Thursday, January 15, 2009

Beyond the Rwanda genocide conviction

THE United Nations (UN) International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania, recently sentenced three former senior Rwandan army officers to life imprisonment and another businessman to 20 years in jail for their role in the 1994 organised killings of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. The affected men are Col. Theoneste Bagosura, Col. Anatole Nsengiyumva, Maj. Alloys Ntabakuze and, Protais Zigiranyirazo, the businessman.

The make-up and history of Rwanda offer insight for commenting on the verdict. Rwanda has three ethnic groups: the Hutus, who constitute 80 per cent of the population; the Tutsis who represent nearly 20 per cent; and the Twas, a pygmy people, who account for the remainder. The Twas, the original inhabitants of Rwanda, are traditionally hunters and potters. They were first joined by the Hutus at an unspecified period in history. The Tutsis arrived in the 14th century. Over time, Tutsi kings and aristocratic Tutsi land and cattle owners held feudal sway over the majority Hutus, who were traditionally subsistence farmers. Belgian colonial rule, which began in 1916, retained the feudal structure.

In 1959, Civil War broke out between the Tutsis and Hutus. After driving the Tutsi king into exile, the Hutus took charge of government shortly before Rwanda gained independence in 1962 and took over much of the land, with many Tutsis fleeing into exile in neighbouring countries. Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, came to power in 1973 through a military coup, but became elected president in 1981. There was simmering ethnic violence. Following the 1990 invasion of the country by the Tutsis in exile, the Tutsis and Hutus in 1992 negotiated a peace accord in Tanzania and agreed to form a broad-based transitional government.

But extremist Hutu leaders did not allow the transitional government to take office. In April 1994, Habyarimana died in a plane crash in suspicious circumstances. Bagosora, a Hutu opposed to the negotiated transitional government who was then cabinet director in the defence ministry, assumed control of military and political affairs, and using the Interahamwe Hutu militia, eliminated almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days. The orgy stopped when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (led by Tutsi exiles), whose 1990 invasion produced the aborted 1992 accord on transitional government, seized the Rwandan Government in July 1994.

It has been said that the Rwanda genocide verdict "sends a strong message to tyrants everywhere that if they commit the worst crimes, they spend the rest of their lives in jail." Maybe, but for now, that is only possible when the tyrants fall from power because the UN, even with its international peacekeeping force in place as was indeed the case in Rwanda in 1994, merely supervises tyrants who opt to perpetrate genocide against hapless people. There are still cases of ongoing acts of genocide and crimes against humanity in several African countries today under the watch of UN peacekeepers. There is need to revise the UN convention on genocide and crimes against humanity to authorise the UN to forcibly remove murderous tyrants from power.

As for Rwanda, the genocide conviction by the International Criminal Tribunal still leaves unaddressed the fundamental issue of equitable exercise of power. The minority Tutsis enjoyed dominance for centuries prior to 1960. They resisted by force of arms the ascendancy after 1960 of the majority Hutus, which lasted for barely 33 years. While the Hutus exercised control, the Tutsis clamoured for power sharing arrangements intended to give the disproportionate advantage.

Power sharing invariably pertains to exercise of executive power at the very top. Post-genocide, the Tutsi elements who were party to the 1992 peace have held an unbroken spell of power since 1994 and it is still ongoing. It is unlikely to give way voluntarily to Hutu exercise of political power over a proportionate period of time. For the sake of equity and lasting peace, the Tutsis will do well to seize the present opportunity to make constitutional provisions for an elected, compact apex ruling body, whose membership reflects the exact proportion of various ethnic groups in the country.

The headship of the ruling body would then rotate among all members in a given year or over a specified short period of time. The merit of such an arrangement should not be lost on other African countries riven by fractious ethnic or political groups.