Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa; From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990–1994

In This Review

Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa
by Scott Straus
Cornell University Press, 2015
400 pp.
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From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990–1994
by André Guichaoua; translated by Don E. Webster.
University of Wisconsin Press, 2015
476 pp.
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Straus’ previous book was a penetrating analysis of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Here, he returns to the issue of large-scale ethnic violence in Africa, demonstrating an impressive command of the historical material to contrast the cases of Rwanda and Sudan, where genocides took place, with three cases in which ethnic conflict did not reach that point (Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal). In the end, he concludes, whether interethnic strife results in genocide depends almost entirely on national leadership. Straus argues that African genocides occur during civil wars when governing elites prove willing and able to mobilize the majority of the population and the state apparatus to commit systematic violence against an ethnic minority. That is what happened in Rwanda and Sudan; in the other three countries, leaders instead embraced a pluralistic nationalism that made space for ethnic minorities and sought to end their civil wars through negotiation. 

Readers left unsatisfied by Straus’ relatively short chapter on the Rwandan civil war and genocide should turn to Guichaoua’s magisterial account. Guichaoua shares Straus’ view that the genocide was not premeditated or even preplanned by Hutu extremists but rather evolved from the chaos and violence of the civil war. Through a careful reconstruction of events, and with great attention to the actions of both domestic and international actors, Guichaoua makes a compelling case that the scaling up of violence to genocidal levels was progressive and tied at least in part to the escalation of the civil war and the timid and ineffectual international response to the initial violence. A profound implication of this revisionist history is that individual decisions on the part of both Rwandans and outsiders could have prevented the genocide even weeks after the onset of ethnic-based mass killing.