Rwanda Genocide Essay

1837 words - 8 pages

The Rwandan genocide… in which more than 500,000 Tutsi were killed from April to July 1994 -- will be remembered as one of the seminal events of the late twentieth century. This Central African holocaust demonstrated that genocide is still possible five decades after Nuremberg. It also showed that politics in an African country can spiral downward to catastrophe with stunning speed, that African countries cannot always provide solutions to their problems, and that Western, especially American, declarations about a new interest in Africa are cheap talk. The killings, and the subsequent destabilization of the entire Great Lakes region, have justly attracted a tremendous amount of attention ...view middle of the document...

Mahmood Mamdani has written When Victims Become Killers in order to address this great unanswered question. In a complicated book, he argues that the genesis of Hutu-Tutsi violence can be traced back to the period of Belgian colonialism. Unlike the situation in many African countries -- where supposedly ancient ethnic identities were actually formed during the colonial period -- Hutu and Tutsi groups did exist as transethnic identities of "local significance" before the Europeans came to Rwanda. Mamdani argues, however, that the Belgians turned Hutu and Tutsi into racial identities and then constructed the Hutu as indigenous and the Tutsi as alien. These categories were enforced through state-issued identity cards that proclaimed the holder's race, a segregated education system that amplified the supposed racial distinctions, and the exclusion of Hutu from the priesthood and local governments. According to Mamdani, the "Social Revolution" of 1959 that preceded independence -- in which the majority Hutu overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and sent thousands of Tutsi fleeing into exile -- reinforced the notion of Tutsi as aliens. Finally, the 1990 invasion of Rwanda by exiled Tutsi and the threat of a Tutsi diaspora population in Uganda both furthered the notion that Tutsi were foreign and led directly to the common acceptance by the Hutu population that the Tutsi had to be eliminated as a race.

Perhaps inevitably in the face of an event that almost everyone finds unfathomable, Mamdani's book both succeeds and fails in important ways. The strengths of the book are clear and admirable. First, it provides what might be called an intellectual history of the Hutu-Tutsi division that is invaluable and, in some ways, unique. Using nuance and detail, Mamdani describes what he sees as the formation of Hutu and Tutsi identities as we now know them. Although the book is anchored in its analysis of the colonial era, perhaps Mamdani's most interesting contribution is the manner in which he is able to tell a coherent story of race formation, starting in the colonial period and continuing through independent Rwanda. Indeed, his understanding of the Social Revolution and of Rwanda in the 1980s and 1990s commands attention as an important and provocative reinterpretation of the country's recent history. Anyone from now on who writes on identity in Central Africa -- and there will be many -- will have to wrestle with the case that Mamdani has made.

Mamdani has also made a critically important contribution in his analysis of how events in Uganda -- whence the Tutsi invasion of Rwanda was launched -- affected the course of Rwandan history. This dimension of the crisis has not been ignored by other authors, but Mamdani -- a Ugandan who taught in Kampala for many years -- is an especially sensitive observer of regional politics. In a clever application of his ideas regarding the nature of alien and indigenous identities, Mamdani argues that it was when the Tutsi...

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