Partly told ‘Jenoside’ story: Why it all happened on such a scale

Wednesday April 13 2022
Ntarama Genocide Memorial, in Kigali.

A picture taken on March 22, 2019 shows skulls of victims of the Rwanda's 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, in Kigali. PHOTO | JACQUES NKINZINGABO | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Thursday, April 7, formally marked the 28th anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (Jenoside as rendered in Kinyarwanda), in which nearly one million people were killed.

Twenty-eight years, the picture of who did the killing, and who was complicit, is about 75 percent clear.

The known number of people killed is about 55 percent, as mass graves continue to be found. The really difficult question is the why. On that, we probably know only 35 percent. That’s partly because the facts about the complex global dynamics that enabled the genocide to happen at the scale that it did remain locked away in deep dark places.

It remains one of the big unfinished businesses for African scholarship and political inquiry in the future.

We might have to throw away everything we think we know when we reach there. There are three dominant framings of the Genocide against the Tutsi in global discourse.

One is that the United Nations and the international community failed, and there has been no shortage of apologies from UN chiefs and powerful world leaders for the slip.


The second is that racism was at play; this was in Africa, where natives usually slaughter each, and there was nothing new to see there. Seeing the world powers’ concern and actions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, one can’t help but feel there might be a point there.

The third is that the genocide happened at a time of one of the most defining events of the 20th century; the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the election of Nelson Mandela as its first democratic leader. The whole world indeed was focussed on or was in South Africa, and there was room for little else for a few weeks.

These explanations suggest that the scale of the genocide can be explained by the fact that the international community dropped the ball, people were negligent and inattentive, and because of tribal passions.

There are other possibilities. Take just three events. Jonas Savimbi and his Unita war in Angola, one of the major proxy cold wars of the 20th century, backed by the US, apartheid South Africa, and the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now DR Congo) had been defeated. Mobutu himself was on shaky ground by April 1994.

Namibia had gained independence in 1990 as South Africa reeled from defeat in Angola, and the curtain began to come down on the white minority rule at home.

In Somalia, the US intervention had ended in a fiasco, with the famous “Black Hawk Down” incident in October 1993, and it was retreating with its tail between its legs.

One of the demands of the time in the wider neocolonial context was to make an old point — that “Africans can’t govern themselves”.

Then came the shooting down of the plane carrying former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana on the night of April 6, 1994, and the Interahamwe brought out their machetes.

Now there’s an emerging narrative on the African margins that it was the perfect opportunity to make that old point, so it had to play out.

In short, the powers that be needed the genocide to happen, but we are just not yet ready to look that possibility in the eye.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3