We saw nothing, heard nothing, did nothing (Part I)

Whenever I contemplate the Rwandan Genocide, in my capacity as a former President of Nigeria, or as a former Army General or just simply as an African, I always feel that, in a profound sense, the contemporary state system, at the national, regional or international community levels, needs to be radically rethought.

Whenever I contemplate the Rwandan Genocide, in my capacity as a former President of Nigeria, or as a former Army General or just simply as an African, I always feel that, in a profound sense, the contemporary state system, at the national, regional or international community levels, needs to be radically rethought.

The reason for this cannot be far-fetched: the global community had seen nothing. It has heard nothing. It has done nothing that can suggest that genocide has been thrown into the dustbin of history. Consequently, the world and its current democratic values are still under threats of political uncertainties and irrationality.

What led to Genocide?

The question that continues to elicit attention is simple: how did Rwanda get to the point of commission of acts of genocide? Rather than being the disparate ethno-cultural groupings which the Tutsis, the Hutus and the Twas are said to be, history clearly shows that ethno-cultural, as well as socio-political cleavages in Rwanda, were markedly insignificant, if not non-existent.

In fact cultural, linguistic and religious homogeneity overlaid the indigenous vocations of pastoralism, agriculture and hunter-gathering vocations.

It is known, however, that it was colonial intrusion which served to disrupt in very profound ways the hitherto existing inter-communal harmony and amity. Arbitrary classification of social groups, based on their material status and conditions, was the colonial and post-colonial considerations which informed the evolution of the Rwandan state, as well as the processes of its subsequent political development.

We find in Africa diverse manifestations of this kind of arbitrariness, which on the whole has driven wedges between and among communities and in the process fuelled distrust, hate and above all the ambers of internecine conflicts between and among groups.

The Rwanda crisis is only but an illustrative instance of the enduring realities of colonial legacies which in several contexts, have exacerbated the problems associated with asymmetric access to economic resources and to political power hastening the descent to dismal levels of depravities such as war and the genocide that is the subject matter of the book under consideration.

To my mind, the Rwandan Genocide challenges African people and political elites to rise to the billings of seizing their destinies in their hands and initiating far-reaching processes of socio-political (re) engineering. It goes without saying of course that economic equity, as well as socio-political integration and inclusiveness remain critical to this process.

A keynote address on this subject must not fail to address in significant parts the international dimensions of the issues at stake. Clearly the Rwandan Genocide can, without any equivocation, be said to remain blight on the conscience of humanity. For under the very watch of the international community, a total of over 800,000 people were massacred in a period of about just 100 days.

The monumental scale of the social dislocation that accompanied this unparalleled African tragedy raises one critical question about many others begging for answers: why was the reaction time of the international community so incongruous with the intensity of the mayhem that was being unleashed on defenseless civilians mainly of the Tutsi extraction?

A civil war, an ethnic cleansing process actually, had been ongoing in Rwanda in 1990. The halting attempt at peace, after three years, under the Arusha Accords of August 1993, did have all the trappings of a workable roadmap for a resolution of the conflict and, perhaps the realization of sustainable peace: the creation of demilitarized zones, the demobilization and integration of the opposing armed forces, the phased deployment of the UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda), and most importantly, the establishment of a Broad Based Transitional Government.

But even while a section of the international community was celebrating the Accord, it was clearly obvious that the political will, as well as state capacity to implement it was just simply not there. That much was evident even to the casual observer. Yet the world stood akimbo as the streets of Rwanda turned crimson with the blood of the defenceless.

Yes, the Rwandan Genocide has led to the consideration and adoption of the International Responsibility to Protect (IR2P), a principle now widely accepted as providing a valid basis for bypassing the sovereignty of states that fail to protect their citizens from mass atrocities and gross human rights violations, including genocide, ethnic cleansings, war crimes and other crimes against humanity. The IR2P necessarily complements the December 9, 1948 Genocide Convention. In this regard, the rationale for the IR2P is largely predicated on two basic principles.

First, ‘state sovereignty implies responsibility and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself.’ Secondly, it is considered that ‘where a population is suffering serious harm as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure and the State in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non- intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect.’

Perhaps more interestingly, the IR2P is made up of three responsibilities: responsibility to prevent by addressing the root and direct causes of internal conflict and man-made crises; responsibility to react by responding ‘to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures; and the responsibility to rebuild by providing ‘full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation’ after military intervention and by ‘addressing the causes of the harm the intervention was designed to halt or avert. ‘

Thus, the international community could so intervene under such circumstances via any appropriate means, militarily if need be. This is indeed a radical, but absolutely necessary, reformulation (some would say assault) on the principle of sovereignty. To my mind, the most critical issues in any humanitarian crisis situation, especially anyone that will warrant the eventual recourse to the principle of IR2P, are timing and the mechanism for intervention.

The point has been made earlier about the inauspicious time lag in the global response to the Rwanda Genocide. Preemptive intervention, no doubt, is the most moral and politically expedient thing to do. But what are the most propitious point and time of intervention? Who decides when this moment has been arrived at?

Assuming even that efficient early warning systems deployed across the African continent could effectively flag off the onset of potentially deleterious conflicts within or between states, can we be agreed on the set of objective criteria (and the relative weight or significance of the constituent variables) the presence of which would signal decisive intervention? The high political consequences of intervention dictates that these questions be approached with seriousness even as we are agreed that, in themselves, they are not enough to keep us fixated while conflicts fester and degenerate.

The twin component of this concern pertains to the mechanism for intervention. In the case of UNAMIR, the verdict is self-evident: It was too little too late. I am however somewhat consoled by the several multilateral efforts in Africa, over the past two decades since the Rwandan Genocide, to ensure that there is no respect of self-annihilation.

Beginning from the most recent and walking backward in time, you will all recall that Nigeria, the ECOWAS and the AU have been actively involved in either outright conflict situations or the decisive nipping in the bud all manner of potentially combustive political situations.

To be continued….

Chief Olusegun Okikiola Obasanjo, former military head of State and former president, delivered this lecture entitled The Rwandan Genocide: We saw nothing, we heard nothing and we did nothing as a Keynote Message at the Public Presentation of Rwandan Genocide: Historical Background and Jurisprudence authored by Segun Jegede; at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos On Wednesday, October 13, 2015.

This article was first published in The Guardian (Nigeria).


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