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Gacaca,Umushyikirano: two sides of a coin?

By July 18, 2011June 7th, 2023No Comments

24th December 2010

I have an aversion to some catch phrases that borders on hysteria.

These are phrases that are cobbled together, from otherwise sober words, and thrown into existence “with sound and fury signifying nothing”. They excite everybody for a while but are quickly consigned to the graveyard of clichés.

For instance, what does ‘thinking outside the box’ mean to an ordinary citizen?

After listening to the National Dialogue (Umushyikirano) that took place in Kigali last 20th and 21st December, I thought I’d go somewhere and test out that phrase. Luckily, I got a gentleman on the road to Nyamata who happened to be a primary school teacher. I suggested we stop in at a place known as ‘Chez Virgil’ for a drink and a chat, as it is quiet and deserted on weekdays.

When I popped the question as to whether he understood the phrase, he gave me a blank look and asked me to elaborate. I told him I was told what it meant but could not relate to it: thinking differently, unconventionally, from a new perspective or breaking with the trend.

His face lit up: “You mean Gacaca?” It was my turn to give him a blank look!

He explained. After the 1994 genocide, the leadership in Rwanda was faced with the dilemma of trying the millions of perpetrators. There were not enough prisons to hold them and the classical courts could not try them even in two hundred years. Did the government sit inside the box and mourn about the limitations of classical court systems?

No, not only thinking – it blew the box to pieces and did everything ‘at large’!

The devised Gacaca system got everybody crying foul but now they can see that practically all the cases have been dealt with. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is still wearing out its bottom in Arusha, bemoaning its inability to try even sixteen cases in an equal number of years. Yet that well-heeled body does not have the additional tasks of stabilising, harmonising, reconciling and developing a people, only to mention a few of the tasks.

It’s like this political-space/right-of-speech rigmarole. “I beg your pardon?” I could not help interrupting. You asked the question, he suggested, you should suffer the answers.

He was coming from the market centre of Kanzenze, he continued, where he’d gone to watch Umushyikirano on TV. He did not have to go to Kigali, short as the distance is, because he can participate in the dialogue from anywhere. For instance, he’d phoned in to ask about the problem of teachers having to adapt too quickly to English as the language of communication in schools and he’d got the answer.

But what was important was not that he got an answer from Minister Murigande, with President Kagame seeking elaboration on his behalf. What was more important was that his question generated a heated argument. Many Rwandans, especially from the Diaspora, had not appreciated the pressing need for the country to fit in with the changing times, in this age of galloping communication technology.

This mushyikirano, he assured me, was a glaring example of the workings of the Gacaca system. “Wha–!” He threw me a stern look and I shut up!

Where in other countries leaders talk over the heads of the led, in Rwanda we ‘sit under the shade’ and put those heads together and face our challenges together. When we come out with a common stand and one person expresses it, outsiders may not understand how one voice can express that common stand where in other countries democracy means many dissenting, most times abusive, voices. But we in Rwanda do.

You’ll ask me how I participated in this decision to switch from French to English. You are no doubt aware that there is no term (two, three or four months) that passes without President Kagame visiting us. Ministers, senators, deputies (lower chamber), and other leaders visit more frequently, especially the local leaders. They do not address us and go but exchange ideas with us.

Then cabinet, parliaments and other forums can sit down to hammer out the modalities and their legal ramifications, according to the order in which these different organs operate.

We get ideas to give to these leaders by interacting and discussing in our own forums (you can even call them Gacaca sessions) like ‘ubudehe’, ‘umuganda’, ‘itorero’ and the myriad others.

We cannot leave decision-making to one person or just a group of people. One person will want cronies to protect his/her seat. A group of people will scratch one another’s back so as to entrench themselves in their positions. At best, such individuals/groups will give lip service but will not tire themselves with the demanding job of delivering on pledges, if at all they ever make them. At worst, they will suppress any ideas and kill any prying questions.

When a people operate a Gacaca system, they have opened the floodgates of political space. Freedom of speech is the life-line of that system.

Well, I don’t know about you, reader, but, personally, I thought he had a point! I have a lot to learn, apart from the meanings of catch phrases!

Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2011to Jean-Jacques (his name) and to you all!

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