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Rwanda: One Rock, a Thousand Hills and the Gacaca Courts

06 Nov 2012

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Guest Columist: By Akinfela Akoni


First of all, I must say a big thank you to Ms Funke Aboyade for generously inviting me to be a Guest Columnist today – it is difficult to replace the cleverly conceived and articulately expressed Articles from Ms Aboyade, however, one must try.

The Oxford and Cambridge Club of Nigeria is renowned for two main calendar events, the May Ball (typically held in June) and its annual lectures traditionally referred to as “The Spring Lecture”. The Spring Lecture has attracted leading speakers ranging from former Presidents of Nigeria, MPs from the British Parliament and now, the Guest Speaker for our 2012 Spring Lecture holden on Saturday, 10 November 2012, the President of Rwanda, H.E. Mr Paul Kagame - the first foreign incumbent President to deliver The Spring Lecture.

Why Kagame? Why Rwanda?
Without a doubt, that is the perennial question at the tip of every Reader’s tongue. Well, there are essentially three reasons which formed our decision to invite HE to deliver the 2012 Spring Lecture. First, it creates an opportunity for our Members and, indeed Nigerians, to have an insight into the Leadership qualities of Mr Kagame. The second is the business environment in Rwanda and lastly, the people of Rwanda.

Kagame – the Rock of Rwanda
Nigeria for her part, has a number of Rocks to boast of – Zuma Rock, Olumo Rock and, of course, Aso Rock, to name but a few. However, does she have a unifying Rock? A Rock who is able to shake off the shackles of genocide, a Rock who is presiding over [an annual growth rate of almost 8%] and a Rock where in the Transparency Corruptions Perceptions Index 2011, his country scored 5 (not perfect 9s but still more than double that of the majority of the other African countries).

These are some of the qualities which made the Executive Committee of Oxbridge Nigeria to unanimously resolve that the Club seeks to invite H.E. Mr Paul Kagame to deliver the 2012 Spring Lecture. With that mandate, a group of us travelled to the Land of A Thousand Hills to personally invite His Excellency to deliver the 2012 Spring Lecture to be held in Lagos, Nigeria. Our objective was simple, we wanted to show our appreciation of the leadership of President Kagame because through his leadership, he has been able to reunite the Rwandan people into one family. 

Doing Business in Rwanda
As a Corporate lawyer, one is accustomed to “doing deals”. In the corporate world, doing a deal can take several months, if not years. I was pleasantly surprised that in Rwanda, from incorporation of your company, obtaining licences/permits and commencing operations, all can be achieved within a relatively short time of six months!

Bilateral discussions are a bound between Nigeria and Rwanda business community. Presidential delegations have been making the short trip back and forth in recent years and a number of Nigerian businesses are now established in Rwanda.

Rwandan suffered a significant setback to economic growth during the 1990s. According to the official data, the death toll exceeded one million citizens (approximately), which was almost 20.0% of the population at the time. The genocide resulted in the destruction of the emerging industrial sector. It caused widespread unemployment and population displacement. It also hampered the efforts towards attracting foreign investment. In the early 2000s, the economy began to show signs of recovery.

With one of the highest GDP growth rates, it is not surprising that Rwanda appears to be a place everyone wants to do business!

The People of Rwanda
Until recent times, when Rwanda is being discussed, one typically refers to the events of 1994. In the early 1990s people suffered genocide and general hate crimes of biblical proportions.  These crimes have directly touched the lives of almost every Rwandan alive today, either as perpetrator or as victim.  As an illustration of the scale of the issue under consideration, almost one million people were killed and many more physically injured; and almost 2 million people have been accused of such crimes, with 130,000 detained after the war.  All this in a population today of approximately 11 million. Apart from the deep-seated trauma this has inevitably caused to the psyche of society, the problem arises of how to achieve justice for victims or in some way hold perpetrators accountable for their actions in a situation where the process of administering justice has collapsed and where there are so many perpetrators and victims.

The first attempt at dealing with this was championed by the United Nations Security Council, which set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994.  At a cost of over US$1 billion to date, the court has tried about 6,000 cases with about 60 convictions.  With the number of accused perpetrators already in detention by the end of hostilities, and with others known to be at large, there were estimates that it would take over 300 years for this system of justice to reach its conclusion.

Measured by cost, speed and effect, orthodox methods of judicial action in these circumstances appeared doomed to failure.  They are simply not equipped to deal with such extreme and widespread cases of crime.  The ICTR is proof enough of this.

In the circumstances Rwandans saw themselves faced with three choices: first revenge; or secondly, general amnesty.  Both of these options were viewed as unattractive as they are likely to have led to renewed anarchy and destruction. Rwandans finally chose a third course of dealing with the matter.  In June 2002, Rwanda turned to Gacaca, a home-grown traditional conflict resolution mechanism, and adapted it to respond to the challenges they faced. In brief, Gacaca is a form of semi-traditional courts which was introduced by the Rwandan people to deal with the overwhelming backlog of genocide- related cases.

The process of a Gacaca trial is as follows.  A defendant is accused and brought to trial, where the trial is (i) constituted as a public village assembly, where each member of the community could request to speak, and (ii) which is presided over by older and respected members of the community (Inyangamugayo), elected members of the community of proven integrity.  Inyangamugayo would assemble all parties to a crime and mediate a resolution involving reparations or some act of contrition.

In relation to genocide, the idea is for Gacaca to provide as much reconciliation and justice as can be achieved.  The cornerstone of the Gacaca is the confession.  Many suspects who confess are released from prison to appear before Gacaca courts in their home towns.  Survivors and the victims' families can confront the accused.  The accused confess to their crimes or maintain their innocence.  The villagers can either speak for or against the defendant.  Those courts then determine their fate.  The Gacaca process thus provides a basis for settlement; the system emphasizes the importance of accord, condemns the guilty, and promotes collaboration between those deciding as well as among the spectators.  In keeping with tradition, villagers elect nine representatives for each Gacaca court to be the judges, all of whom have basic judicial training.  The judges are regular people, elected by popular vote.

Gacaca courts however have a limited remit.  They do not try the planners and instigators of genocide.  These are left to the orthodox court process.  They do however, deal with the bulk of the suspects, thus permitting far more treatment of cases than if all were left to the system of orthodox courts.  These courts have just been wound up after a 10 year period during which they addressed 2 million cases.  Over the course of the 10 years, Gacaca courts cost just under US $50 million.  A very stark contrast to the cost and effectiveness of the ICTR, which has cost over US$1 billion to deal with 6,000 cases.

The practice of discussion and consensus that occurred during the Gacaca proceedings has had a profound effect on Rwanda beyond the direct provision of justice.  It has helped to foster a sense of unity and trust among Rwandans, and reaffirmed their ability to find home grown answers to seemingly intractable questions.

Although Gacaca received criticism both from within and outside Rwanda, the critics have failed to offer viable alternatives that could deliver the results needed.  The Gacaca process has challenged Rwandans into soul-searching that is widely regarded as having resulted in truth-telling, national healing, reconciliation and justice.  Whatever success the process has achieved is largely due to the fact that Rwandans broadly believed in it.  In any case, there was no choice.  President Kagame has stated that faced with the challenge of how to provide redress for victims, hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes, and restore harmony among Rwandans and considering the magnitude of the problem, including the numbers involved and limited resources, the people of Rwanda were convinced that conventional justice could not have delivered the results that they sought.

At the end of it all, the people are all Rwandans and there is no better illustration of this than the following exchange between a Taxi driver and one of our colleagues:

Taxi Driver: “Where are you from?”
Colleague: “Nigeria”. “Where are you from?”
Taxi Driver: “Rwanda”.
Colleague: “Which part?” (i.e. really thinking which ethnic group)
Taxi Driver - “I am Rwandan. All of us Rwandans are the same. No more division. No more of that. Since over 12 years now, no more of that.” 

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