Of all the genocides in recorded history, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 arguably takes pole position for the level of brutality and carnage that saw around a million persons (varying estimates) butchered within a period of 100 days. To put the scale of death in context, the Rwandan population in 1994 was about 6 million persons. Via a recent trip to Rwanda, I learned a bit more about the infamous genocide and could not avoid seeing parallels between 1994 Rwanda and today’s Nigeria.
First of all, having toured the Kigali Memorial Centre and interacted with survivors of the genocide, let us dispel two points commonly assumed around the world but totally incorrect. When we hear Hutu and Tutsi, we think of regular “ethnic groups”, maybe something like the Ibibio and Gbagyi in Nigeria. However, I was shocked to be informed that Hutu and Tutsi were never delineated by bloodlines. Rather, a Hutu was a relatively “poor person”, while a Tutsi had at least 10 cows. Hence, people could switch between being Hutu or Tutsi based on how life and their sweat favoured them. Somewhere along the line, colonial forces came into the picture and convinced Rwandan people who spoke the same language that there were biological differences between Hutu and Tutsi. In a classic game of divide-and-conquer, the Hutus were convinced that Tutsis were responsible for their lack of affluence. This planted the seeds for the genocide. Of course, this does not absolve Rwandans of responsibility for swallowing the rubbish they were told.
The second point is that the 1994 Genocide was not the first. For decades, there had been regular killings, more like “mini genocides” that did not catch the world’s attention. In fact, some months prior to the April 1994 Genocide, the murdering group had organised a rehearsal where a number of Tutsis and Tutsi-friendly Hutus were killed. This was like a proof-of-concept which demonstrated that a large scale genocide could be undertaken. The main thing about what the world now knows as the genocide was the scale of killings, blatant backing by the Rwandan Government, and subsequent Civil War that led to Paul Kagame of the Rwandan Patriotic Front leading a force of refugees to overthrow the genocidal government and reset the clock for Rwanda.
How does all these concern Nigeria? Well, if anyone looks at Nigeria in any kind of detail, you would notice quite a list of parallels with 1994 Rwanda. For one, Nigerians are bitterly divided by a ruling class that has convinced the country that the state of poverty and underdevelopment is caused neither by corruption, officialised robbery, incompetence nor blatant nepotism, but by the other tribe, other religion, or other region. Secondly, across the country, there is a perception that a certain kind of people are able to break laws, and commit mass murders without worrying about any consequences. The perception is that the government turns a blind eye to these people or actively facilitates their atrocities, or only acts to stop any attempts at reprisals. Thirdly, there has been a string of mass murders across Nigeria that a regular conspiracist could finger as signs of a rehearsal for a “big” genocide. As at the time of writing this article, many innocents have just been slaughtered during a Sunday service in Owo in Ondo State. This continues a string of mass murders that even predates Nigeria’s independence. Fourthly, there is an increase in vitriolic propaganda that seeks to incite the population to a rage of violence. The propaganda cum brain-washing appears to be working as even university-trained white-collar operatives proudly defend murders in defence of one ideology or another.
The clouds are gathering, but must we allow rain to fall? In Nigeria, we do not seem to understand that no one or group has a monopoly of violence. The stones, machete or AK47 you use to cause terror can easily be used by another person to render equal or even greater violence. In Rwanda, the “Hutu” executed the genocide, but it was the “Tutsi” that reigned supreme at the end of the Civil War. As a truly Nigerian proverb states, “no be first to go police dey win”. We have a lot of chest beating across Nigeria as we forget that we can only predict the start of a war; nobody can predict the end. Nobody thought the two World Wars would last that many years, or that America would spend twenty years in Afghanistan, or that Russia would still be struggling to cut Ukraine to size after 102 days.
Although Rwanda is not perfect, we can learn some things from them about preventing full-blown anarchy in Nigeria. Very importantly, the new Rwandan Government officially recognised the genocide as a real event. Today, Rwandans live in “relative peace”, which I can attribute to a sense of justice. A survivor who lost his father and brother during the 100-day anarchy explained how Rwanda set up mini courts to try people who had been involved in the murders and destructions. This way, at all levels from the street to the national level, Rwandans had a perception that guilty ones received an appropriate punishment and this helped to douse the urge for revenge. So far, Nigeria has not learned that without justice, there can be no peace. After every round of killings, some official statement filled with vague nothingness is released, sometimes grudgingly after much delay, and everyone goes back to await the next iteration.
Enforcing justice helped to convince Rwandans to put the genocide behind them and treat themselves as one people. Although this may not work in Nigeria, it is now illegal in Rwanda to refer to someone as a Hutu or Tutsi. By law, they are all Rwandans, period! Achieving oneness would require that we fix recurrent complaints about unfair treatment. We have tried nepotism and quota-aligned distribution for decades. Maybe it is time to try meritocracy and fairness, and see if it makes a difference to our level of development.
The clock is ticking for Nigeria. Each round of violence pushes more persons to join the japa troupe, emigrating with talents that Nigeria needs. Each round of unaddressed violence also increases the mass of aggrieved persons who may be bidding their time for revenge, even where the culprits might be “terrorist groups”. If we do not want spontaneous conflagration that would overwhelm Nigeria, we must consider pushing the fast-aligning Swiss cheeses out of alignment. If Nigeria should burn, the entirety of West, North, and Central Africa would feel the destabilisation. If this is not a scary outcome, God help us!