Last week was dominated by the last three days of the national week of remembrance of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Contemplating the barbarity systematically meted out on a section of Rwandans in a bid for extermination even for a paltry seven days out of 365 is no small matter.
A few years ago, someone told me that to appreciate the scale of the crime of the Genocide, one should attempt to count from one to a million. At a rate of one numeral per second, that would translate into approximately 2778 hours or about 115 days of counting. When you consider that the Genocide took a similar duration in days from April to July of 1994, then the massive scale becomes immediately apparent. Every second in the hundred days saw the death of at least one Tutsi.
Two other thoughts have bothered me about the Genocide over the years, whenever I tried to understand how it happened. The first is how many ordinary people participated in it and how openly they did so. These days, many lay the blame on the extremists, who were implementing the final and inevitable part of the Hutu power ideology and it is true that they formed the nucleus of the planning and execution of the Genocide.
However, the way it occurred in Rwanda meant that, unlike the Jewish Holocaust in the Second World War, which took place in walled off ghettoes or isolated concentration camps, there was active participation of several ordinary people and indifference or general apathy from a huge section of the population. This brings me to the second and even more disturbing thought.
If ordinary people can be convinced or coerced into actively killing their neighbours or remain passive in the face of a crime so enormous in scale that no penal system, national or international, is adequately prepared to prosecute and convict the culprits, then it can happen anywhere and at any time.
Recent events in the Ivory Coast where pro-Gbagbo militia roamed the street on the hunt for ‘foreigners’ or in Libya where Gaddafi managed to use terms that would chill both Jews and Rwandans by variously referring to the rebels as ‘rats’ and ‘cockroaches’ or even the electoral violence in nearby Kenya of January 2008, show that all that is required is state sanction and logistical support combined with the propaganda of hate.
Ladies and Gentlemen, for all the progress made since 1994, everything can be reversed in short order with the wrong sort of politics.
Some have suggested that Rwanda should open itself up to the kind of ethnic politicking that occurs all over the continent where politicians openly pander to tribal/ethnic affiliations of their voters.
This is a mistake because it necessarily means that whoever is governing does not have to do much more than occasionally demonstrate to his tribe or ethnic group that s/he is working in their interest through corruption and patronage.
On top of this, the whole discourse stops being about ideas but rather about the parentage of whoever happens to be your opponent. Then, of course, in moments when such leaders feel like their hold on power is in peril, they go to the dark side and plan to do away with their ethnic ‘enemies’.
We may chant ‘Never Again’ as loud and often as we like, but in the end, we shall only ensure this slogan by being eternally vigilant that sectarian politics never make it to the national discourse.