How A Banana Joke Became A 20-Year Prison Sentence For General Frank Rusagara

By Dr David Himbara

A joke — defined as “a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline” — can turn into a deadly sin in Rwanda. This is especially so when the subject of the joke is the Rwandan ruler, President Paul Kagame.

The reason for this is simple.

Kagame believes he has become God of Rwanda. In Rwanda, Kagame is constantly praised, variously described as “Great”, “Beloved”, “Bold”, “Wise”, “Inspirer”, “Genius”, and Visionary. He is said to be a caring yet strong father figure. The Rwandan masses are his “children” — as he is the only human being that can lead Rwandans to to their promised land. The amended constitution gives him up to 2034 to transform Rwanda into a “great nation.”

Interactions between Kagame “his people” has become a key element of the personality cult. Kagame often engages the population in publicized “problem-solving” sessions in different parts of Rwanda where he shames his ministers and mayors for having failed to build roads, bring education, health, and energy. And then he humiliates his officials into solving whatever the shortcoming faced by a community — at once — to a great applause from what appears to be an adoring crowd.

Recently while in the United States, Kagame begged Americans to help him to convince Rwandans to free him (Kagame) from leading Rwanda — it is the Rwandans worshipping him, and not him wanting to rule, according to the Rwandan ruler. Kagame’s personality cult has consumed him.

That is the background for understanding what just happened to General Frank Rusagara and Colonel Tom Byabagamba.

A court in Rwanda just sentenced General Frank Rusagara and Tom Byabagamba 20 and 21 years respectively. The so-called case is mostly based on rumours about what Rusagara and Byabagamba are alleged to have said to their colleagues in restaurants or emails. Rusagara was quoted to have joked that “Rwanda is a banana republic” and “our guy is finished” meaning President Kagame. Other “crimes” these two men are accused of is “illegal” possessions of arms, and disrespecting the Rwandan flag.

In most parts of the world, what Frank Rusagara is alleged to have said of Paul Kagame would amount to political satire. A combination of humour and political analysis, political satire aims at causing laughter. But in Kagame’s dictatorship, satire is tantamount to unpatriotic or even rebellious behaviour.

The message from Rwanda is this — don’t see anything; don’t hear anything, don’t smell anything. Above all, do not joke — only Kagame can safely joke in Rwanda. See what calling Rwanda a banana republic has done to my brother Rusagara. A 20-year sentence.

Is this for real? Is this a crime that calls for 20 years? Here are crimes that call for more than 20 years in normal societies — for example in the United States:

  • Sale of a child by a parent or legal guardian for the purpose of sexual exploitation — 30 years of minimum prison sentence;
  • Murder — 25 years of minimum prison sentence;
  • Causing death or serious bodily injury results — 20 years of minimum of prison sentence;
  • Intentionally killing an individual or law enforcement officer — 20 years of minimum prison sentence;
  • Unlawful importation or exportation of drugs — 20 years of minimum prison sentence;
  • Kidnapping of a minor (under the age of eighteen) — 20 years of minimum prison sentence;
  • Committing or attempting or conspiring to commit aircraft piracy where there is no death of another individual — 20 years of minimum prison sentence.

By calling Rwanda a banana republic or by saying that “our guy is finished” as alleged , Rusagara gets 20 years — same years as someone who murdered a person. That is insanity.

rusaFor those who do not know Frank Rusagara, his other name is Mr good sense of humour. He is quick on his feet and original. Our guy Rusagara is truly funny, and has a vast knowledge of facts and an arsenal of voices to deliver them in. Most importantly, he never fails to bring a smile to your face. Frank knows exactly how to make you laugh through tears until you drop flat out on the floor. I believe this culture runs through most of the Kanyambos. Laugh rather than cry. Debate rather than despair. Solve problems rather than hide your head in the sand. Discuss intellectually rather than shout — that is Frank for you.

Dear Frank and Tom, hang tough as you await your appeal and beyond. In fact your countrymen and women in Rwanda are much worse off than you. They are in an open air prison where they do not know what will happen to them tomorrow.

rusagara byabagamba
Frank and Tom reflecting on their situation

God bless you brave soldiers!