African viewpoint: Grassroots convictions

Prisoners transferred to attend a gacaca court session in relation with the 1994 genocide - 2007 Without the gacacas, clearing the genocide cases could have taken 100 years

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers how Rwanda's community genocide courts faired and what they mean for justice on the continent.

The aftermath of conflict - as we well know from our many chapters of troubles in Africa - is often a tricky time.

What do you do with the racist policeman who, in the service of the apartheid regime, killed your only son?

The rapist who did the deed in front of your children; the neighbour who borrowed sugar one month, then returned the next month to smash your child's head against the wall and take a machete to your wife's throat?

Truth and reconciliation, we know now, may not be sufficient to erase such memories entirely, but they served the greater good in moving South Africa out of the shadow of such a past.

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The airing of grievances on the open grass has precedence in most African villages”

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A novel solution

The idea that wrongs could be aired and confessed in order to facilitate peace and reconciliation proved so successful in the Rainbow Nation that the blueprint has been adopted and remoulded to suit other conflicts on the planet.

Whether or not each individual - the perpetrator and the victim's relatives - would feel satisfied by telling the truth and expressing remorse in exchange for freedom stayed a subjective question.

And we can all struggle to imagine what we would have done to those who freely murdered our own relatives.

At the same time as South Africans were freeing themselves from the shackles of apartheid, in April 1994, several thousand miles to the north-east, just under a million people were being massacred in Rwanda.

In the aftermath, justice needed a new format.

At one point, up to 130,000 suspects of the Rwandan genocide were being crammed into prison spaces designed to fit 12,000 people.

And as they waited in the early days of their arrests, 10,000 suspects perished before they had even got to trial.

An unknown woman survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide is taken away by family members and by a policeman in Butare's stadium 29 September 2002, where more than 2,000 prisoners suspected of taking part in the genocide were made to face the victims of the massacre The gacacas, which have tried almost two million suspects, have come in for criticism

Still, immunity from prosecution for the 20th Century's last genocide could not have been an option.

And so Rwanda gave us the "gacaca" courts, which, after many false endings, wound up their business this week.

The numbers for the genocide were staggering, and it came as no surprise to learn that up to two million people had been tried in these "lawn" courts that made the law accessible to every villager without resource to the formal judiciary.

In any case, that formal judiciary had been decimated by the conflict.

Lawyers and judges had either fled or been killed and the new rulers needed to do something to stem the anguish and to return the country to normality.

Given the number of deaths, the accused were clogging up the cells as well as the court system.

Not only were the gacaca courts a novel solution to fast-track justice in a country where so much killing had occurred, they were also an ancient African solution.


For the airing of grievances on the open grass - without the lawyers in wigs, the judges in cloaks now common in most African judiciary systems - has precedence in most African villages.

Rwandan Hutu prisoner in 1995 If peace holds in Rwanda, the gacaca system could be a blueprint for justice

Instead, people considered to have high moral standards - known as "inyangamugayo" - were chosen by the villagers to act as judges.

Some 160,000 of them oversaw Rwanda's self-reflection into her dark and recent past.

The images of men and women in faded pink convict uniforms defined justice in Rwanda at the beginning of this century, and the testimonies of witnesses and the confessions of the accused helped ordinary Rwandans to understand the monstrous scale of the bloodletting.

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A reconciliation of sorts has been achieved between warring citizens divided by ethnicity, but the courts have had their critics”

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For a while the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, was seeking those who bore the greatest responsibility.

At a cost of some $1bn (£640,000), it only managed to try 62 suspects.

The gacaca courts cost $40m and have processed nearly two million suspects.

But with the courts now closed down, what have they achieved - and is this kind of model for justice we should be following instead of handing jurisdiction for African crimes over to the International Criminal Court?


A reconciliation of sorts has been achieved between warring citizens divided by ethnicity, but the courts have had their critics.

Human Rights Watch reported that there was a wide range of fair trial violations.

"These included restrictions on the accused's ability to mount an effective defence; possible miscarriages of justice due to using largely untrained judges; trumped-up charges, some based on the Rwandan government's wish to silence critics; misuse of gacaca to settle personal scores; judges' or officials' intimidation of defence witnesses; and corruption by judges and parties to cases."

The courts were also prohibited from including the crimes of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front - and so the crimes of the new rulers, that may well have been perpetrated as revenge attacks in the charged atmosphere in April 1994, do not make up part of the new reconciliation by being aired or discussed.

But the effects of gacaca, if President Paul Kagame's peace holds, would be another blueprint for moving a nation out of its bloody history.

There are conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo which may well have something to learn from Rwanda's gacaca justice - and the desert springs of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have yet to find a way for justice and freedom to co-exist.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's latest column, please use the form below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I feel hesitant to comment because I'm not African. But I remember thinking, when these courts were being established, they would be controversial, I liked the African usage of village-based courts, which seems closer to African tradition than anything westerners could offer. But only those directly involved can speak to the "justice", the sense of "moving forward", & the horrible loss.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I am aware that in West Africa, it is the king and his elders that settle cases in their courts. So is the gacaca East African or applicable to Africa?
    Again, what will happen if a king and his elders are also involved in the crime as will probably be the case had a single king been the cardinal focus of authority within the tribal group that committed the crime. How do we go about resolving that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    @ BluesBerry,
    I am surprise to learn that you are not African. I have followed your contribution on the BBC platforms be it political or sport, you make very good contributions especially on the African platform. A lot of that is missing this days from non African contributors. Keep the good work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The Rwandan government always uses the "This is an African problem and you can't comment if you're not" tactic to prevent criticisms. I'm Rwanda and I actually think it's best for anyone to voice their opinion on the issue. These courts would have been a great idea if the cases were petty or if the courts didn't have power to lock people up and were only a means for discussion and truth seeking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Correction - I'm Rwandan, not Rwanda.


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