At the advent of colonialism, Europeans assumed that African societies were organized along ethnic lines. They thought that whenever these groups came into contact violence would ensue; naturally, they believed that these groups needed to be separated in order to minimize violence. Consequently, the colonialists set them into apartheid-like arrangements (Bantustans or native settlements) in ways that prevented contact that would descend into an orgy of massacres. Identity cards were issued so that it would be easier to know who belonged to what Bantustan. Only the Europeans would moderate cooperation or exchange between these groups in order to preserve social order. Up to this day, this logic has continued to inform ‘peace building’ education, a story for another day.
What the Europeans didn’t say was that rather than preventing disorder, they were afraid of nationalist cooperation that could stir resistance to colonial rule. In this quest and owing to the separation, they successfully cowed the natives into submission until the “winds of change” that brought colonialism proper to an end started to blow, mostly as a result of ethnic groups breaking this Bantustan barrier and coming together to demand independence. This nationalism that transcended ethnicity was the rule for much of Africa, with a few exceptions such as Rwanda.
Independence in Rwanda was pursued within the purview of ethnic nationalism. Belgians, who had issued identity cards as proof of difference between the Hutu and Tutsi, denied any form of nationalistic cooperation and common agitation that they were sure would be directed towards them. They offered independence to the Hutu elite on condition that they would identify the enemy as the Tutsi. They also feared that the Tutsi elite appeared left leaning and would join the Soviet camp in the Cold War imperialist competition for the capture of, and influence over, newly independent states into their respective camps.
Independent African states retained the colonial logic of state management, the idea that cooperation between ethnic groups is a danger to social order, which shaped the competition for the control of the state and the allocation of resources and opportunities. In Rwanda the idea that when two ethnic groups come into contact violence ensues was elevated to a permanent intent to destroy a group in part or in whole, precisely what genocide means. This intent to destroy in part applied on numerous occasions throughout much of the post-colonial period until 1994 when it was elevated to an intent to destroy in whole.
But why did groups that had demonstrated that ethnic cooperation was not anathema to order retreat to the colonial logic of state management after the ‘victory’ of independence?
One reason is that despite formal independence, African states remained neocolonial in character, answerable to and under the suzerainty of the former colonial masters from whom they would seek protection from the threat of the ethnic groups they had conceived as enemies of social order. Secondly, the memory of the African elite that had been in service of the colonial state was never reformatted and was therefore incapable of conceiving the state beyond its Bantustan design. The body was African but the mind European and colonial.
The colonialists coopted traditional authorities, kings and chiefs, in order to sell a semblance of legitimacy to the natives. They understood themselves to be a bargaining chip in the quest for “peaceful” colonization. Similarly, the elite that replaced the traditional authorities in state administration understood that they wielded enormous influence in terms of legitimacy and that they could weaponize ethnicity for personal gains.
Ethnic groups were the dynamite and they held the trigger. It was also the bullet proof that allowed them to engage in all manner of criminal malfeasance without expecting to be held accountable. But the state could only allow this impunity that decentralizes (to the group) responsibility and centralizes (to self) the benefits for as long as the ethnic entrepreneur retained the ability to hold his group hostage.
States that have been able to disarm the instrumentalizing of ethnicity have done so by rejecting ethnic-based representation. For this reason, the criminal conduct of Victoire Ingabire (convicted and pardoned) has not been decentralized to all Hutus despite her claim that to hold her accountable is to victimize all Hutus.
A key lesson people learned from the genocide was that they had been deceived by its architects that if they participated en masse, none would be held to account. Gacaca courts demystified all that. Consequently, it has been difficult for Ingabire to convince people to subject themselves to criminal behavior, mobilized along ethnic lines. Ultimately, Ingabire has to either learn a new politics or accept individual responsibility for her conduct.
It is therefore a crime of genocide ideology to conceive Hutus as killers, because conceiving them as such was precisely the aim of the architects of genocide. To do so is to align with the thought system of genocide masterminds. For this reason, the descendants of the architects of genocide have no criminal relationship with their forbearers. It is therefore unfortunate the members of JAMBO-ASBL, an association of young people in Belgium that pushes the denialist narrative, have failed to disentangle themselves from that legacy of criminality.
On the surface, these descendants are genocide deniers. In fact, they are hostages of the ideology of their forbearers that sought to link their tribe to criminality. They were the true enemies of the tribe for which they claimed to speak, a dishonor and burden being carried forward by their offspring.
Rather than conceive criminality as the common denominator of the architects of genocide, they are choosing to see ethnicity as the common denominator. Prejudice has conditioned their self-perception rendering them unable to decipher that criminality is a horizontal (across ethnicities) activity whose responsibility perpetrators seek to evade vertically (within an ethnicity).
As noted above, ethnic entrepreneurs seek to assign criminal responsibility to groups rather than individuals. On the contrary, architects of national unity must conceive criminality as a horizontal endeavor. For this reason, the promoters of Ndi Umunyarwanda (Rwandan rather than tribal identity) must underscore that people’s ethnicities do not carry criminal culpability. For genocide, they must also explain that it is the criminals who weaponized Hutuness into criminality because they believed their entrepreneurship to be threatened.
Ndi Umunyarwanda will only manage to nurture national unity if it is able to delink criminality from any group. In so doing, it will leave behind only the goodness of a people ready to conceive one another as compatriots. Only by de-weaponizing ethnicity can you cut the fingers from the trigger of ethnic entrepreneurs, leave them emasculated with the only option available to them being to consider national unity, even if reluctantly.
If successful, the legacy of Ndi Umunyarwanda will be the kind of cooperation that colonialists said Africans are incapable of, an idea that tribal entrepreneurs bequeathed and carried forward at independence. A common identity would be the shield under which every Rwandan, or indeed every African, can find protection in return for patriotism, compatriotism, and solidarity.
This is an unimaginable threat to tribal entrepreneurs.