Rwanda: the bitter taste of revenge

During that cruel spring of 1994, almost a million Tutsi`s and moderate Hutu`s were killed, in 100 days. Traditional Gacaca jurisdiction had to bring truth and reconciliation. But the absorption of the traumatic genocide is problematic genocide remains problematic. Half of the Hutu population lives as a defendant and reconciliation is hardly seen.
 ‘In Rwanda, a miracle has happened’, jubelated Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles Muligande in 2004, ten years after the Big Killing.  Stef Vandeginste, from the  Instituut voor Ontwikkelingsbeleid en -beheer (IOB) at University Antwerp, can understand Muligande s enthusiasm. In 1996 he lived in Kigali, working in the legal sector. 
Visitors to the Rwandan capital are astonished, says Vandeginste: ‘Kigali looks amazing: good roads, new buildings.  The town is clean and safe and has shopping malls.  In ten years a new city has been taken shape.  But once you leave the tar road, you`ll find the real Rwanda, where people are suffering an authoritarian governance and bitter poverty. The outside world however loves to believe in the Rwandan miracle. ‘The 1994 genocide in Rwanda made the world realise that it’s continuing ignorance of Africa would end in a catastrophe’, says Richard Dowden, director of the British Royal African Society.  
After the genocide Rwanda enjoyed an almost unconditional sympathy of both public opinion and donors as the World bank. ‘Rwanda was discovered by countries that hardly knew where to locate it on a map, the United States, Great Brittan, Japan, Holland,  and became a donor darling,’ says Stef Vandeginste.  Especially president Kagame excels in public relations.  He has influential friends in the US and GB and continuously makes use of movies as Hotel Rwanda and Shooting dogs to build up moral credit with the Western public opinion.  
At the Los Angeles Panafrican Film Festival earlier this year, the documentary Rwanda Rising was shown and composer Quincy Jones is currently putting the life of his friend Kagame on film. Frequent visitors to Rwanda include Bill and Melinda Gates, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver (maker of the movie Gorilla revisited), Bono and TV-star Jack Hanna.  All are particularly interested in the mega project Muhazi Boulevard, fifty mansions sold at a million dollar each, with golf court and a five star hotel, financed by Qatar.

Burden of the past

‘Donors are charmed by Rwanda, the country succeeded in rebuilding it’s devastated justice system, and this in unimaginable circumstances.  Staff has received trained, buildings were constructed, courts were installed, the legal framework recreated.  A lot has been accomplished, says Vandeginste. In the last ten years, Belgium has invested 35 million euro in the Rwandan legal system because a functional legal apparatus is necessary for digesting the genocide. In one way or another, both planners and executors of the genocide have to be brought to justice. This appears to be a more complex mission than foreseen.
After the genocide about two million Hutu’s fled, fearing for revenge by the Tutsi-rebel army of current president Kagame.  For years they lived in neighbouring countries, most returned home. However, a lot of Hutu’s continue to feel discriminated and unprotected by the government. The term ‘ethnicity’ has been abolished by law, but it’s reality continues to dominate every day life in Rwanda. ‘Tutsi’s occupy the most important political and economical posts, including the army and public administration’, says Alison des Forges, Human Rights Watch advisor. Since 1994, millions of Hutu’s – about 84 percent of nine million Rwandese– are living as economically marginalized pariahs in the countryside,  because they are burdened with the “guilt” of the genocide.
Vandeginste: ‘You could say there’s a collectivisation of guild. The list of suspected Hutu perpetrators now holds 815.000 male heads of family. In Rwanda, incrimination equals guilt and is seen as collective, not as individual.  Thus all family members of suspects are considered guilty.’ This has installed the insane and dangerous reality that half of the Hutu population lives with the stigma “genocidair”. Observers fear that the de facto domination of a large majority of the population by an elite –once proclaimed a model by the Belgian colonizers- will once again lead to feelings of revenge.

Justice on the lawn

‘The genocide trials started in 1996.  Quickly it became obvious that the rebuilt, classical legal system was incapable of bringing tens of thousands of genocide suspects to trial in a reasonable delay’, says Kris Berwouts of the European Network for Central Africa (Eurac).  By the end of the nineties, 120.000 suspects were packed in prison.  Berwouts: ‘The pace of the judicial system was so slow that at the most one fifth of prisoners would be trialled by life.  The majority would die in prison, without a trial or even a file’. For these reasons, the traditional community justice of the Gacaca was brought back to life.’
Francesca Boniotti –responsible for Rwanda/Burundi at ngo Lawyers without Frontiers (LwF) writes in their annual report 2006: ‘The Gacaca courts –literally “on the grass” in Kinyarwanda– are inspired by the traditional way of conflict resolution. Gacaca has it’s ground in a participatory system, including the whole of Rwandan population.’ First category suspects (with a role in the planning, rganising, leading of the genocide) remain within the classical judicial system. The others are on trial in thousands of village courts, spread out over the hills.  Berwouts: ‘The original idea was not only to control the problem, but also to create a process of truth and reconciliation and to overcome the traumas of the past.’ The pilot faze commenced in November 2002 with 751 Gacaca courts. In June 2004, a new  Gacaca legislation was accepted installing the system throughout the country. 
Today Rwanda counts 14.300 Gacaca courts. Tens of thousands of village judges were appointed and received a limited training.  Since 2005, they are presiding trials of suspects of second –manslaughter, murder, physical injury - and third rank – plundering and theft.  The maximum punishment is thirty years imprisonment, last July the death penalty was abolished. Boniotti: ‘According to the latest estimates of the Rwandan Service National des Juridictions des Gacaca the second category counts about 400.000 suspects.’  Lawyers without Frontiers observed Gacaca for a year ‘We are actively making suggestions as to improve the process as to make it succeed in it’s mission.’

An instrument of politics

But doubts about the chances of success for Gacaca are growing.  Originally, December 2007 was put as a deadline for public hearings.  Minister of Justice Tharcise Karugarama announced on July 15 that the deadline will be extended with one year. According to Kris Berwouts, both the general public and judges are losing enthusiasm.  Judges are not being paid, which makes them more vulnerable for corruption. Often, court investigations are not lead by judges but by local authorities and witnesses a decharge remain often unheard. Arrests are often arbitrary. Berwouts and other observers conclude that the Gacaca system has become a political instrument, used to conserve power.
LwF, as an official observer, has to refers to remain cautious and names in it’s 2006 report both strengths and weaknesses. LwF: ‘The population massively attends the hearings, but only few are willing to testify on events during the genocide, which makes it difficult to determine the truth.  We can therefore conclude that the level of trust the population holds in the Gacaca system is very low.’  The legal quality of trials – essential for their just character - is equally low. ‘There is a lack of space for contradiction, defence and the motivation of verdicts is often missing or inadequate.’

Enhancement of distrust

The Gacaca was warmly welcomed by the international community.  Now the  system fails to meet expectations, donors fail to admit it’s flaws, says Stef Vandeginste. Cherie Blair, Great-Brittan’s ex-First Lady, sang praises to the system, after attending a hearing. Vandeginste: ‘That hearing was carefully orchestrated.  Embarrassing witnesses were done away with, no disagreeable questions were posed. Kigali is skilled at public relations.’
Foreign Affairs Brussels realises the Gacaca system has it’s shortcomings, but remains loyal at lack of alternative. ‘We continue to have a critical dialogue with Kigali, where we receive a listening ear.’ Unfortunately, the democratic alarm bells no longer function in Kigali: human rights activists, UN observers, journalists, everyone being critical, is thrown out of the country. The problem is that the international community has overestimated the Gacaca formula, state Vandeginste and professor emiritus Luc Huyse.  Together they are preparing an evaluation of the Gacaca system for the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the intergovernmental Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Huyse: ‘There was an awareness of flaws in Gacaca, but it was being kept in the shade. As a consequence a lot of mythology emerged, along with discussions about “made up traditions”. 
This lack of knowledge resulted in policymaking and financing based upon speculation’. A crucial question is whether traditional Gacaca –meant for resolving small conflicts– is suited for crimes as monstrous as genocide.  Huyse: ‘The mood changed when the first empirical research became available. Gacaca knew many operational problems.  Furthermore, the use of Gacaca has made the number of suspects raise to 800.000 and has increased the mutual distrust between ethnic groups.’

An enervating taboo

Kris Berwouts fears this taboo holds the seeds of important new conflicts. Stef Vandeginste confirms: ‘Observing reality, that fear proves to be legitimate. The goal of Gacaca was to reconcile and repair trust at a local level.  In reality, the civilians’ trust in each other and in their government is undermined rather than repaired.’  According to Vandeginste, this problem is closely linked to the taboo on ethnicity. ‘During a Gacaca hearing, the population has to express themselves on events that hold their roots in ethnicity, but outside the court ethnicity ceases to exist’.
The willingness of citizens to speak up has decreased.  In the initial phase, people were enthusiast, but during the process fear has grown.  Increasingly, local authorities have to resort to power to make the population participate in the trials.  Participating does not equal telling the truth.’ The image differs between regions.  In areas where the gacaca court counts a Hutu-majority, survivors have no trust in the process. They even consider it a threat.  Where survivors are better represented and local authorities are closely linked to Kigali, the system is seen as a threat by the Hutu population.
Initially  Belgium, under former minister for Development Coöperation Eddy Boutmans, proposed to set up a Gacaca Facilitation Initiative.  This mechanism would enable donors to facilitate grant support and how to coordinate it’s monitoring. The arrest or murdering of witnesses could then be sanctioned. Vandeginste: ‘Unfortunately the Rwandan government has rejected that mechanism’.

The big divide

In Rwanda a potentially dangerous paradox is brewing, says Kris Berwouts. Rwanda wants to transform into a modern, African model state with an important economic growth.  But underneath the surface of this increasingly totalitarian state, post-genocide sentiments are growing. According to leading man Paul Kagame, Rwanda has to transform itself from a poor agricultural economy to a middle income country based on a knowledge economy, as Asian states have managed to do. 
‘Rwanda is becoming the Singapore of Eastern Africa,’ optimists say. Major companies as Microsoft, Nokia and Terracom, along with donors as World Bank are investing hundreds of millions euros into mega projects in information and communication technology. Mid July, the Commercial Bank of Rwanda (BCR) announced that it`s costumers will now benefit from banking by mobile phone, an absolute can  bekend dat klanten voortaan ook kunnen bankieren via hun gsm, new for the country, announced commercial manager Hannington Namara at a meeting at Hotel Mille Collines. ‘Also Rwandan from the diaspora can use this telephone based service to check their accounts.’
The service to the diaspora is not without political significance.  The Tutsi returnees – well educated and prosperous – have based themselves in Kigali and dominate the modern economy. ‘They are very influential within the Front Patriotique Rwandais (FPR) and the government. Also the Tutsi genocide survivors remain politically significant, although this group is increasingly disillusioned by the governments policies’ states a report of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Apart from the ethnic divides, Rwanda holds increasing social, cultural, political lines of division. Kris Berwouts: ‘Rwanda will have to find solutions to it’s internal contradictions in order to avoid a new violent dynamic.  Current progress cannot prove sustainable without.’
August 29 2007, MO* Magazine (translated from Dutch)

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