Geeska Afrika Online

The Case of Rwanda: Lessons for Ethiopia

KIGALI (HAN) July 20.2016. Public Diplomacy & Regional Security News. By: Dawit Woldegiorgis. This is article is meant for Ethiopians to remind them to learn lessons from the Rwandan genocide. Some might think that such kind of scenario will never happen in Ethiopia. But just think about it: who thought that a country called Somalia with one language, one ethnic group and one religion would so rapidly fall apart and be a failed state for two decades? Who would have thought that the former Yugoslavia would disintegrate and result in the kind of genocide and ethnic cleaning we have seen in the heart of Europe, sending many leaders to the international criminal court? Who would have thought that South Sudan, which had its independence in 2011, after decades of war, would descend to a civil war that is causing the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese? Who would have thought that Muammar Gadhafi would be overthrown in such a swift and brutal way and the country plunging into civil war and becoming the breeding ground of terrorists like ISIS, an evil that slaughtered many innocent young Ethiopian migrants?  And the list can go on.


Let me tell you a first hand story about the genocide in Rwanda just to remind you, though I know that you have read and heard about it and you may have watched the movie Hotel Rwanda.  In 1994, in the month of August I received a call from Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (current president of Liberia) who was then the UNDP Africa Bureau Chief. I was asked if I would be willing to head a UN emergency coordinating team to Rwanda. I accepted the offer.


That was just a few weeks after the genocide, the greatest mass murder since the holocaust, of close to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus ended and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had just entered victoriously to Kigali. I had never been to Rwanda before. Flying over Rwanda is an incredible experience.  The scenery does not seem real. It is a beautiful country, a country of mountains as it is called in French (mille collines) and looks as if a green carpet has been plastered over the thousands of mountains with beautiful well-structured villages.  But being inside Rwanda at that time would give one a very eerie experience that one would never forget.


I had come to a country where in the last 100 days (April 6 to July 16, 1994) an estimated 800,000 to I, 000,000 Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were slaughtered; between 250,000 to 400,000 women raped (67% of these were later infected with HIV); etc. The statistics on the number of survivors, orphans, disabled people, widows etc. are staggering.   There are two major ‘ethnic’ groups in Rwanda Hutus composing of 84% and Tutsis 15% and  the rest Twas, the pygmy population who comprise around 1%.


Though the two groups are one culturally and linguistically united people, they had a very brutal past. The genocide was a culmination of accumulated hatred by the majority Hutus towards the minority Tutsis; hatred and mistrust that had its roots in the Belgian colonial era.  In 1860, a certain British officer by the name of John Hanning Speke:

 “declared that all culture and civilization had been introduced by the taller sharper featured people who he considered Caucasians from the Horn of Africa, Ethiopians” and I may add perhaps the Oromos in particular. He considered Ethiopians to be of “Caucasian origin, descendent   from the biblical King David and therefore superior race to the Negros.” Of course this is not substantiated neither by history nor by science and therefore considered either oral history or just a legend. (I however don’t wish to make this subject of discussion since the intention of this article is to look into the genocide and the lessons that can be learnt). Such a contorted categorization of Africans was a convenient way for Europeans to divide and rule, in this case, by creating the illusion that Tutsi blood was more like them than was the Hutus. We see the same pattern in South Africa apartheid system where the whites were classified as first class citizens and the coloreds (half casts) who were to be the closest to the whites and therefore treated better as second class and the Indians who, though they are black, have sharper features third class and the   black Africans came last in the ladder of categorization of South Africans and rights and privileges distributed in that order.


In Rwanda this categorization resulted in the complete marginalization of the majority during the colonial period.  By the end of the Belgian presence in Rwanda in 1959, “forty three chiefs out of forty five were Tutsis as well as 549 sub-chiefs out of 559” in a country where peoples’ lives and land holding system were controlled by chiefs.  The result was a political and economic monopoly by the minority ethnic group. The college enrollments for example was:


1932 forty-five Tutsi and 9 Hutus

1945 forty-six Tutsi and three Hutu;

1954 sixty three Tutsi and 19 including 13 from Burundi

1959 two hundred seventy nine Tutsi and 143 Hutu.


Obtaining secondary education for Hutus was very difficult and even those who got the education had difficulty getting employment. This resulted in the creation of a special Rwandese Tutsi minority elites that controlled the lives of the majority and who believed in the Belgian and the Tutsi contorted history that made the Tutsis very different from the Hutus, a superior race narrative, which eventually was embedded into the minds of Tutsis for which they eventually paid a very dear price.  The Hutus who were denied everything they had prior to the coming of the colonialists and repeatedly told they were inferior to the Tutsis, began to hate all Tutsis. “The time bomb was set and it was now only a question of when it would go off …Rwanda was not a land of peace and bucolic harmony before the arrival of the Europeans (but) there is no trace in its pre-colonial history of systematic violence between Tutsi and Hutu as such…. ideas and myths can kill, and their manipulation by elite leaders for their own material and power interest  does not change the fact that in order to operate they first have to be implanted in the souls of men.”  (Gerard Prunier, the Rwanda Crisis.) Tutsis started a movement for independence and this angered the Belgians who quickly changed sides and replaced the Tutsi chiefs by Hutus.  When Hutu leaders got this power they started settling scores and in 1959 killed over 100,000 Tutsis. A huge number of Tutsis fled to neighboring Uganda, Zaire and Burundi.  It was by these refugees that the Rwandan Patriotic Front was established.


In 1994 the RPF, had intensified the war and was closing in Rwanda.  Radio des Milles Collines  (RTLM) financed by the government launched its program of hate and extermination just after the Arusha Accord. When the president was returning from Arusha, his plane was struck and he was killed. That incident triggered the genocide though the preparation to eliminate the Tutsis had been going on for quiet sometime.  A highly educated Rwandese professor, Ferdinand Nahimana was heading the radio programs. It was full of vitriolic propaganda of hate and clear messages for Hutu extremists to go out and kill.  The radio was sending out messages that Tutsis were controlling everything and seeking supremacy and this evil and injustice perpetuated by  this minority group can “be cured only by their total extermination” calling them hyenas, snakes, cockroaches, etc. It was hateful, dehumanizing, and designed to incite the people to rise up and kill Tutsis, capitalizing on the years of oppression that Hutus have endured under the real or perceived, direct and indirect control of a minority that only represented 15% of the population. It was not a spontaneous uprising. It was an uprising that had been in the making since the Habermanya government took over (the last government before the genocide). But the root of the problem goes back to the colonial period.


Many of the killers believed the Tutsis were evil people who have taken everything for themselves and treated the majority as second-class citizens and therefore deserve to be eradicated.   Children wee not spared according to Radio Milles Collines “”you must also kill the rat in gestation; it will grow up to be a rat, like the others.”


They used languages too graphic to repeat (if interested read Hate as a Contagion: the Role of Media in the Rwandan Genocide by Maria Armoudian).  Hutus were killed for helping the fleeing Tutsis because, according to the media they were “inyenzi’ cockroaches. Rwandan Hutus were called to rise up and finish the Tutsi once and for all. They were told to use knives, machetes and clubs.


The first few weeks in Kigali were extremely traumatizing for me. Though the RPF had been there for a month and cleaned up the city as much as it can, there were still bodies littered on the outskirts of the city   and roadblocks that have not yet been cleaned up, road blocks made of human corpses. We could see bodies floating on river Kivu though thousands had already been swept away down stream, ‘to Ethiopia’ as their killers stated when they threw them in to the river. One church was still full of corpses, with over 700 Tutsis who had run to the church hoping to get protection.  The churches all over Rwanda had been the traditional sanctuary for these deeply religious people but on this occasion they became the convenient place where they were killed in mass.   Many churches have been used as killing fields because there were a large concentration of frightened people in one small area.  In one case over 2000 people had sought refuge in the largest Catholic Church Saint Famille and all of them were killed after the parish priest handed them over to their killers. Apparently he was a supporter of the Hutu extremists.  The Ntarama church, where I saw over 700 corpses, has now been turned over to a genocide museum. At the time I arrived there were still some dogs feasting on human corpses and RPF had to go after stray dogs and shoot them.


Prior to the genocide, Rwanda had come a long way where it had become sometimes difficult to make a distinction between a Tutsi and a Hutu. There were many instances where Tutsis were mistaken for Hutus and spared from being killed. Moderate Hutus were killed because of their association to the Tutsis and because they did not want to be part of the killing machinery that was being put in place.


During the first days after the president’s plane was hit, on 6 April 1994, the ‘interhamwey’ (Hutu militia) started systematically killing Tutsis and Hutu moderates in the villages and neighborhoods by imposing curfews and roadblocks.  “The roadblocks and barriers were staffed by soldiers and gendarmerie on the main roads, while communal police, civil self-defense forces, and volunteers guarded others. Together, they successfully stemmed the flight of victims who tried to escape the genocide. Anyone who tried to hide was tracked down by search patrols that scoured the neighborhoods, checking in ceilings, cupboards, latrines, fields, under beds, in car trunks, under dead bodies, in bushes, swamps, forests, rivers, and islands. By April 11, after barely five days, the Rwandan army, interahamwe, and party militias had killed 20,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu” (OAU May 2000).


In villages where both Tutsis and Hutus were living together people knew who was who and therefore identifying the Tutsi was not difficult.  But in the towns and particularly in Kigali, the business and political capital, where people did not know each other, identification was difficult. The roadblocks were the key locations where many were massacred. Fleeing people were asked their ID cards.  Tutsis were automatically hacked to death and those who don’t have ID cards were killed as well including Hutus who were suspected of being moderate or associated with Tutsis.  In Rwanda of those times all ID cards had to show the ethnic group one belongs to.


Jean Kambanda, Prime Minister of Rwanda during the months of the genocide, pleaded guilty to genocide and admitted that “he ordered the setting up of roadblocks with the knowledge that these roadblocks were used to identify Tutsi for elimination” and that he participated in the distribution of arms knowing that these would be used in massacres of Tutsis (OAU May 2000).


There are many lessons leant from the Rwandan genocide. Most relate to the response of the international community once the killing machinery was set off. Effective and active response would certainly have helped to reduce the level of carnage that took place in Rwanda in 1994, but it would never have been able to remove the level of anger and hate that were embedded in the minds of most Rwandese.


So we come to the most important lesson that Africa and particularly Ethiopia should learn from the genocide in Rwanda. The genocide in Rwanda happened because of ethnic politics and state sanctioned incitement to hate and kill. The responsible officials were disseminating contempt and demonizing the other group. The supreme court of Canada reviewing the response of the Canadian government based on the report of the then commanding Lt. General Romeo Dallaire stated “…. the holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers-it began with words. These are the chilling facts of history-the catastrophic effects of racism” and the Rwandan Tribunal stated “these acts of genocide were preceded by-and anchored in-the state orchestrated demonization and dehumanization of the minority Tutsi population-using cruel, biological of Tutsis as ‘inyenzi’ –prologue and justification for their mass murder.”  Yes genocide starts with words. Words are the means through which hate or love is expressed. In cases of genocide and crimes against humanity, words are the means through which the flames of hate and intolerance are fanned.


The situation in Ethiopia has not reached that level yet but if it is allowed to reach that level there is no way to stop it. The rhetoric and irresponsible statements coming out from some people including government  officials, from community leaders and from the major ethnic groups, which spreads faster and effectively through social media,  suggests that if left on its own the situation   could escalate to wide spread hatred and retribution, civil war,  crimes against humanity and possibly to genocide.  ‘Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)’


Rwanda showed the worst that human beings can be. It showed how human beings could be manipulated to hate and kill through irresponsible leaders and members of the community in general who may harbor hatred. The hate and anger directed at particular ethnic group accumulates overtime  and  knows no boundaries when it is unleashed through a concerted effort of hate groups created by the deliberate polices of a government  and elite groups who seem to  care more about power than the long term consequences of their actions. Ethiopian leaders are accountable for what is happening now and worse on what may happen unless remedial measures are taken. “ Africa’s redemption is not only clasp in the hands of the leadership, but moreover in the active participation in change of the average person, in the home, in the school, in the work place and in their private relationship.”  (African Holocaust Society)


The damage done on the relationship between the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia is grave and warrants the intervention of the international community to exert meaningful pressure to stop this build up of tensions that could lead to a catastrophic end with very severe consequences that could dwarf the Rwandan genocide. The government should be made accountable and be willing to take steps that could restore sanity and heal the gaping wounds. For this to happen, Ethiopia needs leaders who are not consumed with narrow ethnic and personal interests but leaders who capitalize on the common thread that binds the people and the common vision for unity and democracy.


The international community’s indifference to the early warning   signs and faultiness is not acceptable. At this moment the major preoccupation of millions of Ethiopians has become individual and group security, stocking arms and guarding themselves from the excesses of a minority government. Some ethnic groups are spewing hate and vengeance and as in Rwanda   (where Hutus hated all Tutsis) people are unjustifiably beginning to hate all Tigreans. This, of course, is unfair to the large majority of Tigreans who are themselves victims of the policies of the current government which does not truly represent the best interests of the majority of Tigreans. When such a sense of insecurity, mistrust and hate is stretched to its logical conclusion it can lead to war and possibly genocide. The silence of the international community in the face of this build up is disturbing. The international community is needed now to ensure that sanity prevails and a system that addresses the grievances of all ethnic groups is installed sooner than later because at this stage the crisis is preventable. Conflicting western interests might not make an effective intervention possible but silence would not be appropriate either. Reconciliation, election, power sharing would not solve the fundamental problems and grievances once war starts because the stakes become higher as groups dig in deeper, the divisions become sharper and the sacrifices too many to allow easy compromises. The voice of the international community at this early stage could prevent this country from going into war with itself.


With such kind of catastrophe no one wins. In the end every body loses. There will be no Ethiopia to fight about.  Each ethnic group in Ethiopia has treasures of wisdom. Let them tap to those wisdoms, let them see what is happening around the country, let them take note of the signs of difficult times ahead, let them prevent harm on each other, let them go back to the drawing table and begin with the common factors that unite them, let them dwell less on their differences and more on the common ties that bond them or else they become one of those countries they never imagined to be. Let Ethiopians have the courage to stand together to challenge the status quo and build a democratic system that would answer the grievances of all, because it is possible.  Africa has over 3000 tribes and 2000 languages and there are only 54 states. There is, therefore, no alternative to peaceful coexistence.


I worked in Rwanda for two years and had the honor to know closely President Paul Kagame, then vice president and head of the military. His challenge and the challenge the people faced were enormous. With half a million Hutu refugees ‘inetrhamways’ most of them just across the border, to build a peaceful country and begin reconciliation was indeed a very tall order. The threat of ‘interhamways’ unleashing another war was always there until in 1996 they returned in mass. The reconciliation program started in earnest only then. There was no family in Rwanda, in both the Hutu and Tutsi communities that were not severely affected by the genocide and yet there were no alternatives to re reconciliation and the task had to begin soon. It was difficult to bring about a majority rule as well. Democracy, in the way that has been defined by the western world posed a great danger in a country where reconciliation has not yet been complete and the memories of 1994 are still fresh in many minds. The President had to walk a fine line and the majority had to accept the reality. Pragmatism and common sense than idealism prevailed.


I left Rwanda after two years but what I saw and heard during those years haunted me for a long time until I returned to Kigali after ten years to see a population truly trying hard to leave the past behind, learn from the lessons and move on as one people and one nation. During my two years there I had been to the prisons and talked to former ‘interhaweys’ who have been implicated in the genocide. Some were still proud that they did what they did. The unrepentant voices of some were scary and had made me   doubt whether there could ever be a true reconciliation. The numerous voices of the survivors were also bitter. But the government and the people chose the right path. For over twenty years people are slowly learning to live together ad heal the wounds together even when they know that some in either communities have been killers and still harbor hate.


There were thousands who were identified as perpetrators of the genocide locked up in various prisons in Rwanda. To bring about justice and reconciliation, the Rwandan government introduced or reinstituted what is known in Rwandese tradition the Gacaca community court system.  In this system the communities select judges where the cases of perpetrators are heard. The court gives mitigated sentences for those who repent. In many cases those who repent are freed and allowed to go back to the community and be part of the reconciliation program where victims and perpetrators live side by side and talking to each other.


Unlike many other African countries where colonialists carved out the borders, Ethiopia was defined by its own people and its own history and the enormous sacrifices of every ethnic group.  It is their only home. Like any family in a home they had differences and on many occasions each encroached on the rights and freedoms of the other in the family. But they stayed together.


No conflict in Africa is similar to another. But the underlying reasons are always the same: leadership and governance. Ethiopia does not need a genocide or civil war to learn from its own lessons. It had its own turbulent years of nation building. It is now time to learn from its own past and from what has happened elsewhere in Africa and form one united people with freedom, justice and democracy for all.


As Bob Marley said: “One love, One Heart. Let’s get Together and Feel Alright.”

Dawit Woldegiorgis , Executive Director of Institute for strategic and Security Studies

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of GEESKA AFRIKA



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