This is not my first post about the Rwandan Genocide. It will probably not be my last. But this is not about the genocide, which should actually not be called a genocide (but more on that later.) This is about where it stands in the context of the world, and where the world stands in relation to it. I can still remember getting a glimpse of CNN in July 1994, I was gasping for news of the genocide, but CNN had a feature on how events in Rwanda had affected the existence of the mountain gorilla.

There were some whispers of the history that led to these events, but as we did not study history in school at the time, it sounded more like rumours and fables. So I decided to study history. In our history classes we studied Nigerian history, a whole lot of West African history and some other African polities and personalities like Buganda and Shaka Zulu. Had I known that African Studies existed, I may have done a first degree in that, I was left with studying law to avoid being an absolute disgrace to the family. To my disappointment law consisted of studying legal rules of criminal law, tort, banking, constitutional law etc. It was not until my fourth year at university when we studied international humanitarian law that I began to see some sort of relevance of my degree to the world outside our borders. It was probably no surprise that the latter part of my legal education was overwhelming dedicated to the study of genocide – definition, prevention and reaction and so forth.

What have I learnt?

Violence is not an isolated matter but an isolated manifestation of wider structural actions and inactions. Naming things and isolating them often allows us to abdicate responsibility for any action. It freezes each event into a moment of time that we can step back from, hold our hands up and say ‘Nothing to do with me’.


The ‘Rwandan Genocide’ is a complete misnomer. We focus on those two words and ignore the external things that put them into place.

Rwandan – It was more about the world’s historical actions and eventual inaction. If Rwanda was a completely isolated society, the ‘genocide’ would have been less likely to occur.

Genocide – This requires a much longer explanation. Genocide is defined by Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention) and very similarly by Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court thus:

“genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to  destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group*, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

* emphasis mine

The problem with this definition is that it is so precisely exact, its effect has been to almost entirely exclude any mass atrocity from that definition. I wrote a whole essay on this, but for the purposes of this post I will only focus on the group element of the above definition. A defendant can only be charged with genocide if they committed the alleged act against a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” distinct from their own.  In the Rwandan ‘genocide’ the ethnical differences between the Hutus and the Tutsis were contested. The International Criminal Tribunal Of Rwanda grappled with this for most of their initial case Akayesu. Eventually, the ICTR in Akayesu suggested that the political differences between the Hutus and Tutsis amounted to ethnic, racial and national differences even though there were few actual differences in language or culture; and thus concluded that genocide had occurred in the area. The court adopted the notion that it was enough for the differing groups to see themselves and each other as ethnically different to qualify as different; thus making self-identification as different equivalent to actual group difference. Note again, there was no national difference, no racial difference, no religious difference, only a self-identifying non-ethnic difference instituted by the German and Belgian colonisers thus:

‘Colonial rule, then, provided the resources, imposed the structures, and asserted the pressures that helped shape the state-building process in a particular way. A major effect of this process was the propagation of a corporate vision of ethnic groups. Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa came to be viewed as internally homogeneous groups, and their members came to be treated in distinctive ways by the state. This made groups that had previously shown more internal flexibility appear more like biological groups.’ [Newbury: 11]

‘After World War II, the scientific enterprise of categorizing Hutu and Tutsi moved into full gear, and more objective, scientific methods were employed. The most famous examples are Pierre Gourou’s agronomic maps, Jean Hiernaux’s anthropometric data (1954), and Jacques Maquet’s ethnicity surveys (1961). The latter two did extensive fieldwork dealing with the  question of the distinctions between, and origins of, the Hutu and the Tutsi. They followed very different methods, with Hiernaux measuring people’s height, nose size, and skull circumference, …Hiernaux measured only people who were selected by the colonial authorities and missionaries, and, it is believed, these people were selected on the basis of their closeness to the ideal type as seen by the Belgians’ [Unvin:156]

So we can see that it was not even a technical genocide, even though declared to be by the ICTR. Even though this is what everyone calls it. Akayesu was a stretch, the sound of the world slamming the stable door shut after the horse of humanity had bolted. Many story-tellers of the genocide start their tale-telling on the 7th of April 1994, but the story started much earlier. Most stories focus on Rwanda, but the epicentre can be found in the heart of the world’s moral compass… or lack thereof.



‘Today is the 7th of April.

Today we remember.

Tomorrow we must change,

So we do not stand here ever again.’



Akayesu V. Prosecutor; Case No. ICTR-96-4-T;  URL:

Byron, C., “The Crime of Genocide.” pp 143-177. The  Permanent International Criminal Court: Legal and Policy Issues. Edited by McGoldrick, D., Rowe, P., and Donnelly E., Oxford & Portland (2004).

Newbury, C. “Ethnicity and the Politics of History in Rwanda.” Africa Today 45.1 (1998): 7-24.

Uvin, P. “On counting, categorizing, and violence in Burundi and Rwanda.” Census and identity: The politics of race, ethnicity, and language in national censuses (2002): 148-175.

Zahar, A., and Sluiter, G., International Criminal Law: A Critical Introduction. Oxford University Press, UK. (2008).

Previous articleWinnie Madikizela-Mandela: Will they let her rest?
African woman, lawyer, teacher, poet and researcher. Singer of songs, writer of words, very occasional dancer of dances. I seek new ways of interpreting the African experience within our consciousness to challenge static ideology.

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