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Mahmood Mamdani, 'When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda'

James Currey, 2001. ISBN 0 85255 859 7, 364 pp, £19.95 p/b

I had a Rwandan student who told me that during the genocide of 1994 husbands in cross-community marriages would kill their wives (and vice-versa). It is beyond imagining. This was not some bureaucratically organised, impersonal, rational process like the Holocaust of the Second World War. This was a genuinely popular genocide.

What most of us cannot understand is how it came about that hundreds of thousands of people who had never killed before took part in the mass slaughter. It is to Mamdani's credit that he does make the genocide “thinkable”. His analysis has too many threads to unravel in this review but the factors that he highlights include 1) the “racialisation” and politicisation of identity under the Belgian colonial power who promoted the Tutsis as a superior race set above the servile Hutus; and 2) the resentment of the Hutus that resulted in the establishment of the Hutu dominated first republic in 1961 and the flight of significant numbers of the former Tutsi elite into exile in Uganda.

Discriminated against in Uganda, the Tutsi refugees maintained their dream of returning home, and after they helped Musoveni win power in 1986 he in turn supported the armed “invasion” of Rwanda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1990. The RPF considered itself an army of liberation, but for the Hutus in Rwanda it was an invasion. As they fled before the advancing army they raised the spectre of a return of Tutsi domination, thereby strengthening the influence of those that advocated “Hutu Power” as the necessary safeguard against the return to the bad old days of Tutsi supremacy. As Mamdani puts it, "The growing appeal of Hutu Power propaganda among the Hutu masses was in direct proportion to the spreading conviction that the real aim of the RPF was not rights for all Rwandans, but power for the Tutsis."

As the threat of the RPF grew, so any internal dissent was defined as treachery, and people turned on the enemy within, a traditional culture of obedience making them easy prey to the hate-messages of the propagandists.

Mamdani highlights the dreadful irony that lay at the heart of the barbarism: "If it is the struggle for power that explains the motivation of those who crafted the genocide, then it is the combined fear of a return to servitude and of reprisals thereafter that energised the foot-soldiers of the genocide. The irony is that ... the perpetrators of the genocide saw themselves as the true victims of an ongoing political drama, victims of yesterday who may yet be victims again. That moral certainty explains the easy transition from yesterday's victims to killers the morning after."

In a concluding chapter the author turns his attention to Rwanda's future. The key dilemma is how to build a state and society that can embrace a guilty majority alongside an aggrieved and fearful minority. For many of the Tutsis in the post-genocide state the driving force is “never again”. Above all else the genocidaires must be brought to justice. Indeed, the recent introduction of a community-based system of justice (gacaca) in order to deal with the thousands of suspects still crammed into the jails has roused fears amongst survivors that the perpetrators will escape their due punishment.

With genuine insight Mamdani points to the dangers of revenge masquerading as justice, which might feed yet another cycle of violence, and he asks whether there is any other form of justice that might promote reconciliation. He points out that in the case of South Africa the beneficiaries of apartheid were many, hence the proper basis for reconciliation there should be social justice. But in Rwanda there were many perpetrators but few beneficiaries of the slaughter, and the prime requirement for reconciliation should be political justice. Whilst acknowledging the real political obstacles to democratising public life in Rwanda, Mamdani challenges the Tutsi political elite: "Rather than think that power is the precondition for survival, the Tutsi will sooner or later have to consider the opposite possibility: that the prerequisite to cohabitation, to reconciliation, and a common political future may indeed be to give up the monopoly of power. ... So long as Hutu and Tutsi remain alive as political identities, giving up political power may be a surer guarantee of survival than holding on to it."

This is an excellent and insightful work which should be read by anyone concerned about the future of Africa and the Great Lakes region in particular. But I have to confess that despite the clarity of the book there remains a gulf in my understanding. I can follow the intellectual analysis of the different historical, geographical and political forces that made the genocide possible, but I still cannot grasp in any real sense how it was that otherwise “normal folk” could actually participate in such horrors.

Topics: History | Global South