Overstating the state: Gacaca, government control and citizen agency in Rwanda

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In this post, Phil Clark argues that we need to move beyond the idea that citizens in Rwanda only acquiesce to, or resist, state power and understand them as actors in their own right, whose beliefs and practices should be analysed on their own terms. Phil is a Reader in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS, University of London, and (with Jason Mosley) co-editor of the Journal of Eastern African Studies special issue, ‘Rwanda under the RPF: Assessing Twenty Years of Post-Conflict Governance’.

It has become de rigueur to describe Rwanda as authoritarian, ethnically riven and destined for (another) disaster. Throughout the commemorations marking the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide, foreign scholars and journalists have been at pains to show that beneath the cunning veneer of Kigali’s litter-free streets lies a government with near-absolute control over its citizens, who live in a state of perpetual and silent fear.

 A ‘myth versus reality’ trope has come to dominate recent scholarship and reportage on Rwanda: the surface level (clean streets, effective social services, a growing economy) must not distract from the deeper truth (a country without freedom of expression or of association, where present political and ethnic tensions render further conflict inevitable). This cliché suggests that seeming positives in Rwanda are simply a veil for the government to divert unsuspecting outsiders from more fundamental horrors. While failing to explain why the supposedly ‘mythical’ positives are less real than the negative ‘reality’, such depictions also tell us very little about the nature of the Rwandan state, its citizens and interactions between the two.

A key example of the ‘myth versus reality’ framework can be found in much recent scholarship on the gacaca community courts, which between 2002 and 2012 prosecuted approximately 400,000 suspected perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. Overseen by locally elected lay judges in 11,000 jurisdictions, gacaca is the most extensive post-conflict justice process attempted anywhere in the world. It has also attracted substantial and varied critique and become a key vehicle for analysing wider political and social dynamics in Rwanda, including policymaking under the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). In particular, a common criticism of gacaca is that it allowed the Rwandan state to deploy the myth of devolved, popularly owned justice while further centralising and consolidating state power.

In a recent article in the Journal of Eastern African Studies (JEAS), I argue that, while we should be sceptical of the Rwandan government’s overly romantic depiction of gacaca as organic, decentralised justice and critical of other dimensions of state policy, we should be equally sceptical of characterisations of gacaca as simply another means for the state to entrench its power and influence in the countryside. The widespread claim that gacaca represented a tool of state control and unjustified coercion of the populace risks reducing Rwandan citizens to mere ciphers of government diktat. One purpose of the JEAS article is therefore to provide a richer perspective of the Rwandan citizenry as active, conscious political agents, whose behaviour constitutes more than acquiescence or resistance to centralised power.

There are two main problems with the critiques concerning elite control, the first relating to their depictions of the Rwandan state and RPF policymaking and the second regarding the nature of popular agency in Rwanda. On the first issue, some critics argue that the structural design and daily operation of gacaca highlighted the Tutsi-dominated government’s desire to extend influence from the core to the periphery and, in the process, to collectivise the guilt of the Hutu population. Such views assume a highly organised state, with clear and consistent policy motivations, which is not borne out by a close examination of gacaca’s genesis and function.

As I have discussed at length elsewhere, gacaca was the product of protracted debate and political compromise among deeply divided political factions (particularly between lawyers and non-lawyers within the government and between leaders who had fought with the RPF during the civil war and those who had returned to Rwanda from the diaspora after the genocide), rather than a systematic process of ‘social engineering’. The Rwandan government initially considered then rejected, consecutively, the traditional pre-genocide version of gacaca, an amnesty, a truth commission and reform of the national courts as means to deal with the problem of 120,000 genocide suspects languishing in prison. Only after seven years of government debates was the modern version of gacaca instituted as the primary mechanism to prosecute genocide cases. A climate of political compromise and pragmatism, rather than a desire for control over the population, prevailed during those early debates and continued through the running of gacaca.

In operational terms, government oversight and coordination of gacaca were often lacking, reflecting a heavily resource-constrained post-conflict state. Most critics presuppose that the Rwandan state was capable of penetrating deeply into the 11,000 jurisdictions where gacaca operated in order to fundamentally control the process as a whole. As Timothy Longman, Lee Ann Fujii, Scott Straus and Omar McDoom highlight, however, in their analyses of the causes of the genocide and the motivations of those who committed murder, even a highly centralised bureaucracy such as Rwanda’s has limited reach into communal life. These authors counter a common view of the genocide as solely the result of government command from the centre to the periphery, highlighting that state orders were often rejected, there was regular dissension between elites and the general population at the community level, and in some places more localised motivations, such as fear and greed, better explain people’s decision to kill. Similarly, gacaca manifested some cases of government interference, but these should not be generalised to characterise the process as a whole or to undermine the importance of popular agency in gacaca.

Finally, critiques of gacaca as elite control greatly underestimate the nature and impact of popular participation in gacaca. In these accounts, everyday participants are depicted either as vessels for, or passive resisters against, RPF policy. Again, a closer examination of gacaca highlights the much more active and diverse agency of everyday Rwandans.

There are six specific elements of popular participation in gacaca (fleshed out in more detail in the JEAS article) that underscore the importance of citizen agency, which critics of gacaca largely ignore.

1. Personal Motivations and Subjective Meanings

First, everyday citizens expressed in clear and sustained terms their various individual and collective motivations for participating in gacaca. In doing so, they did not merely echo the government’s stated purposes for gacaca but ascribed to it a range of subjective meanings. Hundreds of community-level interviews during the lifespan of gacaca, as well as a recent study by Nicola Palmer and myself including a further 60 interviews, identified several recurring popular motivations for citizens’ participation in gacaca, including an individual sense of obligation to bear witness to the genocide, a desire to locate the bodies of genocide victims and to discover who was responsible for genocide crimes.

2. Active Participation and Open Dialogue

My research and that of other commentators shows that gacaca regularly involved active participation, open dialogue and dedicated debates during genocide hearings. Many Rwandans described the importance of engaging in public discussions at gacaca. Most of the 105 gacaca hearings I observed firsthand lasted between five and nine hours and involved substantial discussion and debate among local actors and open contestation over genocide-related facts. Some hearings became heated and required the intervention of the gacaca judges to ensure they did not descend into violence.

3. Community Empowerment

Echoing many of the aforementioned elements of active involvement in gacaca, many participants described a resultant sense of empowerment. In particular, many gacaca judges claimed to have gained a new moral and political standing in the community because of their ability to guide difficult discussions. They claimed that community members come to them for advice on daily matters because they have proven adept at mediating disputes and providing wise counsel.  The impact of gacaca on local leadership has been especially important for women, who were often among the most active and voluble participants during genocide hearings. Women were excluded from any official role in the traditional version of gacaca but represented approximately 40% of judges in the modern version.

4. Local Shaping of Gacaca

Significant levels of popular agency in gacaca allowed local communities to shape gacaca to their own ends and to meet locally expressed needs, reinforcing the aforementioned themes of subjective meanings and community empowerment. The ability of local communities to alter the function of gacaca in ways that diverged from state-generated protocols could be seen in processes of memorialisation, forgiveness and the open discussion of RPF crimes.

5.  Impact of Non-State Institutions and Processes

Interviews with gacaca participants and observations of hearings highlight that a range of non-state institutions and processes crucially shaped many gacaca jurisdictions, as much as, and sometimes more than, the state itself. Gacaca often embodied social and cultural influences drawn from the population that found little or no expression in official discourse. In particular, the influence of family, community and religious beliefs was marked throughout gacaca, providing resources but also constraints upon participants’ behaviour.

6.  Government Responsiveness to Popular Agency

Finally, the government displayed some pragmatic responsiveness to forms of popular agency and locally expressed problems with gacaca. This highlights that some aspects of popular participation could shape government policy. In particular, criticisms from many survivors and the survivors organisation Ibuka were instrumental in moving all sexual violence cases from gacaca to the national courts in 2004 (although the government reinstated gacaca’s jurisdiction over these crimes in 2008 as a result of the national system being overwhelmed by the number of genocide and non-genocide cases).   In 2004, the government streamlined various aspects of the running of gacaca in response to concerns expressed by everyday participants, particularly the slowness of many hearings and threats against witnesses.

The government also explicitly adopted ‘forgiveness’ within the conceptual and operational framework of gacaca, reflecting the increased use of the term at the community level. Before 2008, there was no mention of forgiveness in any of the revised versions of the Gacaca Law or the guidance documents for gacaca judges. The 2008 revision to the Gacaca Law for the first time included ‘a request for forgiveness’ (along with a guilty plea and repentance) as essential for any suspect’s confession to be considered legitimate and to enable plea bargaining. These aspects show that, in certain instances, popular agency could alter state processes in important ways.

Some aspects of government control in Rwanda today raise critical concerns, particularly the treatment of political opposition and dissenting voices. However, the current tendency to view the Rwandan state as all-powerful and Rwandan citizens as merely followers of, or resisters to, state policy – as is the case in much of the commentary on gacaca – fails to grapple with the internal fractures and frailties of the state and the creative agency of a population with long experience of dealing with centralised rule. Exploring more vibrant, unpredictable agency at the local level makes for more incisive scholarship and reflects the fullness of Rwandan citizens’ lives after the genocide.

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