To love and hate: What Rwanda can teach Kenya

Wednesday October 29 2008


By Charles Onyango Obbo
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EVER SINCE THE REPORT OF the Justice Waki commission of inquiry into what and who was behind the deadly post-election violence in Kenya early in the year was released, the country has been split down the middle.

One side pooh poohs the report as incompetent, arguing that all should be forgiven because prosecutions will open fresh wounds and could destroy the country’s fragile unity.

The other side holds that the violence plotters must be brought to book, or else the culture of impunity will take deep root in Kenya.

“Amnesty” if it is to be granted, should be after conviction, or for those who confess their crimes, and ask for forgiveness, they argue.

I covered the rebellion in Rwanda and the genocide in which the Interahamwe, a “Hutu militia”, slaughtered nearly one million people, mostly “Tutsi”.

Nothing demonstrates the complexity of the tension between retribution following the killings in such situations as in the post-election violence in Kenya, than the story of two men – Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, and Gerald Gahima, currently a judge with the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Rwanda’s prosecutor-general between 1999 and 2003, and later deputy Chief Justice.

The genocide ended when the RPA emerged victorious in July 1994. Kagame, who was the leader of the RPA and vice-chairman of the rebels’ political wing, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, became Vice-President and minister for Defence. He was, no doubt, the most influential figure in Rwanda.

More than 120,000 people were arrested on suspicion of carrying out the genocide. At that time, Rwandan and human rights officials projected that it would take anything between 100 and 350 years to try all the suspects.

I interviewed Kagame a few months after they had taken power. An unemotional unflinching man even at the best of times, Kagame could barely hide his anger at the genocide, and took a very firm line that the genocide suspects had to face the full force of the law.

Kagame told me of an obviously painful personal story of relatives, including a favourite aunt, who managed to call him on his satellite phone as the killers approached their home. He heard them break down the doors, the screams as the machetes struck, and shortly after, gunshots. Then silence.

So it was that on April 24, 1998, Rwandan authorities executed 22 people convicted of involvement in the genocide.

From the very start of the RPF government, Gahima was virtually the only person who was willing to countenance “amnesty” for the genocide suspects – except, of course – the masterminds. It was almost insane to hold those views, even privately, in the early years.

HOWEVER, WITH ALL THE HURT THat Rwanda is still living through, 1998 was the last public execution.

Shortly after, a decision was taken that nearly all the other suspects would be tried in traditional courts (gacaca). If they confessed or sought forgiveness, they would be granted amnesty and accepted back in their communities.

I interviewed Kagame in 2005. I asked him to explain the dramatic change his government had undergone over the years on bringing the full force of the law on the heads of the genocidaires.

More reflective, he said: “At some point, someone has to end this cycle of violence. We can’t execute 100,000 people. We can forgive, though we shouldn’t forget”.

I had taken a film crew in Kigali to record the interview. At one point, Kagame became visibly emotional. He asked me to pause my tape recorder, and requested the TV crew to leave the room.

He told me that the gacaca process in the area where his relatives were murdered in 1994 had found evidence that suggested that someone who was now a minister in his government had ordered the killings.

Seeming to hold back tears, he said: “The world still criticises us. They don’t know what we have to go through to give this country a chance. I have to sit across the Cabinet table from someone who probably ordered the killing of my relatives.”

After an awkward silence, I asked him if he would expose or sack the minister. He said he wouldn’t. “Rwanda is greater than the tragedy of my family”, he said.

On August 2007, nine years after the first executions, Rwanda became the first country in Eastern Africa to abolish the death penalty for all crimes (including genocide, yes).

I thought of Gahima. It was almost impossible to comprehend that from the very start, the man was not keen on hanging genocidaires, given what happened to his family in 1959 when they were fleeing to Uganda to become refugees.

His parents never made it across the border. They were seized by Hutu militants and killed in the most gruesome manner – they were impaled on the stake.

Rwanda dealt with the dilemma facing Kenya today by doing both. It prosecuted and executed genocidaires. But in the end, it also learnt to forgive.

For individuals like Gahima, it might be easier to find the conviction not to seek retribution. But perhaps, for a country, this requires time.