“We sacrifice more than people realize for this cause”:A conversation with Dr. Gerald Gahima

Recently at a conference sponsored by the Royal African Society in London and organized by Dr. Phil Clark, Professor at London University,  numerous academics presented research works on a variety of topics regarding the state of Rwanda under twenty years of post-conflict governance under the Rwandan Patriotic Front since the 1994 Genocide. Topics of the conference ranged from agricultural issues, youth in Rwanda, political opposition and peace building.

Due to the nature of the conference, being an academic conference, no direct quotations or information can be used in any publication.  Journalist received this requirement the night before the conference began.

One of the distinguished presenters, Dr. Gerald Gahima, spoke with this writer about his presentation at the conference and his research. Dr. Gahima’s paper, entitled “Peace building in the aftermath of mass atrocity: Evaluating the impact of the Peace Building Enterprise under the RPF,” presented a comprehensive and conclusive examination of the topic of which he is no doubt quite well experienced in. Two weeks after the conference, I interviewed Dr. Gerald Gahima on the issues which his presentation at the London conference addressed.

Dr. Gahimas answers are summarized below with his approval:

JF: What will it take to stop the cyclical violence of ethnic wars in Rwanda?

GG: I need to state at the outset that the views I express in this interview are strictly my personal views. The first key would be Security Sector reform. This step is required because security sector institutions are currently being used to advance the interests of one person or a small group of people. Additionally, the rule of law, as well as democratic institutions are required in order for the cycle of violence to end. Further the army, intelligence services and the police must be institutions in which all communities in Rwanda are represented. I do not propose that the existing army and other security sector institutions have to be disbanded or destroyed. I believe the RDF must be part of any future political settlement. It is, at the very least, an insurance against who might otherwise be tempted to complete the genocide of the Tutsi. However, the institution must be reformed and be made more inclusive to ensure equal protection for both the Hutu community as well as the Tutsi, for supporters of the government in power as those who oppose its policies. Reform of the intelligence services is particularly critical. The Rwanda Defense Forces Army not a homogeneous group of bigoted or blood thirsty men. The intelligence services are the more dangerous part of Rwanda’s security apparatus. I believe the majority of officers and men of the Rwanda military are patriots who want the best for the people of Rwanda. They are as much prisoners of the group that controls ultimate power as we civilians are. The intelligence services are, in my opinion, a different matter. They are responsible for the daily persecution, killings, and disappearances of real and imagined enemies of the government and general fear that the country suffers from. It is well known that the intelligence services have been directed to imprison any opposition members but when it comes to the Rwandan National Congress, any suspected members or supporters are to be killed without question or due process.  Therefore, the key to stopping the cyclical nature of ethnic based violence in Rwanda is building a fair, impartial and balanced judicial system and institutions of security and law enforcement in which all communities are represented at all levels and which serve the interests of all citizens rather than personal or sectarian interests of individuals or narrow groups.

JF: You quoted Bizimungu in your paper that in 2007, he stated, “If things do not change… Hutu people they will rise up in 15-20 years and essentially revolt. What needs to change? Do you agree with his comment?

GG: Yes, I agree with this statement and I and my colleagues discussed this in our document The Rwanda Briefing. These sentiments are frequently in writings and audio and video publications, especially websites hosted by oppositions groups comprising of predominantly Hutu refugees. These publications argue that if the political climate does not change to give the Hutu community an equal balance of representativeness in the management of the Rwanda state, then they will be forced to impose these changes by any means possible. The risk of an uprising is very high and the cycle may repeat itself but it is not inevitable. Rwanda should look to the example of Burundi. They have many similarities to Rwanda such as ethnic make-up, same history of conflict, same history of genocide but they have been able to resolve their problems peacefully and to start building a society that where ethnic groups  do not feel that they can only secure their survival by total exclusion of the other from control of political and military power. Burundi was able to accomplish a peaceful outcome through external pressure. The Tutsi were forced to negotiate with Hutu resulting in Hutu being allowed political parties and have representation in politics and security services. There are elements of conflict that remain in Burundian society, but these are conflicts between political groups, that are not based on ethnicity. Burundi definitely has lessons for Rwanda. None of these measures are steps that President Kagame would want to take but I believe he is able to contemplate them.

JF: What is your understanding of what life is like for present day in Rwanda and specifically for the Hutu population?

GG: First, I do not agree with all that some in the opposition have to say about the situation in Rwanda. I do, for example, agree with all that some opponents of the regime say about how the government is mismanaging the economy. I believe the government is generally doing as well as is possible in terms of economic management. Unfortunately, though, it is evident resources allocation and control of political power aligned. Poverty in Rwanda has an ethnic dimension. There is an imbalance of power toward Tutsi in Rwanda as well as economic inequalities. I do not agree that there is a deliberate policy to impoverish the Hutu people but there is no doubt that Hutu are discriminated against as well as marginalized in political representation.   Economic inequalities between rural and urban population are quite glaring. A disproportionate percentage of the urban population is typically Tutsi. Urban dwellers have better  access to state provided services and a better quality of life where as rural communities, who are predominantly Hutu, live in abject poverty. Relatives of people in power get differential treatment over the children of peasants in terms of access to employment and business opportunities. This is not unique to Rwanda. It happens in democracies as well. There is a historic precedent of ethnic division of economic factors. Oppression breeds grievances that fuel conflict. We discussed this in the Rwanda Briefing. Existing social and political inequalities are fueling conflict that could turn violent any time. Unless these inequalities are addressed, they could lead to new violence (possibly even another genocide) against the Tutsi community.

JF: Why is the current ruling government in Rwanda exclusive of the Hutu people? Is it primarily due to the unbroken cyclical historic context or are there other reasons?

GG: The Rwanda government’s narrative about ethnicity is a living contradiction. Once there is a genocide, it is established beyond debate that there are specific and distinct ethnic groups. The narrative that “we are all Rwandans” is a contradiction especially since the genocide is now called “The Genocide of the Tutsi.” The Rwanda government denies the existence of ethnic groups but at the same time uses ethnicity to distinguish groups within Rwandan society in its policymaking. An initiative of President Kagame’s government requires that all Hutu apologize for the genocide to all Tutsi. This is a ridiculous and counterproductive request since the youth and many Hutu did not participate in the 1994 genocide. It is futile to deny that ethnic groups exist in Rwanda and the objective is not to oppress Hutu but to suppress all opposition Hutu or Tutsi. I do not believe that the Hutu are singled out for persecution by the regime. The regime persecutes anyone perceived as a threat to its survival, regardless of ethnicity. Because the Hutu are the majority and more of them are openly opposed to the regime, they endure the most of the discrimination and persecution. Far fewer people in the Tutsi community are willing to take the risks that regime change may entail. Many in the Tutsi community are apprehensive that political change may entail violence against them yet again.

JF: Under Habyarimana, did the Tutsi face the same discrimination and oppression as the Hutu do today?

GG: There has never been a regime as oppressive as the current ruling regime in Rwanda. In the 1960’s there were terrible attacks on Tutsis in which more than 20,000 people died. Large numbers of the Tutsi community were internally displaced. Other Tutsi fled to exile. The population of the Tutsi in Rwanda was reduced by half as a result of these events. The other half were either killed or left into exile in order to survive. The human rights practices of Kayibanda and RPF regime bear similarities. The current regime can only be compared to that regime in the early 1960’s. However, considering what happened to the Hutu refugees in the DRC in the 1990’s, it may not be appropriate to compare the regimes. Under the late President Habyarimana, in the early years of his regime, the previous party to his experienced much violence after Habyarimanas party took power but none was experienced after that initial situation. During much of his time as president, President Habyarimana did not kill Tutsi, but they were marginalized in regards to access to schools, employment and service in government. They were excluded from playing a role in the society as equal citizens but they were not killed on a daily basis as is done today under Kagame’s regime. No other Rwandan president has ever been as intolerant or blood thirsty as the current president. President Kagame does not care about human life in Rwanda, Africa or the world as a whole. There is no comparison to him. It must pointed out however, that by far the worst of the human abuses that Rwanda has endured was the 1994 genocide. I personally do not believe that Habyarimana bears responsibility for the genocide itself. He was involved in the planning and carrying of violence that preceded the genocide. However, I personally believe that the decision to undertake an outright campaign to exterminate the Tutsi was taken by President Habyarimana’s inner circle after the President’s death. However, for the genocide against the Tutsi, even the violence that the Hutu community has suffered in both Rwanda and the DRC would not have happened.

JF: What is the population consensus between the Hutu and the Tutsi?

GG: My best guess is that the population is 90% Hutu and 10% Tutsi. I confess I have no idea.

JF: Restoring peace under RPF: There have obviously been some successes but the return of the refugees by force from DRC caused “Large scale loss of life.” Was this anticipated and/or planned? When word began to return from the battlefield that many were being murdered why wasn’t the mission stopped?

GG: I agree that there are successes under the RPF. Not everything they have done is bad by any means. Rwanda has successfully restored order and established some stability, if you compare to situations like such as Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and other states that have been through violent conflict. Order and relative public security should not be equated with democracy or peace. The process of imposing public order is not always in the best interest of the citizens. Rwanda has in my view also made progress in providing social services over the last 20 years. If violence does occur in modern day Rwanda, it is because the government intends for it. The government has the capacity to provide security that most post-conflict societies cannot. Although, this has not brought peace to Rwanda.

In regards to the invasions of the DRC and the atrocities that are alleged to have been committed against Rwandan refugees in those operations, I was not party to decision to invade the DRC. We now know that many died in these wars but there were not briefings that I was a part of as to the situation on the ground. I learned of the atrocities later when I was doing my research at the United States Institute of Peace.

JF: Who led this invasion on the ground?

GG: General James Kabarebe, I believe, led both the operations in DRC as well as other leaders I am not aware of in other theaters of war. President Kagame, of course, retained ultimate command of those operations.

JF: You give two definitions of peace, negative and positive peace. Given those definitions of peace is seems like there is a cold war type of environment in Rwanda between the ethnic groups. Do you agree with this statement?

GG: When there are unresolved historical grievances between communities, one cannot say there has been reconciliation. When people are not yet free to discuss what problems they have as well as past grievances, there is no reconciliation. Until freedom of expression and political participation is open to all members of Rwandan society, one cannot speak of reconciliation. For example, Victorie Ingabire returned to Rwanda and spoke of the issues of Hutu victims of violence and she was imprisoned with others who have also spoken up on political issues. The grievances these political prisoners have spoken of are true and legitimate. One party to a conflict cannot unilaterally decree true reconciliation. There must be an opportunity for all stakeholders to come together with open minds, to express their differences and to acknowledge the grievances of the other. Reconciliation is only possible when parties in conflict have an opportunity to resolve issues between them through dialogue and then coming to terms and agreement to live together in peace on terms that are fair to all. This has not happened in Rwanda. One group will state, “We have brought you peace and you must accept it with no discussion.” There many unknown truths that must be opened to debate before reconciliation is realized. An example of these unknown truths include the responsibility for the plane crash that killed President Habyarimana as well as the planning of the genocide against the Tutsi. The ICTR failed to investigate the plane crash and to hold those responsible for it to account. Nevertheless, the killing of the President in no way justified the systematic attempt to exterminate the Tutsi community. The ICTR did a poor job prosecuting the genocide cases. It does not make sense to have such large-scale, state led violence without planning but the ICTR has not proved who bears responsibility for the planning and direction of the genocide. The kind of violence that happened in 1994 does not happen by accident. The truth about the organization of the genocide and who led it must be known before reconciliation can occur. Reconciliation is difficult when revisionists are at work, striving to make the world to believe that the genocide was merely an unavoidable consequence of the spontaneous anger of the people over the murder of the President. I do not agree with the narrative of the Rwandan government that the genocide was planned from 1991. I believe, however, that genocide was nevertheless planned and was not a spontaneous reaction due to the shooting down of the presidential plane; the killings that began immediately were too well organized. I came across proof of that organization in my work as a prosecutor.

JF: In your paper, you wrote that, “Rather than promote reconciliation, Rwanda’s transitional justice processes have become a source of new grievances between Hutu and Tutsi communities.” Can you explain this statement?

GG: The government of Rwanda believes that the Gacaca court system was the climax of reconciliation. My opinion of Gacaca is well known. I was not in support of this process from the very beginning. I did not believe there could be fair and impartial judicial processes when accused people were to be judged by communities in which their friendships and family connections far outweighed the influence of the few survivors of the genocide. Further, the evidence was often unreliable. Gacaca trials relied on oral testimonies from witnesses, as there was no forensic evidence. Much research on Gacaca indicated that denial is still prevalent in Rwanda. Many Rwandans believe that the ICTR has been unjust to the people it has tried.  However, if all those who have been tried by the ICTR, Gacaca and ordinary Rwandan courts are victims of injustice, then who committed the genocide? To say all of these legal processes are unjust seems extreme. Many believe all these legal processes are another way the Hutu community has been victimized by the RPF. Gacaca has led to intensification of ethnic cleavages at the community level and this was foreseeable from my perspective.

JF: It seems to me the RPF replaced Habyarimana regime and is frankly similar. How are these regimes similar and how are they different from your perspective?

GG: There are differences between the two regimes. The Habyarimana was pushed into making major concessions during the 1990’s. This led to the establishment of a coalition of government in which opposition parties had real power. Opposition political parties were allowed to function during the last years of the Habyarimana regime, although they did experience some violence. Opposition parties were always allowed to exist, to exercise the right of assembly and to advocate for their policies. During the last years of the Habyarimana government, the media was free, so free to the point of inciting genocide. Human rights groups reported on human rights situations and advocated openly to the government as well as the world.  Under the RPF, these gains have been rolled back. These freedoms exist merely on paper. The RPF pushed back all of the progress towards opening of political space and exercise of fundamental liberties that briefly begun to flourish between 1991 – 1994. There is physically less violence now in Rwanda than there was in the last three years under Habyarimana but the people were more free than they are today.

JF: Do you think in your lifetime Kagame will ever be charged for war crimes and crimes against humanity under the ICC? Why or why not?

GG: No, Rwandan courts will not hold President Kagame accountable unless he is overthrown. Outside forces, such as the major world powers of the US or UK decided a long time ago that in the interest of security and stability in the Great Lakes region, President Kagame should never be held accountable for any crimes for which he may be responsible. I do not see them going back on that decision. I believe President Obama is no fan of President Kagame but with the so-called “war on terror”; the US is focused elsewhere and has been for the time President Obama has been in in office. U.S. policies are driven by alliances that advance its strategic interests and not by human rights concerns. Global powers, including democracies like the UK and US have no problems working with dictators if it serves these interests. President Kagame does that in many ways for both super powers. Kagame has, for example, proven himself as a useful proxy in regards to peacekeeping missions in places such as Sudan. The decision to not hold Kagame accountable came long before Obama entered office; the decision was made back in the days of former President Bush, Jr. and former President Clinton who remain close to Kagame in many ways. The ICC is too dependent on what the major super powers want and, thus far, Kagame has been and will probably remain a beneficiary of those relationships.

JF: Your book, Transitional Justice in Rwanda, has had mixed reviews as to its tone. Some who have read it say it is pro-RPF, what do you say to those statements?

GG: I have not heard any reviews either positive or negative in regards to my book. Although, readers should not be surprised at the tone, I served the RPF for 14 years. Journalist and so-called academics always seem to want the dirty details on Kagame and I find this line of questioning insulting. When we took up arms against the Habyarimana regime, it was in support of a cause that we believed and still believe in. With the experience of the genocide, I now believe in change by only peaceful means. Nevertheless, I feel disgusted that people would think we sat around and planned to do harm when we took over the reins of power after the genocide. We felt what we were doing was right. Even today, I do not judge people serving in Kagames government. The vast majority of people who serve in the Rwandan government love their country, do their best, and believe what they are doing is right. Sadly, they are hostages. I do not agree with academics who say everyone who disagrees with Kagame should go into exile. It is our country and we are its people. I do not owe anyone any explanations for my time of service in that government. I have no apologies to make because I felt I was doing the right thing and my conscience does not disturb me about anything I did. I tried to build civil and justice services and did it in good faith. It is part of my heritage and I am proud of what I accomplished. I have no regrets. Clearly, there are things that have not gone right in Rwanda.  Still, it is an illusion to argue that the RPF has not achieved anything either. President Kagame is very corrupt and misuses his power but not to the degree of Uganda or Kenya. There are many people in Rwanda who are serving the country and working hard to improve the wellbeing of its people. Just because Rwanda is not a democracy it does not mean there are not people working in the best interest of the people of the country in that government.

JF: Do you miss Rwanda? Do you see yourself returning to Rwanda while the RPF remains in power?

GG: Yes, I miss Rwanda. No, I do not realistically see myself returning to Rwanda soon. Because of reasons that I have given earlier in the interview, I do not advocate a change that would lead to the destruction of the RPA. Yet, I would never feel safe and secure living in Rwanda whereas some of the current leadership of the RPA remains power. The risks to my life and the lives of my family and colleagues would be very high.

JF: Do you feel a sense of betrayal for being tried in absentia on charges that do not exist against you and then being sentenced to more than 20 years in jail?

GG: Taking on the RPF is not a decision one makes lightly. You lose all you have worked for and your livelihood. Going to exile and being a refugee again is very humiliating and not an easy decision to make. Nevertheless, I do not feel any sense of betrayal by that decision of the Rwanda’s kangaroo military courts. I make this stand boldly and with purpose and these are the consequences. I take my sentence not as a betrayal but as a badge of honor. We have stood up for what is right. We have suffered for it and I have the scars (figuratively) to prove it. We sacrifice more than people realize for this cause. Let the academics who judge my actions show me their own scars. We are speaking not because we seek to return to power, but because we aim to prevent the horrendous risks that Rwanda faces if things do not change peacefully.

JF: Will you ever tell your personal story that so many have asked for?

GG: Yes, Theo, my brother, started that with his book. I believe I will tell mine but there is no hurry. I hope that those who presume they have the power of life and death over and other us will allow us to live  long enough to tell the story if necessary! However, first and foremost, the cause before us now is that people face daily risks and imminent catastrophe in Rwanda. We are privileged to be in a situation where we can speak out. We are working on their behalf. We and many others on the outside are their voices.

By Jennifer Fierberg

Source: Africa Global Village


  1. Nibarize Mr Gahima : Bwira abanyarwanda-kazi ukuntu nawe wahoze muri Cyama, wica ugakiza, none ubu ukaba wihindura “umunyakuri, inkuzi ya Justice, etc” ? Ubwo se wibwira ko abanyarwanda-kazi bakiri mw’icuraburindi ? Abo bose bameze nkawe bakwiye kumenya ko “iby’isi ni gatebe gatoke”, kandi ngo “ukora ikibi ukagisanga imbere” !
    Uwakoreye ikibi abanyarwanda-kazi, wese azirengera ingaruka z’ubugome, ubusambo n’ubwicanyi mwagiye mukorera abana b’u Rwanda. Mr Gahima, turambiwe kukumva mwishyira ku ruhande rw’abarengana, kandi ari wowe na bagenzi bawe mwasize mushyizeho “Systeme” mbi y’agahoma munwa ! Ceceka rero, dore ibihano by’Imana kuri mwe niyo bigitangira ! Imana ifashe abanyarwanda-kazi b’indahemuka kandi buzuye urukundo n’ubunyangamugayo. Dany Mayisha.

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