Lessons To and From the Road to Hell: Ten Years after the Rwandan Genocide

For better or worse, in democracies, politicians respond to the domestic pressure, which is seldom altruistic.

It was ten years ago this month, on April 6, 1994, that the Mystère Falcon jet carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was fired upon by unknown assailants as it approached the Kigali airport. The plane crashed onto the grounds of the presidential palace at 8:30 p.m., killing everyone on board. The crash turned out to be the signal for a carefully planned conspiracy: within less than an hour, the second in command of the Rwandan Armed Forces, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, had seized power and dispatched the Presidential Guard to erect the first road blocks. The soldiers were soon joined by members of the majority Hutu ethnic group's interahamwe ("those who stand/fight together") militia. Shortly afterward, armed bands of soldiers and militiamen fanned out across the city, killing moderate Hutu leaders, including Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, as well as any members of the minority Tutsi who were unfortunate enough to cross their paths. In one hundred days, between April 6 and July 18, when the mostly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), having won nearly complete control of the country and driven the killers into neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), declared an end to the conflict, some 800,000 individuals were murdered. The Hutu extremists had tried to kill every last Tutsi and every Hutu who would not join in the orgy of violence. Despite the crudity of their armaments-most of the génocidaires were armed with machetes and crude farm implements rather than guns, much less poison gas-the murderers achieved the dubious distinction of having carried out the fastest mass killing in human history: the toll worked out to be 333 deaths per hour, 5 deaths per minute.

Despite the years and the events that have intervened, the international community has not yet forgotten the horror of Rwandan genocide: the coming weeks will, no doubt, be filled with many a pious remembrance of the tragic events. Unfortunately, it does not seem like the world has reflected to any great depth on those catastrophic events either. Ultimately the real tragedy would be if lessons about how it all happened went unlearned.

The natural question when faced with so much human misery and so many people killed is: who is to blame? The alleged mastermind of the genocide, Colonel Bagosora, is now on trial in Arusha, Tanzania before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a court established by the United Nations Security Council to try those accused of the most grievous crimes against humanity. Lesser suspects, depending on the gravity of their offenses, are being processed by the fledgling Rwandan judiciary or by elected lay judges in the innovative village courts called gacaca ("on the grass") after their meeting places set up by the RPF government of President Paul Kagame. But, in a sense, the real culprits are not individuals, but a whole series of institutional failures that have yet to be adequately probed. While nothing can be done to prevent the evil in the hearts of men and women-only the eventual acts arising from those malignant designs can be combated by the tools of statecraft-something can be done about the failures that can potentially facilitate the eruption of fresh horrors like the Rwandan genocide. 

The first failure was with the Rwandan state itself. Unlike the infamous cases of "failed states" like Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the violence came as a result of the collapse of governmental apparatus and the ensuing chaos, the killings in Rwanda occurred precisely because the génocidaires managed to seize control of state institutions and use them to serve murderous schemes that had been planned months ahead. In fact, Rwanda was and is one of the most tightly organized countries in the world: the smallest administrative unit in the rigidly hierarchical system consists of a a mere ten households. While much has been made of the role of Rwanda's Belgian colonial rulers in creating a legacy of ethnic resentment by discriminating against the Hutu in favor of the Tutsi, it is also undeniable that the post-independence Hutu regimes, especially that of Habyarimana who seized power in 1973, ferociously oppressed the Tutsi, ultimately driving some 600,000 into exile, where many joined the RPF rebels. The RPF's invasion of Rwanda in 1990 further radicalized the Hutu government, which decided that the only way to hold on to power was to eliminate all Tutsis as rebel "accomplices." While it is never popular to "blame the victim," the truth is that, in the final analysis, every political community must accept responsibility for assuring its own viability and stability. Rwanda's post-colonial leaders, both Hutu and Tutsi, who should have been aware of the precarious foundations on which their new state rested given the lack of a national sense of identity that was only exacerbated by ethnic fears and hatred, did little to ameliorate communal tensions, much less to build a common society. In retrospect, the full folly of the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which stipulated that "the inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence," is manifest. The principle of "modernization first, democratization later" invoked recently by ITNI editor Nikolas Gvosdev in his series on democracy finds perhaps no more compelling proof than the state failure and violence that has been the lot of all-too-many of the post-colonial states of Africa and Asia.

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