Thursday May 15 2014

Gacaca is not merely a chicken thief court

By Matsiko Kahunga

The month-long debate on Radio France International (RFI) following the 20th genocide memorial in Rwanda had a strange panelist during one of its episodes. Muhammad Sayeed, who argues that the Gacaca courts, which tried genocide suspects were merely chicken thief courts.

This ‘expert’ falls into the general condescending European attitude towards matters African, including the question of the genocide in Rwanda. Gacaca courts are the incarnation of the Rwanda judicial system. Codified European judicial systems and laws are not any different. Failure to understand and comprehend a people’s culture and ways is no basis for denigrating them.

Facts and reality have it that these courts, led by the nation’s sages (Inyangamugayo) rebuilt a shattered nation in a way that the ‘advanced, modern’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) gurus are yet to appreciate and come to terms with. This dichotomy is a pregnant field for legal scholars to explore and document.

Watching court proceedings at ICTR versus the Gacaca, ones raises more questions about our perception of justice and how to dispense it in the African context. The few Gacaca sessions I attended were heart-rending: suspects admitting, crying and remorseful about their actions. Contrast this against a session in the ICTR where a female victim of rape was instead the one crying, tormented by a UN-hired lawyer for the suspects.

In line with the Western judicial practice of ‘evidence and proof’, the woman was harassed by the lawyer to prove that the suspect was the one who raped her or whether she actually was raped at all.

The obscenities thrown at her were too much. The lawyer pranced around the court room with a Siamese cat smile, victorious. This is the type of justice Sayeed and company want us to believe and adopt, versus ours which he calls ‘chicken-thief’ justice.

At ICTR’s rate, it would take a minimum of 300 years to try all the genocide suspects in Rwanda. That apart, the little that ICTR accomplished did next to nothing compared to the reconciliatory and nation-building feats achieved by Gacaca.
Shall we codify and formalise this, or we merely label it chicken-thief justice and hanker after ‘advanced justice’? Over to you, our leaders.