First it started as a half-way measure between either bringing the 1994 Genocide perpetrators to justice, or forgetting to try them. The whole fabric of civil service had unraveled completely following the massacre of the intellectual class and the fleeing of the rest, so that there was no way Rwanda could even think of getting numbers of judicial officers to start any semblance of the judicial processes to try the arrested murderers and their accomplices.
In the spirit of the times then, of going it the unique Rwandan way, Gacaca as a traditional court came into being, to try to mitigate the number of thousands of cases that would never even see the light if they were to move through all the formal court procedures. Gacaca got transformed along the way, bringing in the old values of promoting forgiveness and unity among communities that had become so polarized.
There is absolutely no doubt that Gacaca courts have been instrumental in shaping the destiny of our countrymen. Providing redress with compassion, Gacaca courts have granted reprieves to repentant Genocidaires, and have also provided chances to people to forgive one another and live in the same community. They have cleared huge backlogs of cases that would have otherwise been impossible to wade through.
But the most significant contribution to the world is that they are a unique African way of solving unique African problems peculiar only to our communities. No doubt they have had challenges. But so has the Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for example. Gacaca is more than a court model now – it is a Truth and Reconciliation case that is being studied and compared for other African scenarios.
So if such an institution is given another life to continue breathing, it is a welcome development, because engendering peace and unity does not stop with trying cases. Also, it is significant that there are many more cases still to be processed. Arusha’s highly rated and financed international court could only manage issuing judgements in 33 cases. Let Gacaca get the powers to try those cases in the first instance as well.