New book sheds light on historical, legal dimension of Rwandan genocide

Rwandan-CopyWhen in 2009 Nigeria’s Catholic priest Fr. Uwem Akpan published his classic short story collection on the condition of children in some parts of Africa and included one on Rwanda, which also became its title, Say You’re One of Them, it was horrifyingly eye-popping.

The gruesomeness of the story was heart-wrenching. Two children watched their own Hutu father hack their Tutsi mother to death with a machete; but this happened just before the mother had enjoined them to tell anyone, the murdering Hutu gang, who accost them to ‘say you’re one of them’.

But away from the fictional glare of Akpan’s work some seven years later is a new book The Rwandan Genocide: Historical Background and Jurisprudence (MIJ Professional Publishers, Lagos; 2014) by Nigeria’s Segun Jegede.

He was among a group of lawyers and jurists from around the world drafted by the United Nations to scour Rwanda and ascertain if the crimes of genocide had been committed and to prosecute perpetrators accordingly.

This was with a view to deter the perpetuation of such crimes in future both in Rwanda and elsewhere and to drum it into the ears of murderous political leaders everywhere that human right violations and atrocities committed while in office do not go unpunished in the long run.

Africa’s sharp division into ethnic lines, which were exacerbated at the advent of European powers on the continent and have subsisted till date, have served peoples of the continent badly and continue to frustrate efforts at unity and genuine integration. Although while the case of Rwanda presents a paradox in explaining the genocide, the foisted arbitrary ethnic lines among the three so-called ethnic groupings – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa – paved the way for the human bloodletting that happened.

The Germans and later the Belgians favoured the Tutsi who are traditionally cattle breeders and who had exercised authority over the Hutu farmers and Twa. But the three ethnic groups speak the same language, have the same culture and the same ancestry while intermarriage effectively seemed to have blurred any physical difference between the Tutsi and the Hutu. But the introduction of registration and carrying of identity cards by the Belgians in the 1930s started the process of ethnic nationalism.

This was compounded by independence in 1962, with the Hutu and Tutsi angling for political control. Eventually, buoyed by their large population, the Hutu triumphed and politics of ethnic intolerance took centre-stage in the country. But of greater consequence was the Hutu revolution shortly after independence that sought to wipe out every Tutsi grip on Rwandan political life, which the Tutsi had enjoyed for so long. Many Tutsi fled into exile in neighbouring countries from where they were to launch war on Hutu controlled government.

Peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania, failed to yield results; there was no commitment on the part of Rwandan government to allow exiled Tutsi return and be integrated into Rwandan life again.

It was evidently payback time for the many years of denials the Hutu had endured while the colonial powers held sway and collaborated with Tutsi. Under colonialism, Hutu were made underdogs, and Tutsi were favoured; not many Hutu children were allowed to enroll in schools.

However, it was in the midst of the conflict to return exiled Rwandan Tutsi back into their homeland that the plane of President Juvenal Habyarimana was brought down on April 6, 1994. This prompted the Hutu to go on the offensive in one of modern history’s bloodiest and mindless orgies that claimed thousands of lives in 100 days of planned and calculated killings designed to exterminate Tutsi population.

Jegede’s book pays attention to this slice of Rwanda’s history in order to launch into the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which had precedence in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi Germany after World War II and International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). According to Jegede, the tribunal derived its powers from “the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide signed in Paris on December 9, 1948… to characterise the deliberate plan of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews and Gypsies… Rwanda, like many other nations acceded, by legislative decree, to the Convention of Genocide on February 12, 1973, thereby making the provisions of the convention applicable in Rwanda in 1994”.

Jegede further noted that the tribunal “grew out of the response of the United Nation’s human rights systems to the tragic situation in Rwanda”. But he is quick to query this need to make what he called amends by the world body even as it failed to intervene while the Rwandan genocide was taking place, with 10 Belgian peacekeeping soldiers who were sent to protect Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana murdered.

It was the question that dominated the minds of many at the time. The world turned its face away when the gruesome killings were taking place, but it promptly scrambled up a tribunal to try those who organized and carried out the killings after the facts of the mass murders had been committed.

But as a professional attorney Jegede quickly surmises, “Whatever may be the outcome of the debate concerning the motive for its creation, it remains clear that the ICTR is an important step towards achieving order, security and peace in Africa”. Debatable, indeed, as the world body usually withholds direct intervention; Kenya had its small share of political intolerance and violence after an election nearly two decades after the Rwandan bloody example.

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