Thursday, November 18, 2010

DORIS DE HOUSEGEL (a story in Nigerian pidgin)

Ma name na Ogedengbe. Ma mama na Catholic. Ma papa too na Catholic before moto jam am for front of Mama Buchi shed were e dey go buy Aromatic Schnapps. Ma granpapa wey bin dey go COCIN* before e die, talk say na becos of drink na im ma papa enta Catholic Church. And na de drink com kill am. Ma mama no dey drink becos she talk say na only yeye woman dey drink. Beta woman no go follow man drink. Na dis tin worry me pass when I first see Doris wit beer one night afta we do Oga pikin marriage party for house. Me na cook I be for Oga house. Doris na de housegel. Dat night na two tins make ma mout open like mumu.
De first one- even if all of us for boysquata don gossip am finish- na dat Madam boyfriend wey dey come house somtimes wen Oga go London. No be say she get boyfrend na im shock me. Na say, dat day e get mind come de party wey Oga do for house. I bin see dem for back of generator house, de man hol am from back. People plenty inside house plus Oga, dey drink, dey dance. Me I jus mind ma business jeje comot for dere before I go enta wetin pass ma power.
De second tin na afta de party for night wen I comot for ma room for B.Q. see Doris dey drink Gulder for can. I bin don dey like am dat time na im make de tin wory me. Wetin ma mama talk just dey ma head. But I tink am say, Doris no be like yeye woman. Any time Madam dash am somtin, she dey dash me from inside. Even if na clot Madam dash am, she go carry am com show me. But no be dat one make me like Doris. She sabi talk to peson, no be like de oda housegel wey den sack- Blessing. Ha real name na Itoro but she change am to Blessing wen she come town from ha village. Itoro sabi quarrel. Ha blood too dey hot. Na so dem talk say she bite ha husband for yonder wen she hear say e get anoda pikin for anoda village near deir own. But Doris no be like dat. She no get bad word for mout and she no dey gossip workers for Madam place like Itoro.
Me an Doris dey go Anglican wey dey for junction becos e dey near house. Doris mama and papa dey go Qua Iboe church for their village. Na so she tell me.
E bin dey be me like say Doris don dey like me. She bin dey enta ma room dey tey well-well. Afta, she com fit no look me for eye again. My anty Florence wey we dey call Anty Flo talk say if you wan know if woman like you, look am for eye. If she no fit jam eye wit you and if she dey shame, e mean say she don dey like you be dat.
Doris tell me one day say somtin dey worry am. She talk say Madam dey send am go dat im boyfriend house to give am food and even money. She talk say Madam don dey go de man house. De tin wey dey vex am pass na wen she tell am to go work for de man house. No be say de house na big house but she no wan enta wahala wit Oga. De only tin be say Madam dey give am money anytime she send am go de boyfrend house. Doris talk say de man name na Tunji. She no like Yoruba men.
I bin dey tink how to toast Doris but I com dey fear. Doris na fine gel and she yellow wel-wel. Na ha open teet I like pass for ha body. I bin wan write letter to Doris but she no too sabi how to read English. She tell me say na only Anang she fit read small-small becos dem teach dem for Sunday school for village. Me sef, na only small English I sabi sake of say na for Class 3 na im I comot for school wen moto jam ma Papa for front of Mama Buchi shed. I bin wan write am letta to tell am say, me I no be small boy. I no dey do small pikin love. I no for talk say I go die for am becos to talk true I no fit do dat one. I no for talk say I like am pass my Mama, becos God know say I like ma Mama pass anytin. I no for talk say if she no gree I go jump inside well- dat one na for crase people. I bin wan tell am say, me, I be cook for Oga house. And if cook dey like housegel no be bad tin. Cook fit marry housegel. I bin wan tell am say hunga no go catch am if she follow me and if she gree I go carry am go ma Mama place for village and if ma Mama like am I go marry am.
I bin wan tell am wetin dey ma mind but I just wake up hear say Doris don get belle and na dis morning dem carry am go deir village.
Abdul wey dey for gate talk say e be like say na Oga get de belle.
*COCIN- Church of Christ In Nigeria

Wednesday, November 3, 2010




To begin, I must agree with a friend of mine who suggested that the title of this piece might be misleading, for this is not some high academic expose. I will attempt to justify the title.
I grew up, like most others around me, on folktales. Whether they were indigenous or foreign, there was always a good dose of didactic stories which gained notoriety through repetition. So I recall the Hausa folktales (to which every aunt and uncle added some twist of their own) my favourite being the story of Bakin Wake who sacrificed himself to save the village [from which the Hausa word for suicide bomber- dan kunar bakin wake is derived from. I also recall English folktales which I learnt in school. The modern relevance of folktales is seen in the many adaptations of folktales into cartoons and films whether it be Snow White, Cinderella or The Water Horse. I find that one of the advantages of folktales is their simplicity and their timelessness. Folktales lend themselves to easy transmission into different situations and time periods. However one challenge with the adaptation of folktales is that sometimes the reliance on the easy and timeworn symbols and metaphors which characterises many of them, can make the adapted work unforgivably bland, predictable and boring.
Before I discuss INALE, the ambitious new Nigerian movie by Jeta Amata, produced by Keke Bongos let me say a little about adaptation of folktales in film. I found the definition in The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales by Donald Haase quite useful. The author defines adaptation as the process that occurs when folktales and fairytales are changed into new versions or variants in the course of their transmission. The adaptation can take one of two broad forms: duplication, where there is a faithful retelling of old tales intact with core ideologies and predicable moral lessons OR revision, is the critical adaptation where the new version implicitly questions, challenges or subverts the story thereby suggesting a different approach to previously settled notions and ideas.
INALE is according to the movie’s official website, ‘a folklore told in Otukpo, Benue state... a tale about true love, betrayal, family, duty and tradition; the first Nigerian musical ever in celluloid.’

Ok, so let’s go straight into the story, or my summary of it. A white American grandfather tells his granddaughter a tale from one of the many places he has visited- the Idoma tale of a beautiful princess who is in a love affair with Ode. To gain her hand in marriage, Ode must follow the tradition of wrestling all who want to challenge him for her hand in marriage. It is a free for all contest. Ode wrestles and beats all the contestants but one- a stranger from a nearby enemy village. He loses in a fair fight and loses Inale. The King is honourable and lets his daughter follow the prince of a rival village who has won her in a fair fight. Rules are rules. On her way to the village of her husband-to-be the maid with whom she travels drowns her and lies to Inale’s sister that she commited suicide at the thought of being with a man she didn’t love. Inale’s sister falls for it and hatches a plan to let the maid impersonate Inale so that the rival village doesn’t see it as a provocation that Inale isn’t delivered. The maid reaches the village, becomes queen and starts maltreating the princess as her slave. Ode who cant bear to lose his Inale runs to the village to challenge the prince for Inale. On his way Inale appears to him as half human half fish and tells him that if he doesn’t wrestle the prince and beat him by sunset she will become a full fish and will be gone forever. He goes to the village, convinces the prince to wrestle him, loses quite a number of times again, but wins the last time. The crown prince who is honourable lets him take Inale. The only hitch is, Inale isn’t Inale but an ambitious maid turned queen. Ode tells him what he has to do and they both run to save Inale before sunset. They have to smoke the fish part of her to make her human. They try and it seems they have failed. They mourn her through the night. But at sunrise she is suddenly alive. They rejoice.

The movie was shot on celluloid which made the production good to look at, and the songs of the legendary Bongos Ikwue were a beautiful accompaniment to the story. Indeed for the first five minutes it was hard to tell whether it was an American or Nigerian production. The songs were performed beautifully with stellar performances by Dede Mabiaku who played King Oche, Inale’s father.

Inale is an adaptation you could call a duplication. There was an attempt it seems to faithfully retell the Idoma folktale. Now, seeing as there is nothing sacrosanct about a folktale which precludes it from being improved upon or scripted for the best dramatic effect I thought that its being faithful to the folktale didn’t add any dramatic value to the film. In fact it made the adaptation bland, and predictable. I wondered if it was the laziness of the script writer or the deliberate disingenuousness of the production that made it so bland. The culture that the film sought to portray was heavily undermined by, in my opinion, the directors camera which didn’t really give us a feel of the dance, (the camera kept going round the masquerades and dancers instead of showing us the dance itself, as it did during the wrestling match) and what is an African musical without dance! I found this grossly lacking.
Let’s look at the tale itself before we get back to the production. A musical in my opinion is not an excuse for a script lacking drama. Again, I kept wondering if Ode, who was touted as Inale’s saviour was portrayed as having any honour at all. He LOST Inale in a FAIR contest. There was no cheating. To have him run after Inale like a little child whose paper kite has been blown off by the wind made him look more weak than strong. He was a sore loser, that’s it. There was no justification moral or otherwise for him getting Inale after clearly losing fair and square several times over. Now this part of the tale could have been remedied by tweaking the tale a little bit to provide a real justification for Ode deserving Inale. This is the hard job of a script writer who is adapting a folktale for screen- to preserve the core elements of the tale while adding value by way of drama and content, both of which was utterly lacking in the beautifully produced movie.
Another thing I found was that the maid-turned-Inale-impersonator was not handled properly. The maid seemed to come out of nowhere with this ambition of becoming great. There is no background to her and all we see of her before her betrayal is her in the background like any of the other extras in the movie. So her rise to prominence was sudden and without basis. A little background would’ve helped. Now one could argue (as someone did while we were watching the movie) that it was good for suspense. In theory, I agree. But in INALE, no such suspense was achieved. Again i emphasize that it takes more than an ordinary script writer to adapt a known folktale for screen and make it worth 90 minutes of our time.
I said earlier that I liked the rendition of the Bongos Ikwue songs, the most prominent of which was my personal favourite ‘Cockcrow at Dawn’. I thought however that this song should have been edited for the musical which was set in a time in Idomaland where there were not even bicycles. Dede Mabiaku, or King Oche, sang: ‘will he ever get there...where the traffic never jams...’
Surely he wouldn’t be talking about ‘traffic jams’ where people walked barefoot between villages. The song, the singer and the context were clearly incongruous, making a mockery of the entire scene. I thought that since the movie was ambitiously called a musical, more attention should have paid to the songs and have them also adapted for the purpose and the story. Typically, the highlights and most dramatic moments of a musical are done in song. It is very important that the writers make very good use of the lyrics for each song as this will be the vehicle for telling most of the story. In the case of Inale, the songs were already written and what could have been done would have been the harmonisation of the song and the story. Not much attention was paid to this.

One of the crucial points of the movie which were a great cause of concern to me was the wrestling match which I mentioned earlier. Dance and choreography are also important elements of a good musical and the wrestling scene could have been used to introduce the movie as a compelling musical. The director however chose to gloss over the wrestling itself as if it was unimportant. The wrestling scenes, were just embarrassing for a movie that claims to be a musical. I will refer to a classic here. West side Story as a very successful musical made good use of this dance/fight technique. The fight scenes were done entirely in dance and carefully choreographed. I am not by any means comparing INALE with West Side Story, but it seems basic that a key scene (one of the most important for INALE) in a musical which has a fight where the hero loses his lover should be more dramatic. Here were two potentially amazing wrestling scenes, both central to the story, capable of being the high points of INALE, squandered.

I say again that an African musical without dance is no musical! It is not enough for the characters to sing beautiful songs at intervals. At every point the score has to be deliberate and calculated for dramatic effect, not melodramatic as was the case with a lot of the singing in INALE. There seemed to be a forcible thrusting of the songs on the script where there seemed to be any similarity between song and story.

So, why did I begin with all the academic noise in the beginning? Someone insisted that the movie was based on an Idoma folktale and thus they had to be faithful to the tale. My opinion is, not necessarily. The producers could have stayed faithful to the tale without sacrificing the drama. Again they could have stayed faithful to the tale but used the songs for the desired dramatic effect. However, they didn’t have to stick completely to a tale that was bland and predictable. If they insisted they could have improved upon it. No story is so bad that it cannot be improved upon.

My verdict? It is a tremendously ambitious attempt at producing a musical. The effort is commendable and it is good to see Nigerians who aren’t afraid to spend good money to get quality. However its ambitiousness seemed to be its own undoing. More time and resources seemed to be pumped into the production to the detriment of the very basis of the film- the script. Lazy scripting, good production, lack of attention to important detail. And I say important detail because certain unimportant details seemed to get attention, almost as if the producer/director wanted more to impress the Nigerian audience than to make a good film. Case in point, Inale’s fish tail in the water. Impressive. But unimportant.
The acting I considered very good with impressive performances by almost all the characters. Casting is the one aspect I didn’t have any problems with. The songs by Bongos Ikwue are timeless and the renditions were good.
As a musical I wouldn’t rate it very highly, but as a debut project, considering the tremendous constraints Nigerian professionals have to deal with, I would say it is commendable.
elnathan john. 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010



Yesterday I wondered
if it was the taste or smell
or that strange thing in between that betrayed me-

Our reed has drifted too far downriver
I think of how these thoughts
can reach you upriver-
God no longer sits in your corner
and the Devil will not go there

I have only discovered
how much darker my lips have become
how silly I look puffing smoke
how wide my nose gets when I smile
and the taste on my tongue of tobacco,
after mint mouthwash...

I know now that taste on your tongue:
the taste has become you
today I find a recipe for you on a platter
in my head:

1. Put generous portions of mint in the mouth
2. Hold cancer stick with the lips
3. Light up, shut eyes, drag...
4. Serve your presence on a platter
... with a smile to taste

you used to dream
of kings with balloons and candy
you used to dream…
i would laugh

you used to speak
of painless circumcisions
and of doves, white doves-
while we both could see
the dark hollows of mouths
while we could perceive
the odor of charnel houses
and hear the desperate beating of hearts-
you floated on your dream-raft
i laughed!

now i see
you have learnt much:
to tell sincere lies, smiling
to sit in dark rooms
that reek of bullets and ballots…

you have eye bags now-
you no longer sleep
you can now suggest
for plan b
a smart solution
like chaos…

I look
through this olive green translucent pencil
The 0.7mm lead is broken
I feel my dreams, break
under the light pressure of scrutiny
I shake my hand to keep awake-
The broken bits hit against the hollow plastic
reminding of beads on calabash
actuating delirious dancers
with plastic smiles on their sweaty faces,
smiles which end with the dance…

All I have of you is this frail pencil
which once told your tales
I feel your prints as I hold it,
rolling it between forefinger and thumb
hearing the broken lead
actuating the dancers in my heart …

And I write.

I am not sure if I should write this-
the dance has ended
I erase the three words I have written
The eraser is good
It leaves no trace.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Elnathan John


The most persistent sound which reverberates through man’s history is the beating of war drums.
-Arthur Koestler [1]

There is little I can do but agree with the painful fact of Koestler’s quote. Indeed it can be asserted that war is an inevitable part of our convoluted existence, first as man in general and then as separate individuals with ideals which are too conflicting, pursued in ways that are too confrontational. Perhaps it is why there has been no international legislation outlawing war itself. Instead, and as a way of acquiescing in the fact of the inevitability of war, laws have been made regulating the conduct of wars. In fact a whole ‘sub-branch’ of law exists for this very purpose.

International humanitarian law or the “laws of war” (which terminology aptly represents its content), governs the conduct of armed conflict and provides protection to the victims of such conflict. This law has as its roots treaties and the customary practices of states. International humanitarian law through detailed rules restricts the means and methods of warfare. It includes internal mechanisms which guarantee that these rules are respected. While doing this, international humanitarian law holds individuals responsible for violations of humanitarian law which they commit, or order others to commit. It requires that those responsible for serious violations should be prosecuted and punished as criminals. The primary statutes which provide the bulk of these rules and regulations are the four treaties known as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and two additional 1977 protocols.

The Second World War brought in its wake, horrific acts of violence and outrages against human dignity. However, it was desired that even in times of hostilities between nations, human dignity should be respected and preserved. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had hitherto captured the ideals of the international community as far as human dignity was concerned. In the opening two paragraphs of its preamble it provided:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…
These ideals were sought to be extended to include times of war, whether of international scope or otherwise, leading the community of states to ‘ratify an updated version of the Geneva Conventions in the hope of acquiring a sound legal instrument which would preserve human dignity even in times of war’[2].

Of particular relevance to us are the third and fourth conventions which govern the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the Protection of Civilian persons in the time War respectively. The two additional protocols provide additional regulations with regard to the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts.

The crucial bearing of these conventions is better appreciated against the backdrop of the alarming and constantly increasing number of victims- former combatants and civilians alike, who are subjected to ill-treatment and abuse by either or both sides in a conflict. The vulnerability of these individuals is further heightened as they flee from the war-torn areas to hazardous refugee camps. Thus, both during and after the conflict, the conventions lay down mechanisms to forestall, repress and punish violation of international humanitarian law. These repression mechanisms will now be considered.

The first article common to the four Geneva Conventions provides that the High Contracting Parties undertake “to respect and to ensure respect” for the rules of the conventions. It is in discussing the means by which states bound by the Geneva Conventions “ensure respect” for the conventions that we come in contact with the various notions of repression mechanisms. States are required to take whatever measures are necessary to prevent and suppress all violations thereof. Such measures may include military regulations, administrative orders and other regulatory measures. However, considering the nature of humanitarian law and the risk of further violations in enforcement, criminal legislation is the most appropriate and effective means of dealing with all serious violations of international humanitarian law.

The composite action of humanitarian law enforcement or application has certain constituent elements. The high contracting parties are to employ preventive actions to develop the law and ensure that combatants comply with it by spreading knowledge of its provisions. In Article 144 of the fourth Geneva Conventions there is a provision that “the High Contracting Parties undertake, in time of peace as in time of war, to disseminate the text of the Convention as widely as possible in their respective countries, and, in particular, to include the study thereof in their programmes of military and, if possible, civil instruction, so that the principles thereof may become known to the entire population.”

This is of crucial importance, for combatants cannot respect rules they are not already conversant with. Unless they know of these rules before conflict erupts, it would be unrealistic to expect combatants to observe them in the heat of the conflict.

The high contracting states are also expected to employ remedial action among victims to limit the consequences of any violations. This has for the better part been done by humanitarian organisations. For example, during the genocide in Rwanda, the International Committee of the Red Cross managed to provide protection for some 50,000 people, including many wounded and those accompanying them, who had found refuge in an ICRC field hospital in Kigali where they were given medical treatment as needed[3].

In addition to these, High Contracting States are mandated to employ reactive action to put a stop to ongoing violations by making immediate representations to the authorities[4].

Perhaps the most far reaching and practical of these elements is that the high contracting parties should employ punitive action to prosecute violations already committed and punish the culprits[5]. A number of States have already enacted criminal law to punish violations of the provisions of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II which apply to non-international armed conflict[6].

Section 2 of the Additional Protocol I of 1977 provides concrete regulations regarding the Repression of Breaches of the Conventions and of the additional Protocols. Article 85 of the protocol describes acts which qualify as grave breaches of the Conventions[7]. They include the wilful killing of civilians and captured combatants and issuing orders that there should be no survivors. These grave breaches which are the most serious violations of humanitarian law are termed war crimes. States are obliged to suppress all such violations.

The term war crimes may need some further expatiation. These refer to breaches which are so grave as to impose upon the High Contracting state the obligation to punish such crimes or extradite such violators to jurisdictions where they would be prosecuted. Primarily, the responsibility for the implementation of repression mechanisms rests on the state affected by the conflict. This is not surprising, for the majority of armed conflicts are of non-international nature. This, in fact, is the particular mandate of the Additional Protocol II of 1977.

However there is also international jurisdiction for war crimes. War crimes are considered to be crimes of universal jurisdiction. Owing to the fact that that they are so unanimously accepted as repulsive, it is viewed that any nation may prosecute the perpetrators, regardless of their nationality, the nationality of the victims or the location of the crime[8]. War crimes or grave breaches are not the only types of violations of international humanitarian law. Other serious violations of international humanitarian law are also recognized as constituting war crimes. They encompass, for example, violations of treaties such as the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 or of customary rules regulating warfare[9].

As far as the international jurisdiction of humanitarian law is concerned, there are the international criminal tribunals established for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda which are specifically empowered to prosecute war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, respectively. More recently however, there is the international criminal court which has a wider jurisdiction and scope. In July 1998 UN delegates approved a statute to create a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) to try people accused of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. The ICC was designed to replace ad hoc tribunals of limited jurisdiction, such as those created to address the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. The ICC, with headquarters in The Hague, The Netherlands, officially came into being on July 1, 2002.

This international court is not a substitute for national courts in their responsibility to repress violations of humanitarian law through prosecution. While leaving the primary responsibility for action to States, the international criminal court would institute proceedings only in cases where national courts had failed to do so[10]. Corroborating this, the Statute of the ICC states in its preamble, that it is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes, including war crimes. States will therefore have to enact appropriate national criminal legislation, take steps to facilitate inter-State judicial cooperation and also work together with international jurisdictions[11].

As far as violations of international humanitarian law is concerned there exists a plethora of examples. These examples emphasize the need for repression of violation of humanitarian laws and human rights at the highest level possible. I have chosen to discuss these violations with reference to the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Rwanda.

The year 1991 saw the beginning of a gruesome conflict between the Revolutionary United Front(RUF)- a rebel group, and the government of Sierra Leone. The violent campaign of the rebels and the reaction of the government led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Worse still were the flagrant violations of the Geneva Conventions where civilian populations were made the object of attack by the rebels[12], with rape and mutilation wantonly committed. Article 27 of the Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention in fact grants women the status of protected persons by providing inter alia that ‘women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault’. The Conventions severally provide for the protection and care of children during armed conflict and it is sad to note that this was the most flouted of all the regulations. Child soldiers were a common feature of the war as rebels abducted children and forced them into combat. The war ended in 2000 with a long record of humanitarian law violations. Thus, in 2002, pursuant to the obligations of repression imposed by the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations and the Sierra Leone Government jointly established a war crimes tribunal, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, to try individuals who had committed atrocities during Sierra Leone’s civil war. The court charged seven people, including rebel leader Foday Sankoh and Internal Affairs Minister Sam Hinga Norman, with murder, rape, extermination, sexual slavery, conscription of children into an armed force, among other crimes.

KOSOVOA separatist movement began in Kosovo in 1991 when ethnic Albanians, who made up more than 90 percent of the province’s population, started to agitate for secession from Serbia. The humanitarian law violations that followed were appalling.
A Human Rights Watch publication listed the violations of the Yugoslav Government as follows:

  • The disproportionate use of force against the civilian population and the specific targeting of civilians during military operations;
  • long-range artillery shelling, and other military operations that are being used to target or indiscriminately fire on civilians;
  • the systematic destruction of civilian property. This includes the burning and destruction of homes, the burning of crops and the killing of livestock;
  • summary executions and execution of people in detention;
  • widespread torture and ill-treatment in detention, including in particular allegations of the deaths of at least five persons as a result of torture by police and
  • indefinite detention leaving the victims incommunicado, without access to their lawyers.

The Kosovo Liberation Army itself was not free from guilt. There was a lot of hostage-taking, using humans as shields, ill-treatment of civilians or others placed hors de combat, torture and killing of captured Serbian soldiers and policemen among a host of humanitarian law violations[13].

The United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in May 1993 to try persons allegedly responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. President Slobodan Milošević of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was charged together with four other top Serbian or Yugoslav officials with war crimes and crimes against humanity based the violations in Kosovo primarily directed at Kosovo Albanian civilians. In 2001 the Serbian government extradited Milošević to the war crimes tribunal.

Civil war erupted in Rwanda in 1994 when the Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in a downed plane. This sparked off fighting between the country’s two major ethnic groups- the Hutu and the Tutsi. Here too there were massive violations of humanitarian law.

Whole civilian populations were systematically exterminated and the Hutu-dominated Rwandan army was accused of genocide against the Tutsi. In all, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 persons, mostly Tutsi civilians lost that lives in that gruesome conflict[14].

In furtherance of the implementation of international humanitarian law, the Security Council of the United Nations in November 1994 adopted Resolution 955 creating the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda mandated with trying individuals responsible for genocide and other serious violations of humanitarian law during the 1994 civil war.

Jean Kambanda, the former Rwandan prime minister pleaded guilty to the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Jean-Paul Akayesu was also sentenced to life imprisonment for similar charges.

Now the big question. I would hasten to begin by stating the perceived ideal of the international repression mechanisms:
…That the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide are brought to justice.”[15]
I begin the analysis of this stated ideal with the word ‘justice’. I find it pertinent to ask, justice for whom or to what end? The first part is relatively easy to answer. Why, for humanity, one might readily answer. The truth of this is probably seen in the concrete gains of humanitarian law in trying to punish war crimes offenders, right from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia indictments, to the Special Court for Sierra Leone indictments in 2003. Indeed this predominantly judicial approach to the enforcement of humanitarian law ‘upholds the credibility of law, reminds the parties to the conflict of their responsibilities and demonstrates the international community’s determination to have the law applied.’[16]

Even here there are inherent problems. It is not always easy to identify and apprehend the actual violators of humanitarian law after the conflict and even much less during the conflict. Whereas a large number of people are usually involved in the violations, only a few people will ever get prosecuted. When the conflict is over, a lot will already have been lost.

To what end is this ‘justice’ sought? What is the result of the mostly belated implementation of repression mechanisms? There is a quote by Lord William Shawcross which readily comes to mind at this point. He said: “You cannot do justice to the dead. When we talk about justice to the dead, we are talking about retribution for the harm done to them… retribution and justice are two different things.”[17] This statement contains a crucial truth for those in charge of implementing repression mechanisms. The 500,000 or more dead Tutsi in Rwanda have nothing to gain from the trials and even the convictions that followed and neither do the tens of thousands dead in Sierra Leone. In fact those who survived either with mutilated limbs or mutilated souls will have very little to benefit from the trials. These trials for one have not stopped humanitarian law violations from happening.

Time is of the essence in the enforcement of repression mechanisms. Unless focus is shifted from repression mechanisms after the conflict to those before and during the conflict, little practical gains will ever be achieved.

To answer the big question, it might be necessary to say that while there have been modest achievements especially at the international level, the test of adequacy is more in the implementation than in the provisions of the law itself. The will to obey and enforce humanitarian law at the right time and for the greater good of humanity is a necessity.

In a world of increasing violence and uncertainty, where individuals are becoming more desperate in their pursuits and ambitions, the mere existence of stiff punishments is not enough to prevent violations. Wars and other armed conflicts are becoming more horrific. Consider the fighting in the Darfūr region of western Sudan which some claim has reached the magnitude of genocide. This is occurring after a relatively long history of the implementation of humanitarian law implementation around the world. The several life sentences handed down by international courts have not frightened the violators into stopping their flagrant violations of humanitarian law.

The international community has to begin treating humanitarian law as being first, a violation of international law and ideals, before even being a violation of the municipal laws of the countries experiencing the conflict. They must be resolute in their resolve to repress violations as soon as they begin and not engage in academic debates as to whether their have been substantial violations or not. The wanton killing, rape and violence in a poverty-stricken third world country must be viewed as seriously as an assault on humanity as a whole. There must be no delays in preventing or ending conflicts which involve humanitarian law violations. Then, they will be able to properly supplement the role of the States whose primary duty it is to repress the violations; then only will international repression mechanisms mean anything to the victims, the violators and humanity in general.


[1] (1905–83), Hungarian-born British novelist, essayist. Janus: A Summing Up, “Prologue: The New Calendar,” sct. 1 (1978).

[2] Jacques Stroun, International Criminal Jurisdiction, International Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Action, International Review of the Red Cross no 321, pg 623.

[3] Jack Stroun, op. cit.
[4] Ibid.
[5] For example in Article 146 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions provides for the High Contracting Parties to undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches of the Convention.
[6] Penal Repression: Punishing War Crimes, Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, ICRC. (2004)
[7] Article 147 of the fourth Geneva Convention also lists what constitutes graves breaches. They include wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.
[8] International Humanitarian Law and War Crimes, HRW World Report 2001: International Justice, (
[9] Toni Pfanner, The Establishment of a Permanent International Criminal Court, International Review of the Red Cross no 322. (1998)
[10] Ibid.
[11] Penal Repression: Punishing War Crimes, Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, ICRC. (2004)
[12] Contrary to Article 85 par.3 (a) and (b). of the Additional Protocol I of 1977
[13] Article 3 par. 1 of the Third 1949 Geneva Convention relating to the treatment of prisoners of war provides that persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
[14] Article 85 par. 3 (a) describes as grave breaches, making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack.
[15] Toni Pfanner, op. cit.
[16] Jacques Stroun, op. cit.
[17] He was discussing the War Crimes Bill which proposed to execute ex-Nazi’s living in Britain. He was a prosecutor in the Nuremberg following World War II.