The word Gacaca refers to the small clearing where a community would traditionally meet to discuss issues of concern. People of integrity (elders and leaders) in the village known as inyangamugayo would facilitate a discussion that any member of the community could take part in.
Once everyone had spoken, the inyangamugayo would reach a decision about how the problem would be solved. In this way, Gacaca acted very much as a traditional court. If the decision was accepted by all members of the community, the meeting would finish with sharing a drink as a sign of reconciliation.
Colonization had a significant impact on the functioning of Gacaca and in 1924 the courts were reserved only for civil and commercial cases that involved Rwandans. Those involving colonizers and criminal cases were processed under colonial jurisdiction. While the new justice systems and mechanisms imported from Europe did not prohibit Gacaca from operating, the traditional courts saw far fewer cases. During the post colonial period, the regimes in power often appointed administrative officials to the courts which weakened their integrity and eroded trust in Gacaca. In the years before the genocide, the inyangamugayo were often local government officials appointed by and aligned with the central government.
The Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 virtually destroyed all government and social institutions and Gacaca was no different. While Gacaca continued after the genocide, its form and role in society had been significantly degraded. In some parts of the country, a similar process to Gacaca took shape but was known by a different name, gusaranganya.
As part of efforts to reconstruct Rwanda and nurture a shared national identity, the Government of Rwanda drew on aspects of Rwandan culture and traditional practices to enrich and adapt its development programs to the country’s needs and context. The result is a set of Home Grown Solutions - culturally owned practices translated into sustainable development programs. One of these Home Grown Solutions is Gacaca.
In 2002, Gacaca courts were revived as a way to process the millions of criminal cases that arose following the genocide. Contemporary Gacaca draws inspiration from the traditional model by replicating a local community-based justice system with the aim of restoring the social fabric of society. In total, 1,958,634 genocide related cases were tried through Gacaca. The courts are credited with laying the foundation for peace, reconciliation, and unity in Rwanda. The Gacaca courts officially finished their work in June 2012.