Rwandan Genocide, 20 years later: Desperately in search of peace (2/2)

"It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important." Martin Luther King

Terangaweb_Gacaca RwandaGenocide is not a crime as any other. While the other forms of conflicts meet political and economic interests, genocide is a concerted plan in view of eliminating the members of a given group. Genocide aims to “purify” the social group by removing the elements regarded as unworthy to be part of it: Jews in Germany, Blacks in South Africa[1], Tutsis in Rwanda… Other countries have had the rather difficult task of reconciling a people torn apart by a conflict. In South Africa there were the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, in Sudan was chosen the radical solution of secession, in Ivory Coast we are crossing fingers for the maintaining of a flickering peace.  

Rwanda is (rightly) known to be the good pupil in the Great Lakes Area since it achieved its “resurrection” in various fields (See Le Rwanda, une Nation phénix (1ère partie) – L'Afrique des idées and Le Rwanda, une Nation phénix (2ème partie) – L'Afrique des idées). The country is being ruled with an iron hand by Paul Kagame who succeeded in inspiring the wind of development the country needed since 1994. What about the Rwandan society? The genocide has radically materialized a division that had been festering for a while in Rwandan society. The reconciliation between members of a society is not a matter of policy, it is nonetheless essential among people who are condemned to live together anyway. Thus forgiveness never can be an instruction given to the community but the state has the duty to ensure that anywhere, all members of a society feel like they are part of a group, otherwise it must enforce an official end to dissensions, in the absence of forgiveness.

That idea underlies penal law of all the countries which abolished death penalty: punish the culprit both to stop the cycle of violence then prevent any act of revenge and to ensure that the convict will be reinserted. The right to punish (or to avenge…) belongs thus to the state. The act of genocide involves necessarily all the layers of the society as it often concretize itself because “Some wanted it. Others committed it. Everybody let it happen.[2] If the act involves all the nation, the work of reconciliation should go further and deeper. It is about not letting subsist a vestige of animosity from one side or another, an animosity that could some day trigger new conflicts on the smoking remnants of the precedent.

The gacaca are scathingly criticized for not being professional courts and not responding to any criterion that defines a jurisdiction: impartiality, independence, fairness… but how could it be otherwise?

On the one hand, in the wake of the genocide, it was urgent to judge the hundreds of thousands criminals detained, the members of legal professions were either among the victims or among the accused…when they hadn’t fled the country. Qualifying the work of the gacaca as lacking juridical rigor would be a way to reproach Rwanda with not applying an ordinary solution to a situation that was anything but ordinary. Desperate times call desperate measures.

On the other hand, those courts, thanks to their popular dimension have helped to put together and confront people who never would have dreamt of this form of participatory justice in a classic legal framework. It would be indeed very naive to consider that, at the end of the trial, victim and offender end up hand in hand.  Besides the victims have been raising their voice to denounce a justice they consider expeditious and biased (how to believe an accused who ‘exchanges’ his remorse against the promise of a sentence reduction?) but following such a tragedy, there were not so many solutions. Except parting the country in two between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the only alternative solution was to permit systematic revenge which would have undoubtedly led to another tragedy with the same actors in reversed roles: the Tutsis as offenders and Hutus as victims. The chosen solution was certainly not the best but it is objectively the most adapted given the elements.

The genocide is only twenty years old, it is still too early to make an assessment of History and judge the progress in terms of social peace which will certainly take many years more to concretize. But Rwanda has started a process that should, in the very long term and, if it still followed, erase the divisions that should not exist. It could pass through (like in Nigeria) by a subtle power sharing between Hutus and Tutsis, an equal access for both ethnic groups to state structures, education, employment… in short concretize what the Constitution theorized: all Rwandan are equal.

Reconciliation is also and above all a matter of memory. Collective memory and individual memory. Maybe the second will be less acute in two or three generations and maybe time, failing to heal the wounds, will have eased the pain. For the time being, the dazed survivors are reintegrating as best they can that society which is still home to their offenders, and stoically bearing the plain view of their executioners, now allowed to walk free. Because “Amarira y’umugabo atemba ajya mu unda »[3]


Translated by Ndeye Mane SALL

Read the first part of this article here.



[2] Citation de Tacite


[3] Proverb in kinyarwanda : The crying of a man remain in his chest.