How genocides occur

YESTERDAY, Sunday, April 7, the government and people of Rwanda marked the 25th anniversary of the genocide which claimed 800,000 Tutsis and their moderate Hutu sympathisers.

Nigeria was represented on the occasion by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.

Also present on the occasion were leaders of Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Djibouti, Niger, Belgium, Canada, Ethiopia, the African Union and the European Union.

Following a civil war that began in 1990 and during years of political crisis culminating in the airplane crash that claimed the life of then President of Rwanda Juvénal Habyarimana, presumably shot down as it was preparing to land at the airport in Kigali, all hell broke loose!

In his address, President Kagame declared: “The arms of our people, intertwined, constitute the pillars of our nation. We hold each other up. Our bodies and minds bear amputations and scars, but none of us is alone. Together, we have woven the tattered threads of our unity into a new tapestry….Our people have carried an immense weight with little or no complaint. This has made us better and more united than ever before….What happened here will never happen again.”

The year 1994 remains fresh in my memory. I was a young lecturer at Oxford at the time. I recall that I could not eat and was disconsolate for weeks. The mere sight of beef often made me want to throw up, having beheld so many gory pictures of dead bodies floating on Lake Kivu. For the first time, I felt ashamed to call myself an African.

Rwanda is the real come-back kid. Under the lean and hungry-looking, austere Paul Kagame, the country has registered great milestones in political stability, economic growth and human development.

He has proven to be an astute nation-builder who has given the East African country a new identity and a new sense of collective purpose. Paul Kagame is not your run-of-the-mill liberal democrat. He can be quite authoritarian. But the country seems to work. Rwandans need the support of all the men and women of goodwill throughout the world.

As we commemorate these horrific murders that took place a quarter of a century ago, it is also crucially important to meditate on the origins and causes of genocides – to understand how they can happen to apparently “normal” countries.

Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

In the 20th century alone, more than 50 million souls have perished on account of genocide.

The opening salvo was the genocide committed against the Greeks by the Ottomans, in which 900,000 perished.

The following year, one million Christian Turks of Armenian origin were systematically wiped out on the orders of the Ottoman Turkish authorities in one night of bloodletting orgy. First, all the Christians in the military were summarily retired. And all Christians living in the Empire were scrupulously disarmed. And when the genocide arrived, they had not means of protection, individual or collective. A further 800,000 were again killed in 1922.

When Adolf Hitler set upon his own genocide, he was cautioned not to repeat what happened to the Armenians. His famous retort has been oft-repeated by succeeding generations of historians: “Who remembers the Armenians?” Hitler demanded to know.

The most well-known case of genocide was the Shoah or Jewish holocaust, in which an estimated six million Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps. But the Nazis actually did far worse.

Under the Generlplan Ost, an estimated 13.7 million people were killed in Nazi-occupied Europe, many of them prisoners of war (POWs).

But the Nazis were not the only culprits. The policies of forced collectivisation during the years 1932 to 1933 in the Soviet Union under Generalissimo Stalin led to the death of more than 7.5 million peasants.

During the so-called Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao Zeidung, a staggering 78 million people perished in China. During the war of parturition between Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Pakistani authorities masterminded ethnic cleaning of an estimated three million Bengali people.

Africa has known more than its fair share of genocidal episodes.

Among the first victims were the indigenous Khoikhoi people of the Cape, whom the early Dutch settlers of the Eastern Cape systematically massacred into extinction.

You could also say that the nineteenth trans-Atlantic slave trade was a form of genocide. An estimated 18 million slaves were transported to the New World. An estimated 14 million perished while more than 20 million died as a result of the wars, internecine strife and other destructive impacts that came with the evil trade in human souls.

During the same century, King Leopold of Belgium committed genocide against the Bakongo people of his benighted Congo Free State. According to one estimate, more than seven million souls perished.  In the early twentieth century, the Germans committed genocide against the Herero people of South West Africa (now Namibia), in which more than 110,000 were killed.

Nigeria has had its own genocides which we prefer not to own up to.

During the 1967 pogrom by Northerners against a fleeing Ndigbo people, an estimated 300,000 were massacred in cold blood. More than one million Biafrans perished during the Civil War.

Since the 1980s, ethno-religious killings have claimed more than 100,000 lives. Herdsmen militias are still having a field day in the benighted Middle Belt, killing and maiming and raping. Nobody has been arrested and nobody has been prosecuted for these crimes.

From what history shows us, genocide begins in the hearts of men and women. People nurture hatred in their heart. They allow it to grow and permeate the wider society. Evil propagandists soon begin to spread the gospel of hate. They gather more and more disciples.

Politicians who imbibe these evil doctrines soon find their way into power. They gain control of the police, the army and the law-enforcement and security agencies. They also take control of the mass media. Anybody who disagrees with them is committing “hate speech.” They begin to use the military and law-enforcement agencies against their perceived enemies. They also hound the judiciary, which is the last refuge of the common man.

A culture of silence soon descends on the country. Before you know it, the entire society is engulfed in flames.

It is evident from the foregoing that genocide does not occur through one big-bang event. The spirit of genocide encroaches on society degree-by-degree. Before long, a mindset predisposing people into accepting genocide takes over the national temperament. In the words of the Pastor Niemoller, one of the Lutheran evangelical leaders of the resistance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”