South Sudanese tribal chiefs visit the Genocide Memorial in Kigali during a visit to Rwanda in October 2014.
South Sudanese tribal chiefs visit the Genocide Memorial in Kigali during a visit to Rwanda in October 2014.

KIGALI - A senior official in Rwanda's reconciliation process is calling on South Sudan to apply lessons on how Rwanda came back from the dark days of the 1994 genocide, in particular the system of the gacaca courts.

"If you can use them and rebuild peace, rebuild unity, rebuild development, why not for them to use it before they have a tragedy?” Habyalimanana Jean Baptiste, executive secretary of  Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, said during a visit by traditional chiefs from four South Sudanese states last week.

South Sudan should set up programs that encourage reconciliation, Jean Baptiste said. Forgiveness is a key first step on the road to reconciliation, he added.

Gacaca courts

Rwanda's home-grown gacaca court system was set up when officials in the country realized that the national court system was unable to handle all of the cases related to the 1994 genocide.

Under  the gacaca system, communities at the local level elected judges to hear the trials of genocide suspects accused of everything except the actual planning of the genocide. The courts showed leniency in sentencing if a person was repentant and sought to reconcile with the community.

When the 12,000 gacaca courts closed in May 2012, they had tried more than 1.2 million cases throughout Rwanda. They also helped to promote reconciliation by allowing genocide survivors to learn the truth about the death of their loved ones.

The South Sudanese traditional chiefs who visited Rwanda last week were all from states that have been at the heart of South Sudan's conflict: Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile, and Central Equatoria where the fighting started last December.

One of the chiefs, Chief Alphonse Legge Laku Tombe of Central Equatoria state, said he thinks South Sudanese can learn from the Rwandan experience.

“Imagine: Rwandans were misled and when they recognized themselves that what they did was wrong, they came to understand. Why can’t we understand like these people?” he said.

Chief Peter Mading Thiak from Jonglei state said he learnt valuable lessons from the Rwandans, including, "that when the community sat down and discussed among themselves, they were able to have peace. We can also do this in South Sudan.”

Ethnic conflict

More than 800,000 people died in Rwanda’s 100-day genocide in 1994, which pitted the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority. The country has come back from 1994 to be one of the shining stars of development in Africa.

South Sudan’s conflict began last December as a political row between backers of President Salva Kiir on one side, and supporters of his former vice president, Riek Machar, on the other.

Although South Sudanese officials have played down the ethnic overtones of the violence in their country, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo said last month that the conflict quickly turned tribal, pitting members of the two main tribes, Dinka and Nuer, against each other.

Obasanjo is the head of an African Union Commission of Inquiry for South Sudan that has spent the past few months probing human rights abuses in the young country.