YOU MAY have heard claims that 1994 Rwanda is happening all over again in the Central African Republic (CAR).
What those who push that line mean is that human beings have, once again, lost it: killing, maiming, beheading children, raping and disemboweling women.
There is also photographic evidence making the rounds of a young man eating human flesh. Officially it may not be genocide as was the case in 1994 Rwanda. However, some of the worst conduct by human beings is clearly observable in that country.
And so in that limited sense yes, there is a Rwanda happening in the CAR.
There is more. Both the Central African Republic and Rwanda suffered decades of dictatorship and identity-based discrimination. In both countries, minority groups were subjected to discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds.
Decades of mistreatment of the kind people in the two countries have experienced can help stir things up. In both cases, it did. Twenty years apart, the minorities in each country rebelled and eventually captured state power. Finally, having taken charge, what or who was there to prevent them from doing as they pleased?
The Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel group consisting of alliances and led by Michel Djotodia, came to power in March 2013, sweeping away François Bozizé, a Christian. It was the first time since independence that a Muslim had ascended to such dizzying heights.
In power, the Seleka began to carry themselves with impunity, mostly targeting Christians: looting, raping, and killing. With its leadership doing nothing to bring the situation under control, it appeared as though all this mischief was condoned from high up. Ordinary people joined in to torment their ‘long time enemies.’
As often happens, the situation did get out of control, becoming impossible for anyone to manage. Unfortunately for the CAR, this was just the beginning.
The same logic that brought ordinary Muslims into the streets informed the decisions of Christians who perceived the indifference of the authorities as a signal that they needed to ‘defend themselves.’
They organized ‘militia’ groups calling themselves the ‘anti-balaka.’ Soon enough they were on the streets and in Muslim households, baying for the blood of Muslims.
With the Muslim population making up only 15 percent of the population and therefore greatly outnumbered, fears that there might be a genocide followed.
Meanwhile, having failed to bring the situation under control, Djotodia was forced out and allowed to flee to Benin.
Torn apart, the CAR is hoping the peacekeepers, including our very own Rwanda Defence Forces, can resuscitate her back to life.
Which leads us to the question: If the CAR is becoming Rwanda of 1994, why didn’t Rwanda after 1994 become the CAR of 2014 given similar initial circumstances?
The answer lies in understanding that power brings responsibility. Victory must also coexist with humility if it is to produce positive and lasting outcomes.
Here was a country where the worst that could happen to a community occurred, with many of the victims and survivors blood relatives of large numbers of the victors who were armed to the teeth. Like the Seleka, state power gave them the ability to conduct themselves as they wished. They never did. Those tempted to exact revenge were punished.
Three important things happened. First was the gesture to the general population. In what appeared like a radical idea at the time, ordinary people were told they needed to unite and reconcile, to consider each other as compatriots in order to build a common future.
The second gesture was towards the politicians of the old order. While the victors could have gone it alone, they did not. Instead they reached out to this group as long as they accepted to be part of building a culture of unity and reconciliation among Rwandans.
Some of them did and have made important contributions to the country; others refused and chose to depart for exile. Thirdly, some members of the defeated army were given the opportunity to reintegrate, with many retaining their status as senior officers to the chagrin of some among their former ‘enemies,’ many of whom were henceforth required to subordinate themselves to the foes of yesterday.
While some of these gestures may have been difficult for some to stomach initially, many have come to understand that they were important founding ideas that enabled the country to reestablish order and stability and placed it on a path to sustained socioeconomic development.
There is therefore a double message in the story that the Central African Republic is becoming a Rwanda. It is a warning about what happened in Rwanda in 1994 and also recognition that Rwanda after 1994 could have become the Central African Republic.
Instead it has gone on to become something of a model for post conflict transition and reconstruction.