For me, some of the most unbearable images from Africa's recent fratricidal wars are of Sierra Leoneans whose limbs have been hacked off by that unfortunate country's vicious rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). It is heartbreaking to imagine the terror of the peaceful citizen, already harassed to the limit by a savage war whose cause they don't quite understand, when that war arrives at their door in the shape of a band of doped, brutalized kids dressed in women's wigs, armed with assault rifles and machetes. Imagine the moment of horrible knowledge when a machete is raised above the arm; imagine the splitting of bone, the crash of unspeakable pain, the sight of the severed arm and the rush of blood; imagine living with the pain and the horror after that, replaying it in your head day after day after day.
It is inconceivable that those responsible for such atrocities should escape punishment. Yet Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF, and other actors in the Sierra Leonean civil war were granted an amnesty under the 1999 Lomé Accord facilitated by West Africa's leaders. Exhausted by a seemingly unwinnable war in which they had intervened to defend Sierra Leone's elected government against the RUF and its allies - and having lost hundreds of their soldiers and spent millions of dollars they could ill afford - these leaders were desperate for a settlement. Foday Sankoh has recently been put on trial in Freetown because since that amnesty he has committed even more crimes against the Sierra Leonean people. If he had managed to restrain the demons inside him, Sankoh might have remained super-minister in charge of Sierra Leone's diamonds and other mineral resources, the position which he extracted at Lomé as a price for ending his reign of terror. The RUF recently participated in the Sierra Leonean elections and their presidential candidate was one of Sankoh's senior lieutenants.
If a man like Sankoh could be rewarded for savagely terrorizing his fellow citizens with a senior position in government, if the party he led and his lieutenants can be allowed to compete in an election, how are we ever to root out the culture of impunity in Africa? But if the only alternative to rewarding savagery is even more savagery, can there be any doubt where the rational choice lies?
Recently, many people around the world were shocked when Wouter Basson, apartheid's Dr Death who, on behalf of the army, conducted live experiments to find painful ways to kill black people, was acquitted by a South African court of the numerous crimes he'd been charged with. That acquittal brought back another painful memory, of apartheid-era President John Vorster, who among other things presided over the massacre of Soweto's schoolchildren, successfully defying both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the South African courts.
Given the singularity of the Rwandan genocide, it's no surprise that the Rwandan Government has worked extremely hard to bring the perpetrators of that crime to trial. But its efforts have been bedeviled with difficulties. More than 100,000 genocide suspects awaiting trial have remained in prison, in unacceptable conditions, for several years. Amnesty International has observed regarding those prisons: 'Gross overcrowding, poor hygiene and medical care, and insufficient food continue to cause widespread disease and thousands of deaths. Torture and ill-treatment of detainees is common, especially in local detention centres and military sites.'
The Rwandan Government has now resorted to gacaca, a traditional form of justice where thousands of people chosen by Rwanda's communities, after short courses in law and procedure, will try genocide suspects. There would be a right of appeal to higher courts, but for lawyers (like myself) trained in sophisticated procedures for protecting the rights of accused persons, who have seen even such procedures fail again and again, gacaca is very troubling. But what is a poor country confronted with the horror of mass-participation genocide to do? If the Rwandans were to follow the example of the relatively well-funded International Criminal Tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania, whose work rate is three or so judgments a year, it would take 10 centuries to try just the 3,000 people suspected of committing the most serious crimes.
Clearly, there are no simple answers. But no matter the difficulties, no matter the frustrations and occasional perversions, we must continue to support in every way we can (including through constructive criticism) the efforts to achieve justice in our much-abused continent. In The Burden of Memory, his essay on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the distinguished Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka observed: 'When a people have been continuously brutalized, when the language of rulers is recognized only in the snarl of the marauding beasts of prey and scavengers, the people begin to question, mistrust and then shed their own humanity and, for sheer survival, themselves become predators on their own kind.' In seeking to bring those guilty of crimes against our fellow, often defenceless, Africans to justice, we are thus engaged in retrieving our humanity. The struggle against impunity is not just about setting limits for acceptable behaviour even in wartime, not just about rejecting the rule of naked force: it is also about repairing some of the damage we (and others) have done to ourselves.
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7