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Rwanda’s gacaca courts are hailed as a post-genocide success. The reality is more complicated.

- June 2, 2017

Men walking in the Gacaca court’s archives in the Rwandan capital Kigali in 2014 where hundreds of stacked boxes hold the trial case documents of almost 2 million people that have been tried before the traditional Gacaca courts between 2001 and 2012. (Stephanie Aglietti/AFP/Getty Images)

Often lauded by international observers, Rwanda’s gacaca courts have long been held up by their proponents as a model for successful, post-conflict reconciliation efforts. Confronted with the nearly impossible challenge of rebuilding a country after genocide, Rwanda needed a mechanism to hold those who committed genocide accountable in an efficient and effective manner. The solution was gacaca: a system of 12,000 community-based courts that sought to try genocide criminals while promoting forgiveness by victims, ownership of guilt by criminals, and reconciliation in communities as a way to move forward. While the organizers and leaders of the genocide were mostly sent for trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, gacaca courts tried more than  1 million ordinary people who served as the foot soldiers of the genocide.

Relying on dozens of interviews, quantitative analysis of data on genocide crime prisoners, and firsthand observations of gacaca court proceedings in four regions of Rwanda, Anuradha Chakravarty’s new book suggests that the reality of gacaca is much more complicated. In “Investing in Authoritarian Rule: Punishment and Patronage in Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts for Genocide Crimes,” Chakravarty offers a detailed and nuanced look at the ways that Rwanda’s ruling party used the courts to build its own legitimacy, as well as the ways that participants in the courts viewed their role in punishing the guilty through the gacaca process.

Her findings are unsettling and suggest that the gacaca process was far more political and much less conciliatory than the casual observer might want to believe. Chakravarty’s central argument is that Rwanda’s ruling party, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), used gacaca courts as a tool of patronage to build the new, post-genocide government’s legitimacy, which in turn allowed the RPF to entrench its rule into the virtually unchallenged authoritarian system in Rwanda today.

Chakravarty convincingly demonstrates that the RPF’s post-genocide consolidation of power in Rwanda evolved based on the cooperation of individual Hutus, who constitute the vast majority of Rwanda’s population and many of whom had committed genocide crimes. While the early RPF consolidation of power “depended on the use of blatant force through killings and arbitrary arrests,” as time passed a system of mutual benefit developed between the RPF and the majority Hutu population it sought to rule. Writes Chakravarty:

In denouncing others, submitting self-incriminating confessions, and judging their friends and co-ethnics, thousands upon thousands of individual Hutu acted upon and enforced RPF rules, reinforcing the regime with their cooperation in exchange for reduced sentences, security guarantees, the possibility of private gains in the form of personal vengeance or economic windfalls, and opportunities to access public power and social prestige. The RPF unleashed a stream of individualized benefits and sanctions that made “opportunistic investors” of ordinary Hutu who backed RPF rule in their own interests.

Thus it was that through the strengthening of a form of patronage that provided Hutus with protection from problems and access to opportunities, it was Hutus themselves who built and reinforced the RPF’s authoritarian rule, particularly through participation in and performance at the gacaca courts.

This incentive-based relationship, though, was not without risks. Because the RPF was the only option for any Hutu seeking to gain better status or avoid worse punishment for crimes, those Hutus had no choice but to work within the RPF’s system of patronage, but this did not mean that most Hutus accepted “that the RPF were legitimate rulers with the requisite clean hands.”

Importantly, Chakravarty does not argue that the RPF intended this outcome from the gacaca process; rather, the social processes of clientelism and increasing authoritarian control evolved over time in response to the incentives that  gacaca  and other post-conflict rebuilding processes set in place. She grounds her findings in a deep understanding of the role patronage relationships have played in Rwandan history and argues that clientelism has always driven relationships between powerful and ordinary actors in Rwanda. Thus, the decision to go along with the gacaca proceedings was a case in which “vulnerable individuals implicitly understood that they needed to solicit the protection and good will of this unrivaled patron.”

Unfortunately, these incentives led to negative outcomes for many Rwandans, particularly those who were falsely accused of participation in genocide. Chakravarty shows how Rwandans, faced with competing loyalties to different family and clan members alongside the need to demonstrate commitment to the gacaca courts, made decisions about whom to denounce and at what times to do so. Fortunately, she finds that “gacaca courts had secured some local peace,” preventing further violence and limiting the space for disputes to escalate into more dangerous situations. That limited space is a double-edged sword, however, as authoritarian control is essential to maintaining it.

Chakravarty’s findings suggest the need for much more scholarly work on the “tacit bargains” that govern relations between elites and mass publics in the aftermath of atrocity crimes; as she notes, the bargain expressed in and built through the gacaca process is not an inter-elite legislative or ruling party bargain, but rather “an informal elite-mass social contract that consolidated the new order by tying the new elites to their social constituents, and demonstrating to them (‘clients’) the benefits of cooperating with and advancing within the system.” Of particular interest is a question Chakravarty raises in the context of comparison with Nazi Germany’s postwar accountability and justice processes: the ways that individual citizens having a choice of patrons rather than being forced to rely on a sole patron (as in Rwandan) influences outcomes in modern transitional justice processes.

Chakravarty’s work is an indispensable read for anyone interested in transitional justice, post-conflict reconciliation or Africa’s Great Lakes region. Comments from her subjects on topics ranging from how Hutus and Tutsis perceive the RPF’s dominance to whether the gacaca courts actually provided justice offer invaluable insight into how ordinary Rwandans think about their relationship to their government and whether reconciliation has really happened since the genocide ended. Chakravarty does not evaluate whether gacaca was a success, nor does she claim that gacaca was Rwanda’s only potential path to authoritarian rule, but her findings should compel more scholars to explore comparative cases in which vulnerable populations might respond to incentives that lead to the consolidation of authoritarian rule in the wake of mass atrocities.