In This Review

When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and Genocide in Rwanda

When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and Genocide in Rwanda
By Mahmood Mamdani
380 pp, Princeton University Press, 2001

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 in the last seven years. Indeed, due to the work of individual scholars and investigative commissions sponsored by several Western countries, the Organization of African Unity, and the United Nations, we now know with some certainty who plotted the genocide (the Hutu-led government); how it was executed (by the army and by ordinary Hutu); what were the consequences; and, to some extent, until what point intervention could have stopped the killings.

Despite the thousands of pages devoted to the Rwandan genocide, however, we still do not have a good answer to the most basic question: Why? Why did tens of thousands (if not more) of Hutu citizens join with their government to kill their Tutsi neighbors, their Tutsi wives, and fellow Hutu thought to be Tutsi collaborators? Unlike the Nazi killings, the Rwandan holocaust was not an industrial process carried out by special units at the outskirts of the country. Rather, a large percentage of the Hutu population is individually guilty: machete-wielding Hutu civilians often massacred their own neighbors in and around their homes and churches. Although Rwanda's previous history was itself bloody, no one predicted the genocide. Indeed, even the Tutsi -- presumably the group with the greatest interest and the most information -- were taken by surprise when the slaughter engulfed them.


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 realized that they would always be seen as alien in Uganda that they decided to return forcibly to Rwanda. Once again this argument will not be accepted universally, but the evidence that Mamdani is able to bring forward to support it, his personal experience as chair of the Ugandan Commission of Inquiry into Local Government from 1986 to 1988, and the theoretical apparatus on which the argument is built will force a major reconsideration of the external dimensions of the Rwandan crisis.


In addition to these strengths, however, Mamdani's book has one minor and one major flaw. The lesser problem is the author's occasional willingness to criticize faceless intellectual adversaries with whom he wants to pick a fight. One target is the "area studies" school, which he faults for paying paramount attention to geography, with the result that "we have experts on Rwanda, and others on Uganda, but not on both." The practitioners of area studies, found only in the West, are also accused of being "profoundly antitheoretical." No particular person is cited in these attacks on whole schools of scholarship, perhaps because the criticisms are demonstrably false. Indeed, Mamdani's own work depends heavily on books and articles by Western scholars of Africa, who recognize regional dynamics and who have tried hard to put years of fieldwork into coherent intellectual frameworks. Invariably, Mamdani treats the work of individual area scholars with respect and deftness. That Mamdani has chosen to fabricate a collective, faceless, "Western" enemy, while at the same time writing about how political identities can lead to violence and disaster, is a profound and somewhat sad irony.

The book's major flaw is that it does not persuasively link its elaborate historical and theoretical argument to the genocide itself. Mamdani does not actually get to the genocide until page 218 of his 282 pages of text, and then devotes a paltry 15 pages to how it was carried out. This crucial section presents simply a series of anecdotes, without even an attempt to suggest that they are intended to portray the complex implementation of the genocide. Most of the stories, moreover, give the perspective of the Tutsi victims -- when for Mamdani's theory to be persuasive, it would have to be linked to the actions and motivations of the Hutu killers. To be fair, telling their stories would have been difficult because many of the Hutu killers fled to eastern Zaire (as it was then known) to continue their struggle against the Tutsi from exile.

Mamdani writes defensively that he is interested not in narrating atrocity stories "ad infinitum" but rather in understanding the political nature of the crimes in historical context. Still, the imbalance between the book's elaborate theoretical and historical apparatus and its empirical evidence is a central problem. Mamdani does not even take full advantage of the analysis of the local politics of the genocide produced by Human Rights Watch in its excellent study, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. Without a much more thorough linkage between theory and fact, the book's central historical and theoretical propositions must be viewed as unproven. The mere existence of even extremely antagonistic racial divisions does not explain why so many individual citizens appear to have participated so enthusiastically in the genocide, especially given the long history of coexistence and intermarriage between Hutu and Tutsi. Indeed, the variation in local responses by Hutu once the killings began -- which Mamdani fully acknowledges -- suggests that factors other than the drama of national identity may have been at work, including differing local histories of Hutu-Tutsi relations, the nature of the link between central political leaders and localities, and the decisions made by prominent local individuals. Mamdani's failure to draw in more evidence in support of his arguments means that despite the sophistication of his theoretical work, there is simply no way of knowing how much he has contributed to the understanding of the genocide.

What Mamdani has done successfully is to pose in stark terms how difficult it is to explain a genocide. The rich, complex history of identity formation that he develops makes other interpretations -- including the notion that ecological pressure in the densely settled country somehow led to the genocide, or that individual Hutu were simply following orders -- seem too mechanical. Rather than settling the argument, however, Mamdani's explanation should serve as a useful invitation for further empirical studies that systematically explore how different local Rwandan communities responded to calls for genocide and then link those particular local actions to overarching explanations.


The central issue for the future of the Great Lakes region is how the security of the Tutsi will be assured. From the Tutsi perspective, the genocide's lesson is that as a vulnerable minority in the population, they must monopolize political power in order to survive. But the permanent exclusion of the majority Hutu from political authority hardly seems likely or workable. Mamdani wrestles with this question and produces some suggestive hints regarding the complexity of Hutu and Tutsi identity. Especially salient is his appreciation of the need to distinguish among the Hutu -- in particular, between those who had been involved in the genocide but who may now want to reach an accommodation with the Tutsi, and those who continue to be obsessed with Hutu solidarity. This seems at least vaguely plausible, as it will probably be impossible to find a significant number of Hutu without blood on their hands to participate in a political settlement. The problem, however, is that even after the genocide, precious few Hutu have stepped forward to join in a political solution, and it is not clear how much of the Hutu population they represent.

It is hardly a criticism of Mamdani that he does not provide a "solution" to Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. No one else, including the Rwandans, has come up with anything that looks even remotely viable. But Mamdani does do a good job highlighting the obstacles to any long-term settlement. Their identification is one important step toward a stable peace for this troubled region.

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  • Jeffrey Herbst is Chair of the Department of Politics at Princeton University and the author most recently of States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control.
  • More By Jeffrey Herbst