Riddle of the machete: Why does genocide occur?

Thursday April 20 2017



Last week, Rwanda marked the 23rd anniversary of the genocide in which nearly one million people, the majority of them Tutsi, were slaughtered in 100 days of madness.

According to The EastAfrican, the executive secretary of Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against the Genocide, Jean Damascene Bizimana, was not a happy man.

He warned that new cases of genocide denial and genocide ideology are emerging, driven largely by social media and the internet.

Threats against genocide survivors inside Rwanda, he said, had also gone up ahead of the anniversary.

It’s not much of a consolation, but as recent months have shown in the US and Europe, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic attacks are up sharply, 72 years after World War II during which six million European Jews were killed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

On the whole, though we like to convince ourselves otherwise, outrageous crimes and tragedies have rarely led to lasting and profound changes in national – and regional – behaviour.

At the regional level, if the 1994 Rwanda genocide had had far-reaching impact, events in Burundi, South Sudan (or even Kenya with the post-election violence of early 2008) wouldn’t be happening.

One reason only little change happens, has to do with how we deal with genocide and other heinous crimes.

Mostly, governments in the region and around Africa have invoked the genocide to limit freedom of expression.

Genocide, even among those appalled by it, and progressives, then comes to be seen partly not just as a crime against humanity, but also something that governments use as an “excuse” for repression.

That debases and robs it of some of the moral condemnation it should evoke.

Related to that, most initiatives against it – by governments and civil society – tackle only what you might call “headline genocide.” “Headline genocide” are things like hate speech, vocalising, publishing, or promoting genocide ideology, or denying it.

This takes the forms of laws, the building of genocide memorials that display the horrors of it, and such things.

Few tackle the “genocide subtext”; the deadly stuff parents tell their kids around the dinner table; the dog-whistle politics and acculturation of elders, community leaders, and even religious establishments; or the existential fears and prejudices people harbour deep down about those who are different. Admittedly, it is a very difficult thing to do. Much easier to just pass a hate speech law.

The Internet has been the perfect vehicle for channelling the prejudices that lurk in these dark places.

But even at the level of tackling “headline genocide,” a lot more could be done.

Assume you want to know more than WHAT happened in Rwanda in 1994 and who was behind it, but to understand WHY it happened, and how you could possibly a genocide from happening in your society if you not Rwanda, the knowledge for that is not in Rwanda.

Rwanda should, ideally, have one of the world’s leading genocide studies schools or programmes, because it has the credibility to host it, and the painful material, for its study. It doesn’t – at least not yet.

It owes it to itself to help answer this vexing question: “How do you end genocide revisionism and the resurgence of denialists?”
Someone needs to make Mr Bizimana’s day.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]