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From grace to prison: The story of family that once ruled Rwanda

There was a time in Rwanda when three members of same family controlled three of the most powerful institutions in the governance of the country.

There was a time in Rwanda when three members of same family controlled three of the most powerful institutions in the governance of the country.

Rosemary Musemimali, was minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation. Her sister, Mary Baine, was Commissioner General of the Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA). At the same time, Baine’s husband Col Tom Byabagamba, was commander of the Presidential Guard.

At dinner tables, a single family knew how much was in the country’s coffers, who were Rwanda’s foreign friends and foes, and every single detail about the country’s most powerful citizen; THE PRESIDENT.

However, in a spate of two years between November 2009 and July 2011, one by one, this family’s power and influence over Rwanda, collapsed. They were no longer THE family envied so passionately, and detested in equal measure.

Fast forward, it is April 2020 and the same family is going to converge, this time not to celebrate their successes, but to watch as another of their own battles serious charges.

Last week, rumors were circulating that a one John Museminali had been arrested in connection with attempted escape of Col Tom Byabagamba from jail. Early this Thursday April 23, the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB) confirmed the arrest, but also of two other people Mugisha Jimmy and Mukimbili Emmanuel. Thes two were arrested on April 15, and April 17 respectively.

The person of interest here is John Museminali. He is the husband of Rosemary Museminali. Until today, his name has never been in the public domain. It is said he has been a businessman in Kigali.

“Insulting” President Paul Kagame

John Museminali’s troubles were first hinted on in a statement issued by the Ministry of Defense on April 9.

The statement said: “The Rwanda Defence Force will arraign Colonel Tom BYABAGAMBA before military courts for additional charges committed while in detention. Col Byabagamba is suspected of criminal activities related to attempt to commit corruption and attempt to escape from a prison.”

It added: “Suspected criminal activities committed by Colonel Tom BYABAGAMBA and his inside and outside accomplices are being thoroughly investigated.”

Late last year, Col Byabagamba and his co-accused Brig Gen (Rtd) Frank Rusagara, also brother-in-law, lost their appeal against 20 year jail terms. The two were convicted of various charges including undermining state authority.

Last month March, they filed a case with the East African Court of Justice, which is supposed to be the highest legal platform. They want an opinion on their case, which will unlikely ever be implemented in Rwanda. Col Byabagamba also wants his ranks restored. The case is yet to come to court for actual hearing.

The new charges against Col Byabagamba, who was in President Paul Kagame’s protection detail throughout his military career, mean the drama which marked his previous court appearances will be out there for the media to report.

Col Tom BYABAGAMBA was arrested on August 24, 2014. Two years later on March 31, 2016, the Military High Court of Kanombe sentenced Colonel Byabagamba and retired Brigadier General Frank Rusagara to 21 and 20 years in prison respectively, including for inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government’s image.

The prosecution had accused them of criticizing the government, alleging state involvement in assassinations of opponents, and complaining about foreign and economic policy. In the charge sheet, the two are said to have been going around telling whoever bothered to listen; “Our man is finished”, demeaningly referring to President Kagame.

Their appeal was dismissed in December last year by the Court of Appeal, a civilian jurisdiction.

Throughout much of the case against Col Byabagamba, his wife Baine sat in court passively. They usually had brief encounters outside court, hugged, before the husband boarded waiting tinted military van to be taken back to high security military jail.

Currently, Rosemary Museminali is the UNAIDS Director for External Donor Relations, a job she obviously got with secondment from Government of Rwanda. With her husband now in custody, it remains to be seem if she will stay in her job in Geneva; she is very likely already in Kigali.

When John Museminali appears in court, time that is yet to be scheduled, of course Col Byabagamba will not be in the same room, despite case being related. But they will both be in the dock in spirit. Their family members Mary Baine, Rosemary Museminali and Brig Gen (Rtd) Rusagara, will also be in that court room.

The day John Museminali appears in court, and day he will be convicted, will leave only the women outside jail, from the once powerful family.

Before 2008, then Foreign Affairs Minister Rosemary Museminali worked from a building directly adjacent to that of the Rwanda Revenue Authority, which her sister Mary Baine headed. Unconfirmed trails of information report that the two sometimes looked at each other through windows on either building. The rosy Kigali rumour-mill says they would say; “Igihugu kiri muri pose (pause)” – The country is having a break.

Rosemary Museminali lost her Foreign Affiars Ministry docket in a November 2009 cabinet reshuffle to a little-known Louise Mushikiwabo.

Rwanda National Congress is BORN

In February 2011, Mary Baine was replaced at RRA. But she was immediately moved to the Foreign Ministry, as Permanent Secretary. This happened, as her powerful husband still called the shots and influence over all the country’s affairs.

Then in July 2011, more than five months later, President Paul Kagame made changes in the military hierarchy. The biggest surprise was that of Col Tom Byabagamba. He was moved back to RDF Headquarters as head of a new counterterrorism taskforce.

For a man who had wielded enormous power over everyone else, except his boss President Kagame, it was clear demotion. He had been eliminated from the country’s ruling power structure.

Col Byabagamba’s favour with his longtime boss had began waning a few months earlier. In January 2010, Dr David Himbara, who had been a key aide to President Kagame abruptly left Rwanda and exiled himself to South Africa. Himbara is Col Byabagamba’s elder brother.

As illustration of Dr Himbara’s power in Rwanda before exile, he was one of the brains behind establishment of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), which nows stands as driving engine of Rwanda’s development path. Apart from security agencies, RDB is one of a few government agencies that answer directly to the President.

Then on December 12, 2010, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC) was founded by former powerful allies of President Kagame. Dr Himbara was one of the five founders. From then on, Rwanda’s politics changed forever.

It is alleged that President Kagame couldn’t understand how his blue-eyed boy Col Byabagamba could have let his brother betray the President. Though unknown, it is without a doubt that Col Byabagamba had been battling with his inner-self as to what do with his brother, if at all he didn’t know about his RNC plans.

Hundreds of people are serving jail sentences in military and civilian jails inside Rwanda over alleged links to RNC. The same outfit is the reason President Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni relationship fell apart since late 2017. Rwanda and Uganda have been at near-war since February 2019.

UK parliamentarians intervene

The case against Col Byabagamba and Brig Gen (Rtd) Rusagara is is so sensitive that even intervention by UK parliamentarians pleading for their mercy, instead attracted angry dismissal from President Kagame. In November last year, six UK lawmakers wrote open letter addressed to Kagame calling the sentences against the two officers as “disproportionate”.

The UK is Rwanda’s second biggest bilateral donor after the U.S., which perhaps explains the decision by the parliamentarians to write their letter about Rwandan affairs. The UK has given Rwanda more than £1 billion in aid for past two decades.

Two days later, President Kagame told a press conference; “They [MPs] are complicating the cases”.

Sounding clearly un-amused, Kagame said that not only did he not receive the letter, but that he also doesn’t understand how UK parliamentarians can interfere in an internal matter or ask him to do things they [western powers] normally “accuse us of doing”.

Earlier in separate interview hours earlier, Kagame had also stated: “By the way, I never received any letter” and “…it was wrongly addressed…Why would they ask me? …They find it easy to write to the president” but not to the Attorney General or their fellow MPs here because, he added, these MPs [from the UK] have no regard for the country’s institutions.”

“If people had concern about justice, don’t you think they should have started with their own system? Are you aware of the case that has been going on [in the UK] for over 10 years about genocidaires? If they are concerned about justice they should be giving justice to Rwandans first…these perpetrators live freely in their country,” said Kagame, adding that the UK was actually “protecting them”.

Kagame said the MPs were acting out of their usual superiority complex they have for many of Africa’s leaders and their countries.

The genocide fugitives Kagame is referring to include five men whose case has dragged on without ever coming to court. UK government figures show that over $7m (Rwf 6.2billion) of taxpayers’ money has been spent so far by prosecutors yet the case hasn’t materialised.

“They don’t know how they are complicating things. I wish I could advise them how what they are doing actually complicates the case of those people they seem to be advocating for,” said Kagame.

Despite being a sister to Mary Baine whose husband Col Byabagamba is in big trouble, Rosemary Museminali may have all along been able to put on a brave face of being safe. Now, her husband’s case entangles the two sisters together.

It is unthinkable how Rosemary Museminali is going to maintain and effectively manage her job at UNAIDS, while her husband languishes in jail. Up until the day John Museminali appears in court for first appearance, it is going to be a time for deep soul searching for the family that once ruled Rwanda.

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