Transitional Justice: A Tool of Elite Manipulation? A Constructivist Analysis of Gross-Abuse in Kenya and Rwanda

By Alisha Lakhani

Alisha Lakhani is a graduate in Arabic and International Relations from the University of Leeds, with a keen interest in constructivist norm theory and transitional justice.

Abstract

Since its inception in the 1990s, significant concerns have been raised regarding the implementation of transitional justice and the abuse of its mechanisms. The purpose of this paper is to determine the extent to which the noble ambitions of transitional justice have been co-opted by political elites to serve vested interests. Whilst gross abuse of state institutions and processes is not a new phenomenon, using a constructivist lens unveils the sheer scope of elite manipulation. In this paper, norm theory is used to analyse transitional justice mechanisms in Rwanda following the genocide in 1994, and in Kenya following the outbreak of electoral violence in 2007. The paper addresses the abuse of transitional justice mechanisms through positing a three-tiered narrative which explains how leaders consolidate personal political power as well as party dogma. Firstly, elites create a state-directed version of truth which is later institutionalised as collective memory, and ultimately history. Secondly, all opponents are characterised as the ‘other’ and enemies of state through manipulating these mechanisms. Finally, notions of justice are mobilised to claim ‘liberation’ is under threat to justify elongation of political mandates. This paper demonstrates how elites mobilise transitional justice to serve their own agenda. Fundamentally, this paper reiterates the fact that transitional justice is a definitional project with both causal and constitutive effects, which render it vulnerable to abuse.

Introduction

This essay argues that transitional justice mechanisms are heavily instrumentalised by political elites in order to serve their vested interests. This conclusion was reached through an examination of the transitional justice processes that were introduced in Rwanda following the 1994 genocide and in Kenya following the 2007 post-election violence. A constructivist theoretical paradigm is utilised as it offers interesting insights into the ways in which transitional justice mechanisms are employed by elites to carry out their agendas, as well as the implications of such practices. Constructivists argue that although there is an objective reality, it is not simply a product of physical manifestations; it is also socially constructed by ideas and other forms of cognitive structures (Adler, 1997, pp. 319). With this in mind, it is necessary to consider the nature of justice and the mechanisms within which it manifests. As Nouwen and Werner (2015, pp. 176) highlight, “numerous articulations of justice co-exist, overlap and compete”. Furthermore, Acharya (2013, pp. 467) argues that ideas and norms, in this case, the norm of ‘justice’, have causal and constitutive effects. Therefore, it is necessary to consider who is responsible for the articulation of this norm as well as its reproduction, as it represents a form of agency.

Historically, transitional justice mechanisms adopt either a restorative approach, which can entail Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) and provision of amnesties, or a retributive approach which can entail international, national and grassroots criminal tribunals with the end goal of punitive punishment, although there are elements of both in most transitional systems (Mallinder, 2007, pp. 208). If one considers the constructivist notion that there is rarely such a thing as value-free knowledge (Adler, 1997, pp. 336), an important question arises pertaining to the scope of elite manipulation and the extent to which such manoeuvrings have impacted and infiltrated norms of transitional justice and their application. It is argued that one-way in which transitional justice mechanisms are utilised is by constructing a version of ‘truth’ which downplays the serious transgressions of the political elite as well as those of the parties they represent. Elite political actors attempt to institutionalise this version of ‘truth’ to form a collective memory or ‘history’, which is particularly problematic as those “who control the past, control the future” (Orwell, 2004, pp. 44). Another way in which elites mobilise transitional justice mechanisms is through creating an enemy or an ‘other’. This is a concerted strategy employed by political elites to neutralise any perceived threat; whether that is domestic or international, material or fictitious. Finally, political elites also manipulate the ambitious, and some may contend, utopian aims of transitional justice (Campbell and Turner, 2008) to claim that it has not been fully actualised. This allows elites to elongate the transitional period, as well as their political mandate, by claiming that the process of liberation is under threat and that a particular party or a politician alone possesses the skill and foresight to protect it (Beresford et al., 2017). This paper argues that due to elite manipulation, transitional justice mechanisms are undermined and, as a result, lasting peace and reconciliation has yet to be actualised both in Kenya and in Rwanda.

Transitional Justice: A Discursive Tool

According to McAuliffe (2017, pp. 44), “transitional justice does not happen in a political vacuum, it always challenges an existing order that did not permit such progress to develop organically”. As this paper shows, in Kenya and Rwanda, political elites have re-articulated notions of justice to safeguard against any assault on their political power and authority. As aptly iterated by Miller (2008, pp. 267), transitional justice is, at heart, a “definitional project” and therefore it is subject to the whims and caprices of those who are part and parcel of its establishment, institutionalisation and enforcement. However, in relation to political elites, manipulation of transitional justice mechanisms is not simply a whimsical act devoid of intent; it is rather a concerted strategy employed to entrench personal power, cement party dogma and to secure political capital and legitimacy. As this paper argues, in Rwanda and Kenya, this is actualised through the creation and reproduction of a singular, prescribed narrative of ‘truth’. Through its replication and institutionalisation, this version of truth is characterised as collective memory, ergo history. This is of paramount importance as history frames the past and has the capacity to frame our present and our future.

One such transitional justice mechanism employed to create and promulgate state-directed versions of events are the gacaca courts in Rwanda. These were introduced by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 2002 in order to facilitate the expression of ‘truths’, to promote reconciliation, to eradicate the culture of impunity, in addition to expediting the trials of suspected génocidaires (Scanlon & Motlafi, 2010, pp. 302). However, it is argued that despite these lofty aims of the gacaca courts, they are not much more than a vehicle to disseminate state-imposed versions of events. This argument is supported by Corey and Joireman (2004, pp. 86) who claim that the jurisdiction of the gacaca courts were deliberately limited by the regime in order to exclude testimonies of Tutsi atrocities, thereby exonerating Tutsi and RPF violations which includes the massacre of civilian Hutu populations, during the genocide as well as after the establishment of the new regime. The characterisation of Tutsi transgressions as a ‘war crime’ and Hutu offences as ‘a crime against humanity’ is part of a concerted strategy to downplay the gravity of RPF and Tutsi crimes. Not only do the political elite define who is to blame for the outbreak of conflict, they are also instrumental in determining what constitutes a crime, as well as who may be considered a victim and whom the perpetrator. Such narratives of blame hold tremendous power as they are utilised to entrench systems of oppression and inequity against certain echelons of society whilst empowering others, thus demonstrating the manipulation of transitional justice mechanisms for political gain.

In Rwanda, systems of oppression operate along ethnic cleavages. Rentyjens (2006, pp. 1110) defines this as the ‘Tutsi-isation” and “RPF-isation’ of Rwanda, which is evident through their exclusive monopoly of public institutions and positions of power. Statistics reveal that in 2000, 70\% of the most prominent positions of office were held by Tutsis; which is concerning as they comprise just 10\% of the population (Rentyjens, 2011, pp. 30). The preferential treatment conferred to the Tutsi population is indicative of the RPF’s formation of a new ‘Akazu’ (patrimonial network) which works to bolster their support, allows the party to acquire legitimacy and to strengthen President Kagame’s hold over the reins of power (Rentyjens, 2011, pp. 30). The term ‘Akazu’ is a reference to an informal grouping of Hutu elites who were closely affiliated to the former Habyarimana regime; it is said that they abided by an extremist ideology and played a significant role in orchestrating the genocide against the Tutsi population (Behuria, 2015, pp. 258). It is of no coincidence that Rentyjens utilises such contentious terminology to describe the actions of the RPF-led regime; it is a damning denunciation. Bratton and Van De Walle (1997, pp. 65-66) argue that political elites acquire support and legitimacy through providing their patrimonial networks with access to state resources. This paper argues that due to the RPF’s authoritarian control over all state resources and institutions, there is no room for contestation of their power which explains their extraordinary success during elections. This is a deliberate strategy employed by the RPF and this paper suggests that the creation of this ‘Akazu’ would not have been feasible had the institutionalisation of a state-directed version of ‘truth’ not occurred. This sentiment is well exemplified by Miller (2008, pp. 280), who claims that “transitional justice mechanisms…are discursive tools, just as much as they are instruments of accountability or reconciliation; they may frame the conflict in one dimension without providing an alternative vocabulary.”

Similarly, in Kenya, transitional justice mechanisms are instrumentalised to create a version of ‘truth’ which portrays the current ruling coalition in a more favourable light. It is argued that this narrative of ‘truth’ is the source of the Jubilee Alliance’s power, legitimacy and support, despite the emergence of damning evidence of “potential crimes against humanity” (Brown et al., 2012, pp. 248). Following the 2007 post-election violence, a Commission of Inquiry revealed the violence in Kenya “followed ethno-religious patterns of party affiliations” (Lugano, 2017, pp. 15). The Commission recommended the creation of a Special Tribunal to investigate these crimes. When this did not materialise, the International Criminal Court (ICC) intervened. The ICC intervention in Kenya was especially controversial due to the revelation of the ‘Ocampo Six’; a list of six high-ranking members of the political elite under investigation for inciting ethnic violence, which was grave enough to be considered a ‘potential crime against humanity’ (GPPAC, 2014, pp. 16). It is argued that the political elite in Kenya downplayed their own role in the promotion of a zero-sum ethnic competition, through creating and replicating narratives which brought the ICC’s legitimacy into question. This strategy successfully allowed the political elite to circumvent both international and domestic scrutiny of their actions. This view is supported by Lynch (2014, pp. 94) who claims that the Jubilee Alliance “reframed the ICC story – at least in the eyes of a significant number of Kenyans – as a performance of injustice, neo-colonialism, and threat to the country’s sovereignty, peace and stability.” Lynch presents a persuasive argument, one which is verified through grassroots, ethnographic research, which consisted of interviews and focus-group discussions as well as election-monitoring processes, TRC participant observations among others (ibid, pp. 95). Moreover, this claim is supported by Lugano (2017, pp. 9) who claims that “the ICC’s intervention in Kenya’s 2007/2008 political crisis was framed as neo-colonialism by two of the accused – Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto…which was central to the accused overcoming their ICC stigma.” The institutionalisation of this ‘truth’ to form a collective memory was politically desirable for the elites in question, as it allowed them to circumvent culpability of serious crimes. Ironically, the ICC investigations, which were launched to tackle impunity, have been mobilised to fuel the very culture of impunity it was tasked to eliminate. In this case, transitional justice mechanisms have been re-articulated and instrumentalised to promote injustice. This view is supported by Mueller (2011, pp. 109) who claims that “no high-level figures in Kenya have ever been prosecuted for the increasingly deadly violence surrounding elections since the early 1990s.”

Introducing and reinforcing this discourse within the broader conceptualisation of transitional justice in Kenya worked to secure the identity and power of Kenyatta and Ruto, whilst simultaneously undermining the ICC’s legality. This narrative of ‘truth’ introduced by the political elite portrayed the ICC and the coalition of Kenyatta and Ruto as antithetical to one another (Mueller, 2011, pp. 109). As a result, whilst the political elite entrenched the notion that the ICC is a neo-colonial, divisive institution, they simultaneously propagated the idea that their coalition was one of unity, which brought together the two major ethnic groups: the Kalenjin and Kikuyu; who were bitter rivals prior to this point (Lynch, 2014, pp. 110). This view is supported by Brown et al. (2012, pp. 254) who claim that “shifting alliances by opportunistic ethno-regional power brokers have characterised Kenyan politics. Bitter enemies before one election can find themselves on the same side in the run-up to the next one”. This illustrates the argument that transitional justice mechanisms are employed not only to secure the power of incumbent leaders, but also to ensure continuity of nefarious practices, under the guise of ‘justice’ and ‘reconciliation’. Thus, transitional justice mechanisms in Kenya were manipulated by the political elite in order to deflect criticism, secure personal power for Kenyatta and Ruto as well as to acquire broad-based legitimacy and support for their ethnic patrimonial groups through the creation of an alternative ‘truth’; all under the guise of ’justice’.

The Instrumentalisation of Transitional Justice as a Strategy of Political Abjection

Transitional justice mechanisms are also manipulated by the political elite to create an enemy or an ‘other’. This tactic of vilifying, discrediting and defaming all forms of opposition is a particularly effective method of consolidating power as it allows regimes to rationalise their inequitable treatment of all those who pose a threat to their rule; whether that threat is real or simply fabricated. The instrumentalisation of transitional justice to eliminate opposition is actualised through mobilisation of the state’s version of ‘truth’. If a transitional regime has monopoly over what is considered true, the nature of justice, and of whom are the victims and the perpetrators, then they are also able to instrumentalise this ‘truth’ to demarcate outside groups or ‘others’. This strategy is evident in both Rwanda and Kenya. Both regimes have successfully delegitimised their opposition whilst simultaneously securing their power using political abjection. The term political abjection here refers to a strategy used to obliterate any opposition through defining it as a “malignant threat to the broader social and political health of the nation” (Beresford et al, 2017, pp. 2). By portraying any dissent as “actors who harbour ambitions to return these societies to past instances of mass political violence and neo-colonial relations, [t]hese individuals are said to warrant illiberal state interventions against them” (Beresford et al, 2017, pp. 2).

In Rwanda, the policy of ‘Rwandicity’ has been especially useful in eradicating all forms of dissent, whether that exists at a grassroots level or as a concrete political threat in the national arena. This policy is an integral part of transitional justice in Rwanda as it aims to foster reconciliation of the population through promoting unity by means of stigmatising and criminalising all references to ethnicity (Beswick, 2010, pp. 410). It is argued that this strategy was instrumentalised to burgeon RPF dogma. Moreover, it was not only successful in controlling the dominant population through a “collectivisation of Hutu guilt” (Thompson, 2011, pp. 378), it was also mobilised to contain any and all forms of political dissent. This argument is especially persuasive considering the sheer number of people who have been imprisoned under ‘genocide ideology accusations’, a figure that reached 912 people in 2009 (Rentyjens, 2011, pp. 16). Furthermore, prior to the 2003 elections, the Republican Democratic Movement party (MDR), the sole concrete political contender to RPF power, was abolished for “encouraging ethnic-divisions” (Rentyjens, 2006, pp. 1107). This is not merely a coincidence, but part of a broader strategy to eliminate all forms of opposition and exert authoritarian control over all aspects of life. The RPF would have been unable to wield such authoritarian power if not for the gross abuse of transitional justice mechanisms. This tactic has been incredibly successful in entrenching the RPF’s dominance as it eliminates all possibilities for a truly competitive party politics where there are programmatic differences between parties and electoral contenders; thus, allowing political leaders to retain their monopoly of power indefinitely. Moreover, the veneer of transitional justice shields the RPF regime against international scrutiny and interference which allows them to further their own agendas without restraint.

Similarly, in Kenya transitional justice mechanisms were manipulated by political elites in order to delegitimise the opposition. This was actualised on both national and international fronts. Firstly, the coalition of Kenyatta and Ruto manipulated transitional justice mechanisms to delegitimise the ICC’s investigation into the post-election violence (Lynch, 2014, pp. 105). This was politically expedient as the ICC had the potential to destroy the political careers as well as the personal lives of the politicians concerned, thus posing an existential threat to the leaders as well as the political parties they represent (Lynch, 2014, pp. 105). The political elite created, reproduced and propagated the notion of the ‘other’ in order to neutralise this menace. Dichotomous characterisations of the ICC as a neo-colonial invader and a western stooge stood in stark contrast to Kenya, a victim of colonialism, once again under attack from the same, insidious threat (Lugano, 2017, pp. 11). This argument is supported by Lynch (2014, pp. 106) who posits that Kenyatta and Ruto consciously portrayed themselves as “defenders of Kenya’s sovereignty and independence against Western interference…everything was cast as a competition between patriotic Kenyans and a patronising international community”. This dichotomy was further entrenched through characterisations of the ICC as antithetical to the Jubilee Alliance, which were widely circulated by these political actors (Lynch, 2014, pp. 106). The elite focused on the retributive nature of the ICC whilst contrasting it with promises of peace and reconciliation through restorative means under their coalition (Lynch, 2014, pp. 106). The manipulation of transitional justice mechanisms such as the ICC was integral to the success of the Jubilee Alliance. The creation of an ‘other’ was a central tenet of the coalition’s tactic of political abjection and it was highly successful as evident through the victory of the Jubilee Alliance in the 2013 elections, one which was characterised as “a referendum on the role of the ICC and its attendant neo-colonialism” (Lugano, 2017, pp. 11).

Additionally, the Jubilee Alliance utilised transitional justice mechanisms in order to vilify and defame political opponents on the domestic front. This is supported by Brown et al. (2013, pp. 253) who claims that the ICC is a useful tool to remove political rivals, both within a party and amongst opposition groups. The creation of an ‘other’ was salient in delegitimising the Alliance’s only concrete political opponent: Raila Odinga. The political elite capitalised on Odinga’s role in facilitating the ICC’s intervention in Kenya, and used this association to categorise him and the Luo minorities as ‘enemies of Kenya’. This argument is supported by Lynch (2014, pp. 109) who claims that “Jubilee effectively recast overarching narratives…regarding the ICC and Odinga, in such a way that individual and collective interests became intricately intertwined with one’s ethnic identity. The ICC’s intervention, for example, becoming not only an example of a political and biased court, but a process through which Odinga and ‘the Luo’ sought to tarnish ‘the Kalenjin’ as perpetrators, and to remove ‘the Kikuyu’ from power.” This demonstrates how transitional justice mechanisms are manipulated as part of a strategy of political abjection (Beresford et al., 2017), which in Kenya entailed creating an ‘other’ so as to firstly paint opponents as the enemy of the state and secondly to unite the rest of the population. It ought to be noted that once again, ethnic identities were mobilised for political gain, however, this time, it occurred under the veneer of transitional justice. The mechanisms which ought to facilitate reconciliation are mobilised to reignite ethnic divisions, thereby sowing the seeds of future conflict.

The Mobilisation of Transitional Justice to Indefinitely Prolong Political Mandates

Another tactic which is employed by political elites is the manipulation of transitional justice mechanisms to prolong political mandates. According to Galtung (1969, pp. 183), peace is not simply the absence of physical violence (negative peace) but also the absence of structural violence and inequalities (positive peace). Therefore, he argues that transitional justice should aim to establish positive peace in order to actualise true justice and reconciliation. However, it is argued that political elites have sought to capitalise on this extended articulation of justice to extend their political terms as well as to entrench their power and bolster their identities. Beresford et al. (2017, pp. 1) proposes a conceptual framework of ‘liminality’, which is particularly useful in examining how regimes retain characteristics of a hybrid system as a tactic to consolidate power. Hybrid democracies describe regimes where procedural elements of democracy are fulfilled whilst retaining authoritarian control over all elements of life (Heynes, 2001, pp. 12). Rwanda and Kenya both exemplify a ‘liminal state’.

Through utilising the ‘productive liminality’ framework (Beresford et al., 2017), Rwanda and Kenya, political elites have successfully mobilised liberation discourses to maintain their power and influence. Firstly, the RPF and Jubilee Alliance have disseminated their version of ‘truth’ which is later institutionalised into the collective memory of the population. This ‘truth’ claims that these parties have ‘liberated’ the population from ethnic violence and or genocide; therefore, it has been a source of peace and justice in the country. Through creation of an enemy or an ‘other’, these parties simultaneously target their political opponents whilst rationalising the implementation of extreme, authoritarian practices. Furthermore, the political elite claim that complete liberation has yet to be achieved as structural violence remains prevalent, which is then used to justify a prolonged mandate. This three-tiered strategy is particularly effective in consolidating political power, legitimating authoritarian rule and eliminating all form of dissent and opposition, thus demonstrating the degree to which politicians manipulate transitional justice articulations and mechanisms for their personal and political gain. This was apparent in Kenya in the recent 2017 election, which demonstrated that little has changed: “Voting patterns are still set up as ethnic blocks…The politics of tribe and patronage persist, political change trickles along, with little sign of a variation in the personalities dominating the space, or any shift in ideology” (Wesangula, 2017). Similarly, in Rwanda, President Kagame has held the reins of power for over 17 years and with the 2015 constitutional amendment, he is set to be in power till 2034 (Burke, 2017).

Conclusion

This essay examined the mechanisms of transitional justice adopted in Rwanda and Kenya to actualise peace and reconciliation following the outbreak of mass violence, as well as the ways in which these processes have been hijacked in order to serve personal as well as political vested interests. A constructivist theoretical framework has established that concept of justice simultaneously constructs and is constructed. Based on this analysis, this paper argues that transitional justice mechanisms ion Rwanda and Kenya have been mobilised to create, disseminate and propagate a state-sanctioned version of ‘truth’. Political regimes then endeavour to institutionalise this truth into a collective memory, ergo history, which further reinforces their power, increases their legitimacy and extends their influence. Additionally, regimes utilise transitional justice mechanisms to create an enemy or an ‘other’ in order to remove any opposition or political rivals. Furthermore, political elites often manipulate transitional justice mechanisms to prolong their political mandates as well as that of the parties they represent. The various means adopted by political elites demonstrate that transitional justice mechanisms are to a large extent instrumentalised for personal and political gain.

This paper has largely focused on the agency of political leaders in Rwanda and Kenya and their role in creating articulations of justice, which serve their vested interests. However, an area which has yet to be considered is the notion that “identities, interests and behaviour of political agents are socially constructed by collective meanings, interpretations and assumptions about the world” (Adler, 1997, pp. 324). Reflecting on this, to what extent are the actions of leaders in Kenya and Rwanda the product of individual motivation? Or is it the result of institutionalised practices?

Such questions raised in this paper are particularly relevant as transitional justice mechanisms are becoming institutionalised and reproduced sporadically across Africa as well as throughout the world. There is a very real, pervasive fear that the “the same mistakes may easily be perpetuated, in a way that bespeaks not a conspiracy of interests but a coherence of blindness” (Miller, 2008, pp. 272). Unfavourable practices and abuse of transitional justice not only serve to increase the propensity for physical violence; they also increase the prevalence of structural constraints, which undermines the core aims of transitional justice and thus jeopardises the prospects of genuine peace and reconciliation in the region. Thus, it is necessary to consider the ways in which these mechanisms are instrumentalised in order to safeguard against its abuse.

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