One day, he came to class, as usual tormenting us. He specifically singled me out. He shouted at me to remove my sweater and scurf yet I was recovering from malaria. But before I could do anything, he grabbed me by the neck. He was violently pushing me around. I also grabbed his shirt by the neck. It all happened so fast, and was in self-defense. He went straight to school director Kayumba Emmanuel reporting that I had beaten him. The teacher demanded I be expelled and the school did, immediately. These days in Rwanda, because of strict rules, teachers have very little power over students. But back then, a teacher was like a god. They could cane students. If a teacher didn’t want you, the school couldn’t keep you.”
Back home, Nsabimana admits he had disappointed the guardian Rangira, who moved him to St Aloys Rwamagana secondary school located in Rwamagana district. Here, Nsabimana says he emerged the best student at the school for the 2003 S6 national exams. He moved to the University of Rwanda, Huye Campus, attending the mandatory first year of English language. He was admitted to Faculty of Law.
It all went on uneventful until Third Year, when, he says was encouraged by other students to campaign to be law faculty representative to the college of students which elects the student guild president. He succeeded. The guild team (AGEUNR) took office for 2008. But as their tenure was ending, Nsabimana says the guild president Gasasira Geoffrey began lobbying that they change rules so that the guild team stays in office without term limits.
“There were so many financial benefits which student leaders enjoyed. Actually, had I been as selfish as those pushing to change rules, I would have left the university with a car. There was so much money to enjoy. However, as a law student, I couldn’t accept the changes. So, I became a target,” said Nsabimana.
“I was accused of fomenting Anglophone-francophone divisions. These were very serious allegations. The university administration got involved. To avert what could have followed, I reported myself to the Office of Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga asking for an independent investigation to clear my name. The final report exonerated me of all allegations,” said Nsabimana.
Amid the various happenings at the time, the University expelled Nsabimana. The expulsion letter read in part that Nsabimana had led a “consistent effort to make the University ungovernable.” He was writing his dissertation and was left with two months to complete his law degree.
“I wanted to be shot so I could die. My life had been destroyed. Imagine spending fives years, with just days left, and the university ends all that with a stroke of a pen. I was devasted,” he tells us.
Nsabimana petitioned the Ombudsman, who directed various other bodies including the University Senate, to review the student’s case. Different other things happened. A final decision was adopted involving the Ombudsman, University Senate and Faculty of Law that Nsabimana is allowed to complete his degree, but with a caveat; he was not allowed to set foot on the university campus. Nsabimana was in the graduation of March 2010.
Looking back, what do you make of that situation? We ask Nsabimana. He says it demonstrated to him that institutions such as the Office of Prosecutor General and Ombudsman protected him, and that whatever had happened to him was vendetta of individuals in the university.
Nsabimana says two months later, he decided to relocate to Kenya at the invitation of a friend who was from a wealthy Kenyan family. They had met at a university law students conference earlier in 2007, and became instant friends. “I never wanted to stay in Rwanda, because I felt the people after me would even kill me,” he claims.
Situation in Kenya wasn’t easy. He relocated to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after five months, to live with another friend. There, again, after about six months, life didn’t work out. Nsabimana moved to Madagascar. In early mid-2013, Nsabimana returned to Rwanda a defeated man.
“All the travelling I did was to look for greener pastures, but instead there was more hell. When you have not travelled, you are wrongly made to believe life is better elsewhere. It isn’t. For that reason, even after I leave prison, I will never ever step out of Rwanda. My life outside this country has been full of disappointments. It will never happen again,” he said.
Meeting Kayumba Nyamwasa for first time
While in Rwanda, Nsabimana was enticed to travel to South Africa by two friends he says were fellow genocide survivors. He boarded a bus for Dar es Salaam. From there, he moved to Malawi-Tanzania border. Before getting here, he abandoned his Rwandan passport, because, he says his friends told him it was easier to travel without any travel documents. For more than two months, he walked, slept in villages, boarded taxis – to finally reaching Johannesburg, SA.
“My friends in South Africa had told me the place is Eldorado. I had to move there, because my plan all along had been to upgrade my education,” he said. Nsabimana was at first hesitant to reveal names of those friends, but later inadvertently identifies one of them as Mike Rwalinda.
Immediately after arriving at the home of his two friends, they started introducing him to many Rwandans. They spoke about the Rwanda National Congress. They praised the dissident group’s leader General Kayumba Nyamwasa; how they were planning to remove government in Rwanda. They told him of how Nyamwasa was protected by the South African and Tanzanian government of President Jakaya Kikwete at the time, and that both governments supported their cause. The friends said if he agreed, he could even be introduced to the “General”. It turns out for Nsabimana that Mike Rwalinda, was a close aide to Nyamwasa, one of very few people who had direct phone contact with the General.
“Everything sounded like illusions,” said Nsabimana. “Their stories sounded too good to be true. But then, one of those two friends dropped plans of relocating to America where he and his American girlfriend had scheduled to get married. She had visited and everything was set. To me, that act of my friend leaving such an opportunity to move to America, convinced me that perhaps RNC plans were about to bear fruit.”
The D-Day came; Nsabimana was taken to a hotel where the three of them met with Nyamwasa. The four sat on same table. “ Nyamwasa was guarded like a head of state, with many heavily armed bodyguards,” said Nsabimana, pausing to laugh, before continuing; “General Kayumba is the most deceitful person I ever met in my life. The first impressions anyone who meets him gets is that he is such a humble person. He moved over to me, very excited, giving me a shoulder hug greeting like how young people greet each other. I was very happy a General like him treated me so humanely.”
Nyamwasa was taking Heineken beer. The meeting, which started around 10am, last about three hours. At this point of the interview, The Chronicles spends another at least more than 40 minutes as Nsabimana narrated how that meeting evolved.
Nsabimana narrated; “The other gesture he did which left a lasting mark on me was that he served my tea in the cup, put sugar and stirred it as I watched. I was in disbelief; me being served by a General – a former army chief of staff.…. He said he felt so bad as to how genocide survivors were being treated… He told me how the government of Rwanda hated genocide survivors…. He said everything the government said publicly about helping survivors was nonexistent…. He said President Kagame detests Tutsis……He said that within the top echelons of RPF, the agenda was not to stop the genocide…. He said the plane of President Habyarimana was shot by the RPF; that he was against the idea…. He said all top military officers and ministers were on his side, and that he spoke to them on a daily basis…. Everything he said was a complete opposite of what I had known about Rwanda….”
“My mood changed from shock and disbelief, to excitement as he told me that since I was a law graduate, a Tutsi and a genocide survivor, it would be befitting for me to take up the post of Prosecutor General or Minister of Justice once we liberated Rwanda in no more than six months. My blood was boiling at the prospect of me finally being someone.”
“But then, he asked me if I had anything to ask. I politely asked him why the senior military officers he said were with him had not also followed him to South Africa. Nyamwasa laughed at me, saying I was reasoning like a civilian….. He said; the officers remaining in Rwanda was part of the strategy so that I have people close to President Kagame, to sabotage government from within. Nyamwasa said that is how RPF destroyed Habyarimana because it had people close to him. He also said the other major reason was; where did I think he could keep hundreds of military officers in South Africa.”
Nsabimana went on; “ Nyamwasa said that if I agreed to join RNC, I would be linked to other key people like Col Patrick Karegeya, who was one of the main architects of the RPF struggle, and who was now doing same for RNC. Nyamwasa said Karegeya knew more details about how President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down…. This meeting turned me from an innocent genocide survivor from Nyanza (umucikacumu w’umunyenyaza), to a monster. I was ready to go the frontline that same day… It was too much for me to take in that I broke into uncontrollable tears until end of the meeting. Throughout the journey back home, I was crying, which went on for the next days.”
“Before we separated, Nyamwasa told me to go look for as many genocide survivors as possible to join the struggle. He said that among them, I had to identify some capable ones whom I would deploy to work as RNC cadres in key offices after taking over government in six months.”