I met my client Pierre in a southern Rwandan prison in 1998. “The authorities ordered us to kill Tutsis,” he explained. It was, he was sure, a defense that could lighten his sentence.
He had pleaded guilty to killing about half a dozen Tutsis in Rwanda’s genocide four years before. The new Tutsi-led government was now trying perpetrators. And I, a young survivor just back from exile, had been drafted to be his lawyer.
“Bari badutegetse kwica abatutsi” were his words in Kinyarwanda, our language. He assumed the judge would understand them as he did.
Pierre was wrong. The judge eventually gave him a life sentence. But as I listened to him, I realized he had opened a door for me onto one of Rwanda’s deepest mysteries: why so many ordinary people had followed orders to kill their neighbors. It struck me that Pierre probably would have killed me, too, had he found me hiding in bushes as I fled the murderous Hutu Interahamwe militias 20 years ago this month.
The key to understanding him lay in a culture in which orders from above, even if evil, are followed because they are confused with the law itself.
In Rwanda, neighbors did not kill neighbors in the first days of the three-month slaughter; that pattern developed only after officials decided that the presidential guards and Interahamwe were not killing fast enough. So the officials organized meetings and took to a hate-spewing radio station to call on citizens to kill fellow citizens; this edict then went down a chain of authority so thoroughly that intimate murder, and deep societal trauma, became common.
One of the worst calamities I know of was in my own family: The Hutu husband of a Tutsi cousin of mine — presumably fearing for his own life — followed an order from armed militiamen to kill her in front of their children. The act was so unspeakable that when Tutsi rebels finally stopped the genocide, another cousin, seeking vengeance, killed the father in front of the same children. I cannot imagine what scars those now-grown children carry.
As for myself, I was fortunate. I was able to flee the capital, Kigali, for Rwanda’s western border, where I swam a mile or so in the middle of the night across the tip of Lake Kivu to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 1998, I returned to help Rwanda rebuild. With fewer than 50 members of the bar there and 140,000 genocide suspects awaiting trial, I was required to defend clients like Pierre. As a Catholic taught by nuns, I had imagined Pierre as a literal devil, with horns, tail and red eyes. But when we met, he was clean, well shaved, with a normal human face and a strong sense that he was guiltless. It was hard to believe. I asked him what he meant by “bari badutegetse kwica abatutsi.” And he revealed Rwandan culture’s tragic flaw.
You can hear it in our maxims. “Intero nyirurugo ateye, niyo wikiriza” means “the tune the head of the household begins is what everyone in the house sings.” “Umwera uturutse ibukuru bucya wakwiriye hose” means that orders from above spread quickly, in the form of rules. “Order” and “law” translate the same: “itegeko.” A “law-giver,” an “order-giver” and an “authority” are each an “umutegetsi.”
This culture of unquestioning deference existed before the genocide. Its role in 1994 has been noted before. What is less noticed is that it persists today — in less lethal form, but not without dangers for the future.
To be sure, this time it is helping Rwanda pursue positive goals. Before 1994, Rwandans were told they were Hutus and Tutsis, mortal enemies. Today, official policy dictates that there are no Hutus or Tutsis; everyone is a Rwandan. Rwandans have memorized this slogan well; they repeat the mantra even in the remotest parts of the country. But its acceptance springs from the same vulnerability as the complicity in genocide did: the instinct to obey rather than to choose, when told how to think or act.
Reconciliation has proceeded in similar fashion. Under the transitional justice system known as gacaca, introduced to speed up genocide trials and promote truthful confessions, forgiveness and reconciliation, a gacaca judge would ask a survivor if she really forgave the murderer of her children and she would say: “The government forgave them. What can I do? I also forgave him.”
Advocates of enforcing these reconciliatory attitudes say the strategy has helped the strong-handed government of President Paul Kagame improve security, build a dynamic economy, improve public health and reduce corruption.
Sustaining these achievements is another matter. To do that, the government now must focus on changing the culture of obedience, for two reasons: so that the instinct to follow leaders blindly never again leaves evil unchallenged, and to nurture habits of individual thought that are essential to growth and freedom in any modern society. Rwandans need steps to create a true rule of law, rather than compliance: education that emphasizes critical thought, not obedience; reliance on strong legal and legislative institutions rather than strong personalities who give edicts from the top.
The government must invite initiatives from the bottom, tolerate vigorous public debate and remain within the rule of law.
Before 1994, officials often told the public that when the president says “I wish” or “I recommend,” he means “I order.” Low-level officials still do that, and they must stop. Rwandans have to learn it is all right to question their leaders, and mandatory to refuse to cooperate with evil.
Nobody should ever tell some other lawyer, as Pierre told me, that killing Tutsis was within the law simply because someone in power ordered it.
Jean-Marie Kamatali, a former dean of the National University of Rwanda School of Law, is an assistant professor at the Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.