Clientship, Corruption, Terror: Behind the Scenes at the New Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts

In this companion essay to his CSSH article, “Gacaca, Genocide, Genocide Ideology: The Violent Aftermaths of Transitional Justice in the New Rwanda”, Mark Anthony Geraghty provides a true “behind the scenes” account of the corruption and illicit negotiations outside of the courtroom that impact Gacaca trial outcomes.

Genocide Commemoration event in 2009, where a man wears a t-shirt with the words “Remember Tutsi Genocide 1959-1994” (Photo by Mark Anthony Geraghty)

My CSSH article ethnographically investigates the Gacaca Courts as a technology of terror maintaining the very foundation of the New Rwanda, examined through the singular instantiation of the retrial of a man I called Gahutu. Grasping the necropolitics of these trials involved focusing on their practices not only within the officially inscribed boundaries of public performance that constituted “the trial,” but also those beyond the visibility of the court. 

One of the persons most active behind the scenes of Gahutu’s trials, yet who rarely spoke in court and generally sat out of sight at the very back or didn’t attend at all, was the husband of the woman who had accused Gahutu of verbal persecution, a man named Ndabateze. Neighbors whom I got to know well during the years I spent living in this area—who did not include Gahutu’s family since they were too afraid to speak to me—told me Ndabateze had approached Gahutu’s family long before his case was brought before Gacaca. Ndabateze himself later justified this as an offer of ‘help.’[1] However, on an immediate level, it could only have been a request for money or some other form of payment in return for mediating with the judges to ensure that the case did not go forward. This was no more than the daily workings of Gacaca, which placed an enormous burden on the lives of so many Rwandans during the years these courts were in operation.

Though Ndabateze did not officially work for the courts, he became part of the elaborate and secretive process behind the organization of trials. He was a local government official at the lowest level of state administration, which meant he was deputy head of some 150 houses. Though this office received no formal wage, it was invariably used as an opportunity to elicit ‘tributes’ (ruswa). This practice was condemned as “corruption” by the state, even though the state indirectly facilitated it. Ndabateze was resented within the neighborhood, by Hutu and Tutsi alike, for being especially “corrupt,” that is, for seeking to demand ‘tributes’ without providing services actually desired in return, which disrupted the accepted circuits of reciprocity between ‘patron’ (shebuja) and ‘client’ (umuja) by turning them into a purely exploitative process. The introduction of Gacaca presented Ndabateze and countless others the opportunity to extend the courts’ terror with the incentive of extracting levels of economic/symbolic capital previously unimaginable for such low-level officials. This was due to their differential access to the sovereign power to let their neighbors live their normal lives or imprison them for up to life (which was locally understood as equivalent to a death sentence given the deprivations of Rwanda’s prisons). That is, with Gacaca, the Rwandan state not only unleashed a new technology of terror upon the local population, but also “decentralized” its deployment into the hands of certain sections of the ‘ordinary people,’ whilst indirectly exercising a certain latitude of control over that necropower through the hidden structures of the ruling party.

During the National Genocide Mourning Ceremonies in Nyamata, Rwanda, April 7, 2008, a man wears a t-shirt declaring: ‘We Commemorate the Genocide for the 14th Year as We Fight It’s Ideology’ (Photo by Mark Anthony Geraghty)

Since Ndabateze was not a Gacaca judge, or Inyangamugayo, he owed his ability to attach himself to the Gacaca process to the ties he cultivated with two of the most powerful Inyangamugayo in the region. Though Inyangamugayo can be translated as ‘those who hate wrongdoing,’ among the vast number of those who secretly criticized these courts, the conduct of Gacaca judges earned them the name Inkundamugayo—‘those who love wrongdoing.’ The first of these Inkundamugayo was the Secretary of the court that (re)tried Gahutu and one of the most hated figures in the neighborhood. Women working in the market would complain that she would order them to deliver to her home the produce she wanted and in lieu of payment would ask, ‘Where is your husband?’ in the same breath as informing them that Gacaca was still making new dossiers. She was also reviled by genocide survivors critical of Gacaca, who condemned her insatiable appetite for corruption as ‘profiting from the blood of our relatives.’ She had an unconcealed vitriol toward those who opposed her, whom she labelled “Hutu” regardless of their locally recognized ethnic identity, even in conversations with me. 

This Secretary worked closely with the overall President of Gacaca for this region (Umurenge), Ntibindeba, who charged himself with spearheading the creation of dossiers. Ntibindeba’s reputation for corruption, many would surreptitiously point out, was manifest, in part, in the house he managed to build for himself during the Gacaca process despite having no other source of income. It seems the Secretary, to whom Ndabateze was closer, requested Ntibindeba to attend Gahutu’s retrial. His presence was unusual given that Gahutu’s family were considered ‘mere peasants’ (abaturage) with neither money nor status to merit the interest of Ntibindeba, who generally focused on cases where the opportunities for reward were far greater. During the retrial, Ntibindeba publicly reprimanded the President of the court, whom he outranked, seemingly to pressure him not to make the mistake of again acquitting the accused. 

Through these contacts, Ndabateze would sometimes participate in the meetings where Gacaca trials and their outcomes were secretly organized and decided. During these meetings “witnesses” were chosen and instructed on what to say, and questions were formulated for those who would participate as ordinary attendees. Ndabateze enlisted his family members to direct the narratives of trials, and his wife and children were also locally prominent due to being active in the official organization “representing” genocide survivors (IBUKA). At such meetings, those Inyangamugayo who had the power to decide cases would meet other ‘advisors’ (abajyanama) of the neighborhood, prominent members of IBUKA, leading RPF “cadres” (Intore),  police officers, and other prominent locals who had an interest in particular verdicts though rarely attended trials. All these participants were trusted local RPF members. According to different Inyangamugayo I got to know well, senior RPF leaders who wanted to intervene in a Gacaca judgment would phone the President of the court in question or summon them to their office. 

Thus, Gacaca opened up new possibilities for low level officials to attach themselves as clients to more powerful patrons than they previously had access to (see also Chakravarty 2016). They were able to call upon these senior figures within the political/security apparatus whenever they had problems with the law, such as when caught accepting corruption payments, as happened numerous times during my research. 

A Genocide Commemoration banner above a road in the town of Nyamata, Rwanda, in April 2008, which includes the declaration: ‘We Remember the Genocide as We Fight It’s Ideology’ (Photo by Mark Anthony Geraghty)

Once I had established an ambivalent acceptance—as a “friend of Rwanda,” a novel but ‘naïve foreigner,’ or ‘one of ours’ (uwacu) who ‘intelligently’ knew how to keep quiet—by certain members within this ‘group’ (groupe) or ‘clique’ (agatsiko), as they were called within the neighborhood, I was able to witness the secret organization of trials and discussions of corruption payments (as “Fanta” and ‘help’). And before trials concluded I was able to gain knowledge of the sentencing to come from members of this wider “court.” While state anxiety about the dangers posed by foreign researchers meant that I, like others in that category, was often referred to as a ‘spy’ (maneko/intasi) or ‘accomplice’ of those “against” the government (icyitso), such fears were often allayed by the widely circulating stereotype of foreigners as ‘ignorant.’ In this discourse foreigners did not master the same hermeneutics of suspicion to unmask ‘that which escapes those incapable of deep analysis’ (inshoberamahanga), those ‘things which can be hidden from the view’ (ibakinga ibikarito mu maso) of foreigners. And many would point out, as confirmation of this position, the endless instances of foreigners uncritically reproducing as fact the state’s self-legitimating narratives, whether on Gacaca, the Genocide, or any other aspect of Rwandan politics. Thus, the use of allusive and coded speech was often narrated as beyond the comprehension of a foreigner for whom everything that happened in Gacaca and beyond was ‘merely watching TV.’ However, my long-term residence and status as an outsider also resulted in certain forms of trust by those critical of the very “system” they worked within.

According to Ndabateze, Gahutu’s family ‘arrogantly’ rejected his offer of ‘help.’ Here we find a justification and explanation for their proceeding to face Gacaca. In my article I investigate the historical, political, and cultural import of such ‘arrogance’ and the way it came to be ethnically re-inscribed through the narrative of the “Genocide Against the Tutsi.” Such certainty in one’s innocence raised the question for these “courts” of whose “truth” was being invoked or performatively enacted, problematically, beyond the apparatuses of the “new” state. This certainty, along with that of what constituted the crime of genocide, were precisely what Gacaca came to undermine. If Ndabateze was driven solely by money he would not have pursued Gahutu’s family, whose financial resources were severely limited, which was why the dynamic of narrowly defined “corruption payments” was far more marginal to this trial than many others. Their refusal to pay, their rejection of continually performing their subservience within this new system of domination, was not enough to ensure imprisonment, as Gahutu was initially acquitted of the more serious genocide charge. This was an index, in addition to the factors described in the article, of Ndabateze’s relatively tenuous access to Gacaca’s powerful patron-client networks. It took the reported act of gushinyagura (or ‘mocking misfortune’) to raise the specter that precipitated the court to overturn the decision it had made only two weeks prior.


Chakravarty, Anuradha. 2016. Investing in Authoritarian Rule: Punishment and Patronage in Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts for Genocide Crimes. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Rafael, Vicente L. 1988. Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[1] As part of the process of prioritizing the fundamental yet too often overlooked question of translation (see Rafael 1988), I distinguish between my translations, official translations, and untranslated/direct quotes. I use (1) single quotation marks for my translations (i.e., interpretative glosses) of Kinyarwanda language terms; and (2a) double quotation marks for direct quotes (i.e., untranslated local terms, whether in English, French or Kinyarwanda) as well as (2b) when more generally voicing a discourse other than my own. (3) For those terms whose accepted “equivalents” also circulate widely in Rwanda in English, including official state translations, I use double quotes for both Kinyarwanda and English versions (e.g. “ruswa” is officially translated as “corruption,” though its longer genealogy also gives the sense of ‘tribute’ within clientship relations). My CSSH article precisely examines what gets “lost in translation” even within languages; where the shared use of an imported category (“genocide”) has blinded the literature to its very different semantic and pragmatic range, resulting in the astounding yet unquestioned assumption that the central object of these courts was a case of miraculously seamless translation from the legal texts of international law to local discursive practices in Rwanda.