Lessons from Rwanda, twenty years on

By Tolu Ogunlesi 

Surviving life after a war often turns out to be as arduous as surviving the war itself. Like colonial rule, the psychological wounds of armed conflict outlast the economic ones. The declaration of surrender by Biafran rebel forces in 1970 may have ended a 30-month civil war that claimed in excess of one million lives, but it did not suddenly bequeath to Nigeria’s seventy million citizens a post-ethnic configuration.

And the perpetrators and victims of Rwanda’s genocide (in the 100 days between April 7, 1994 and July 16, 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were murdered) were often not unknown to one another.

The question of what needs to be done in the aftermath of violence is a difficult yet inescapable one. Handled ineffectually, it becomes a bomb that ticks with ominous obstinacy. As one Angolan human rights activist told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2012, ten years after the Civil War ended (after almost thirty years of on-and-off fighting): “Our political intolerance remains. We have not forgotten the hatred that is stored in our hearts. There was no process of peace-making and no planning for the transition.”

Ditto Cote d’Ivoire. In a July 2013 interview, researcher Nora Sturm spoke of the “deep distrust” and “feelings of resentment and alienation” lingering beyond the Civil War. And in There Was A Country, his memoir of the Nigerian Civil War (1967 – 1970), published in 2012, forty two years after the war ended, the late Nigerian novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe lamented:

“Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, over forty years after its end. Are we perpetually doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them?”

Retribution, Reconciliation and Religion

In Nigeria at first we turned to God. In his speech on January 15, 1970, Nigeria’s Head of State General Yakubu Gowon declared: “We must thank God for his mercies. We mourn the dead heroes. We thank God for sparing us to see his glorious dawn of national reconciliation. We have ordered that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday be national days of prayer. We must his guidance to do our duty to contribute our quota to the building of a great nation, founded on the concerted efforts of all its people and on justice and equality.”

In fairness to it the government went on to create a ‘National Youth Service Corps’ scheme to “promote national unity and integration.” The scheme made it mandatory for all Nigerian University graduates to spend 12 months on national assignment outside their “state of origin.” More than 30 years after the war ended my service took me hundreds of miles from home, to the Niger delta. It was my first time of living outside the southwest region where my ethnic roots lie. Thirty years before me my father had made a similar journey out of the South West; his took him much farther, to the northeastern town of Mubi, near the border with Cameroon.

But beyond the NYSC there was no real effort to face and deal with the feelings that had led to the war, and the devastation that ensued from it. This was a war that claimed an estimated one million lives, most of them ethnic Igbos from the South East, and in which the warring parties were both guilty of acts that probably should have been decisively brought to justice once the war ended.

This might explain why, more than forty years after the war, the wounds remain. It took the publication of There Was A Country, Achebe’s final book, a broadside against Nigeria and its mistreatment of the breakaway republic, Biafra, to reveal just how fresh the wounds were. The appearance of the book triggered bellicose debate amongst Nigerians on the Internet and in newspapers.

South Africa set up, in 1995, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (similar institutions existed in Chile and Argentina in the 1980s, to dig up the past and try to apportion blame and guilt). The country’s interim constitution, produced shortly after the first multiracial elections in 1994, had highlighted “a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not victimization.” The South Afrian example inspired other African countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, and even Nigeria (the final report from Nigeria’s Commission was never formally made public).

The biggest argument against Truth Commissions is that they are long on confessions and forgiveness but short on justice. “If truth has replaced justice in South Africa – has reconciliation then turned into an embrace of evil?” Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani, one of its loudest critics, famously asked.

It would seem that in dealing with the legacy of Africa’s many conflicts people would prefer mechanisms that focus less on amnesty than on retribution, like the Nuremberg Trials, the military tribunals set up by the victorious Allied powers (US, Britain, France and Soviet Union) to try Nazi war criminals after the Second World War ended. The Nuremberg consisted in all of twelve trials conducted between 1945 and 1949.

The first and best known one saw twenty-two of Nazi Germany’s most powerful officials facing an ‘International Military Tribunal’ (IMT) between November 1945 and August 1946. On October 1, 1946, judgement was delivered. 12 of the defendants were sentenced to death, 3 got life sentences, 4 got jail terms while 3 were acquitted. A number of adhoc postwar criminal tribunals have since followed in the steps of Nuremberg, and that approach was formalised into a permanent court, the International Criminal Court (ICC), in 2002.

The Rwandan Example

But such formal internationally-instituted trials can prove expensive and time-consuming, and limited in their capacity. In the face of nationalistic fervor, the ICC often faces acccusations that it is an imperialist tool that disporportionately targets Africans. When the court stepped in to try six alleged perpetrators of Kenya’s post-election violence, which killed more than a thousand people in 2007-8, Kenya’s parliament voted to withdraw from the Court. (Two of the accused had been elected President and Vice President of Kenya in the intervening time). The Kenyan government and the African Union raised questions regarding why only African leaders have ever been slated for trial by the Court. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda set up in November 1994 has, in the twenty years since it was established, completed only about 80 cases (most resulted in convictions, and there are a handful appeals pending). The court is expected to wind up at the end of 2014.

To widen the nets of justice, and relieve the pressure on the conventional courts system (plagued by a scarcity of judges – the genocide almost wiped out judiciary) Rwanda settled for a home-grown approach, the community-based pre-colonial system of arbitration known as ‘Gacaca’ (“grass” in Kinyarwanda). Gacaca was first tried in 2002, and then formalized by Parliament in 2006. The courts are usually open-air affairs presided over by judges chosen from among the people. The courts wound up in 2012, after trying 2 million people, convicting an estimated 65 percent of them. (Rwanda’s population is currently 12 million). Crimes are punished with jail terms and/or community service; Rwanda has abolished the death penalty, as it has all personal and official markers of ethnic identity.

Gacaca attracted lots of controversy, especially from the international community. Critics described it as prone to abuse (there are no defence lawyers, and no cross-examination; and trials are relatively speedy). But the country’s authorities consider it a success. At the official closing ceremony for the Gacaca courts in 2012, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said: “We had three choices: first was the more dangerous path of revenge, or secondly, grant general amnesty, both of which would have led to further anarchy and destruction. But we chose the third and more difficult course of dealing with the matter decisively and restoring the unity and integrity of the nation.”

Alongside Gacaca there are a number of practices (all based on existing local traditions) around which contemporary Rwandan society is constructed: Ubudehe (participatory governance and decision-making), Umuganda (community service), Umusanzu (communal philanthropy) and Imihigo (performance contracts at local government level). All blend longstanding traditional practices with modern forms of governance.

And, unlike in Nigeria, Rwanda has incorporated the tragedy into its educational curriculum; even at primary school level students are encouraged to discuss the genocide.

The debate about balancing truth, justice and reconciliation is not one that will end anytime soon. Even now Nigeria is caught up in a fresh one, regarding the extent to which an amnesty would be justifiable in dealing with the all-too-real threat of Boko Haram.

What we have is the solid example of Rwanda – indeed the word genocide has come to be associated with Boko Haram in light of a recent surge in brutality – a country that boldly refused to shy away from dealing with the starkness of its past.

“Fifteen years removed from a mass genocide that resulted in the deaths of nearly one million people, Rwanda today presents a model for hope, justice, innovation and human development,“ write Margee Ensign and William Bertrand in their 2010 book, Rwanda: History and Hope. “[…] No society has ever attempted what this poor country is now facing – reconstructing individual lives and rebuilding an economy and political structures while including many of those who participated in the genocide.”


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