Police Accountability in Rwanda
Police accountability promotes stability in nations and increases safety in security. Directly related to reducing poverty, police accountability mechanisms assist community members, specifically the poor and disempowered, to politically mobilize and exercise agency over the future.

In the context of Rwanda, corruption and brutality have been historically prevalent; however, massive improvements have been made in safety and security. Today, Rwanda has one of the highest ratings of citizens’ evaluation of safety, corrupt police officers have been largely eradicated and a strong partnership has been established between the citizens and their protectors. Police accountability in Rwanda is consistently improving and measures have been taken to reduce corruption.

History of the Rwandan Genocide

In order to understand the context of police accountability in Rwanda, a brief background of the genocide that occurred in the 1990s is necessary. Before the genocide, Rwanda’s ethnic makeup was dichotomized: a large majority (around 85 percent) identified as Hutu, and the minority remaining were Tutsi. When Belgium colonized Rwanda, they put the faction of Tutsis in positions of power to rule over the Hutu.

Tensions continued to be exacerbated, even before the colonial rule ended. A Hutu revolution occurred in 1959 that caused over 300,000 Tutsis to flee and eventually resulted in Rwandan independence. Racialized violence continued for years until extremist Hutu leaders began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), consisting of mainly Tutsi refugees, responded with reciprocal violence, which continued until finally a coalition government was formed.

During the genocide, an estimated 800,000 were murdered, a majority of which were Tutsi. Much of the violence of the genocide was gender-specific, and it is reported that in the course of 100 days over half a million people were sexually assaulted. The aim of this violence was to tear apart communities, and it succeeded in that.

After-Effects of the Genocide

After the genocide, Gacaca courts were established in an effort to promote truth-telling and create a unified state. Gacaca courts, in the short term, disrupted women’s efforts to reestablish normal social relations in local communities, and in the long term delivered justice for some and established at least a partial truth about what happened, but many Rwandan women and men felt they were denied justice.  

These courts were flawed in their process of acknowledgment and straddled the line between restorative and punitive justice in many communities. The Rwandan government aimed to keep down mass incarceration levels after the genocide, and the Gacaca courts seemed like a good solution.

There were many shortcomings of the Gacaca tribunals. Several recent accounts of the courts’ performances reveal an egregious lack of due process protections, damaging the fairness of punishment as well as the prospects of reconciliation, according to leading scholars. Many judges of these courts, usually village elders, received minimal training and no lawyers were involved in the trials. Reports of false testimony were common and sentences neither followed a system nor were consistent.

Many Rwandans, nevertheless, served time in prison due to the determinations of these judges. Some have even said that these courts are an example of when a society so strongly yearns for reconciliation, citizens put justice before truth.

The legacy of these tribunals, and the tension that still exists for many Rwandans, led to the corruption and brutality that was perpetrated by the police in the early 2000s. Extrajudicial executions, meaning killing prisoners without legal process or judicial proceedings, were common and frequently made the news.   

Improved Police Accountability in Rwanda

Much has changed since then. Reform and a focus on security and accountability have been successful, and in Transparency International’s latest survey in 2017, Rwanda was ranked sub-Saharan Africa’s third least corrupt country. 200 police officers who were implicit in extrajudicial executions and implicated in corruption were dismissed from duty and the government has been hailed as one with no tolerance for corruption.

Police accountability in Rwanda has been condemned by leaders, and Rwanda police spokesperson Theos Badege said there would be “no mercy” upon corrupt officers in the police. “It is a national policy to ensure zero tolerance to graft,” Badege said, adding that accountability and integrity are among the core values expected of police officers while on duty. The past does not define this nation; instead, it helps shape the nation’s brighter future.

– Jilly Fox
Photo: Flickr