Class lessons of genocide

Ian Donovan reviews Mahmood Mamdani's 'When Victims Become Killers', Princeton University Press, 2001, pp363, £35, hbk

This book, whose secondary title is Colonialism, nativism and the genocide in Rwanda, contains a wealth of information and analysis on the subject of what should be one of the most notorious events of the 20th century. The author is of a Marxist background, a long-standing contributor to the American Monthly Review journal, and the writer of several books on subjects relating to the politics of Africa. He is an African studies professor at Columbia University in New York, formerly of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

The death of at least 850,000 people, possibly a million, in 1994 in Rwanda is an event in some ways more shocking in its apparent implications than even the Nazi holocaust. For, though Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish people had considerably more victims, the actual number of perpetrators was comparatively small; it was carried out by a bureaucratic-military machine without mass involvement. In Rwanda, conversely, the act of killing one’s neighbour or even in some cases members of one’s own family was a mass phenomenon. As the publishers note, the author explains why the slaughter in Rwanda “was performed by hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, including even judges, human rights activists, doctors, nurses, priests, friends and spouses of the victims” (cover).

There have of course been other books written on the horror of the Rwandan genocide. Most widely read is Philip Gourevitch’s graphic We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families (Picador, 1998), which contains a great deal of anecdotal material about what actually happened, as well as some historical background about the genesis of hatred between the two main peoples of Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi.

Gourevitch’s book is useful as a narrative and an introduction, but the comparatively brief historical analysis leaves the reader asking the kinds of questions that flow from the enormity of the situation: above all why? Not only why a faction within the post-colonial, Hutu-centred regime should feel inclined to massacre its perceived communal opponents - such massacres are in fact not that uncommon, in diverse situations around the world, from Lebanon to the Middle East, to the Indian subcontinent.

Most mystifying about the Rwandan genocide are two things. One, the absence of a religious or linguistic difference between the two communities: both the Hutu perpetrators and their predominantly Tutsi victims (as well as a smaller number of Hutu who were murdered for being ‘pro-Tutsi’) are largely catholic in religion, and both speak the same Bantu language, Kinyarwanda. And, two, the conspicuous mass participation in the genocide, which in its ferocity, speed and geographical intensity was simply unprecedented.

Even among those most militantly opposed to racism, the superficial appearance of the Rwandan slaughter undoubtedly evokes echoes of stereotypical concepts about African ‘savagery’ and alleged inherent inability to organise a society based on ‘civilised’ norms, the rule of law, etc. Such racist and inegalitarian concepts are deeply rooted in western society. Even though, with the concrete evolution of world politics in the second half of the 20th century, they have ceased to be useful as an ideology for the bourgeoisie, they nevertheless linger around and show their face from time to time.

Ignorance of African history and the politics of African peoples and states is also widespread in the west. In part, this is a reflection of the dominant ideology which in the past regarded ‘western civilisation’ as something to be exported to ‘uncivilised’ peoples through the barrel of a gun (today’s re-elaborated export is of course ‘western democracy’, as used to justify the recent invasion of Iraq). This reviewer claims no particular expertise on these questions, but nevertheless found this book particularly useful in dealing with the ‘why’ of the whole Rwandan enigma through a concrete historical analysis.

What is particularly valuable about Mamdani’s work is the attention to historical detail and the rich theorisation he brings to the subject matter to explain the determining role of western, particularly Belgian, colonialism in exporting its ideology of racism and racial superiority, adapted to bring into being a hierarchy of ‘racial’ differences among Africans. Through a bizarre piece of what can only be called social engineering, this succeeded in creating a perceived ‘racial’ problem/divide that developed a self-sustaining character. This ostensibly ‘racial’ division continued to develop through its own logic for decades after Belgian colonialism had left Africa, eventually culminating in the tragedy of a truly mass-based genocide in 1994.

Mamdani explains in some historical depth the background of pre-colonial Rwanda. The country was in fact something of a rarity, having one of the most advanced state formations in Africa. It was therefore colonised as a distinct entity, retaining under colonial rule more or less the proportions that existed beforehand, in terms of land, borders and populations. The general practice was to create state boundaries that threw together diverse peoples, irrespective of their linguistic compatibility, history, etc, for the benefit of the colonialists.

Indeed, one fairly generalised index of the ruinous effects of colonialism to this day is the continued existence in Africa of the borders it imposed. With few exceptions (the most notable being the formation of Tanzania by the merger of the former British colonies of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in the early 1960s), the imperialists’ artificial administrative boundaries have remained intact, leading to a proliferation of states that do not coincide with any putative nation. Nevertheless these pretend to be nation-states due to the material interests of variegated lumpen-bourgeois and petty bourgeois elites that owe both their prominence and their weakness and insecurity to the effects of colonialism.

Most of these states are, because of their very instability, all the more oppressive in their treatment of all manner of unfortunate minority peoples. In many cases, some kind of democratic, genuinely federal entity - in its logic pointing towards a continental solution - is necessary to begin to resolve these kinds of questions. This in turn demands a resurgence of the political workers’ movement internationally, led by Marxists, to begin the preparatory work necessary to make such a struggle a realistic possibility.

Class origins

The author describes the evolution of pre-colonial Rwanda in a chapter devoted to the genesis of the identities of Hutu and Tutsi. Its social formation was evidently based on politically enforced forms of exploitation that arguably bear a certain resemblance to early forms of European feudalism - the very complexity of these questions preclude any detailed discussion here.

But what is particularly relevant is that the origins of the division between Tutsi and Hutu appear to lie in class, not ethnicity per se. It is clear that the Hutu as such were not a distinct group at all in their origins, as Mamdani explains: “Research on the expansion of the Rwandan state during the reign of Rwabugiri and the early colonial period gives us critical insight into the trans-ethnic nature of the Hutu identity. For Hutu, it appears, were simply those from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who came to be subjugated to the power of the Rwandan state …

“This story of previously autonomous communities being absorbed within the boundaries of an aggressively expanding state focuses on the process of state formation and its contradictory outcome. On the one hand, as local chiefs were dismissed and replaced by incoming collaborators, identified as Tutsi, land and cattle gradually accumulated into Tutsi hands. On the other hand, as those subjugated lost land and were forced to enter into relations of servitude to gain access to land, the ‘Hutu identity came to be associated with and entirely defined by inferior status’” (pp69-70).

The Tutsi were effectively the ruling class in this powerful pre-colonial state. That they were not defined predominantly as an ‘ethnic’ group is showed by the fact that it was possible for a small minority of Hutu to “accumulate cattle and rise through the socioeconomic hierarchy … and achieve the political status of a Tutsi”. “Loss of property” could conversely lead to “loss of status”; and “both social processes occurred over generations” (p70).

The various theories as to the coming into being of ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ are examined by Mamdani; they range from the ‘no difference’ theory that simply puts the differentiation down to social selection - the Tutsi are taller because of the privileged social position they held over centuries - to theories that appear to suggest a migration of the Tutsi from somewhere around the horn of Africa in a much earlier period, for which no reliable records exist.

Mamdani states that there is considerable genealogical evidence for the latter hypothesis: he quotes Jean Hiernaux to the effect that the Tutsi were originally “ancient east Africans”, noting that, “based on studies of blood factors and on archaeological evidence, Hiernaux argued that the Tutsi were one extreme of humanity as it developed under African conditions, just as pygmies were the other extreme” (p47).

The relevance of this understanding becomes obvious when we get to examine a key component of the mass false consciousness that eventually led to genocide in Rwanda: the so-called ‘Hamitic hypothesis’. This is a racist theory, in part based on a form of Old Testament pseudo-anthropology on a similar level of absurdity to ‘creation science’; it dovetailed in with other, more secular theories of so-called racial difference emanating from the ‘social Darwinist’ perversion of evolutionary theory, which was the orthodoxy in bourgeois social science in the colonial period. The theory basically stated that the dominant ‘racial’ type of black Africans, the Bantu peoples, are effectively subhumans, incapable of creating any kind of society beyond the stage of savagery. Where there was evidence of some kind of more advanced, civilised society in Africa, therefore, it must have come from some other people, of a non-Bantu ‘racial’ type.

The biblical story of Ham, one of the sons of Noah, was enlisted for this purpose. Initially this myth postulated that Ham, having seen his father naked and drunk, was disowned by Noah and was driven away. Because of his dark skin, and his propensity for disloyalty, idleness and stupidity, he supposedly became the founder of the black ‘race’, who were therefore cursed and doomed to inferiority to the white man. This ‘theory’ of descent from Noah after the ark and the great flood has served obscurantist and racist theorists well - the entire Semite linguistic/ethnic grouping of peoples, including Arabs and Jews, also supposedly trace their descent from one of Noah’s other sons, Shem. Particularly in the ‘Hamite’ permutation, this piece of biblical nonsense was a justification for the crudest forms of racism, designed to justify the treatment of humanity in a black skin in general like animals. It was one of the key ‘intellectual’ and religious justifications for slavery in the earlier period of mercantilism that preceded the full development of the European empires.

Modified racism

As the colonial empires expanded in Africa during the later 19th century, this theory of racial inferiority came to be modified. Instead of merely dealing with captive black chattel slaves, mainly in the Americas, the various European colonisers were faced with diverse societies populated with black Africans, with their own widely divergent social structures, languages and cultures. The theory of racial superiority was of course an indispensable ideological justification for colonial rule, but, given the complexities involved in exploiting such diverse peoples, the simplicities of the older theory of uniform black savagery underwent a significant change.

In a number of parts of Africa that came to be European colonies, quite sophisticated forms of the state were to be found, either in actual existence or in terms of archaeological evidence. In some cases, these pointed to relatively advanced forms of civilisation that were not quite on a par with early European feudalism, but seemed to show a similar level of development in some respects with regard to military organisation, class differentiation and the politically enforced extraction of a surplus, etc. The emergence of considerable evidence that ancient Egypt, one of the key progenitors of ‘western civilisation’, was a society in which some of its rulers would have been considered black, also was deeply embarrassing for the theorists of a uniform black ‘inferiority’, and gave impetus to the concoction of a modified form of the theory.

The modified Hamitic thesis that grew out of this, and which is an element central to Mamdani’s explanation of the genesis of the Rwandan genocide, affirmed, as before, the utterly inferior and effectively worthless status of the Bantu. However, it also acknowledged the existence of civilisation in black Africa. Instead of, as previously, being the descendants of the first black man, now the Hamites were said to be a people, still descended from Ham, who had been cursed to live among the already existent and ‘inferior’ Bantu and had allegedly become partially degraded to their level. However, because of their origins, they were also supposedly the bearers of civilisation in Africa. Such higher forms of social organisation as were to be found there were thereby ascribed to a special sub-group of blacks, the Hamites, who supposedly had a completely different origin and could be considered ‘racially superior’ to most black Africans.

This peculiar, tortuous piece of racist theorising was very useful for colonialism, both in providing ideological justification for its own rule, and as an additional arrow in the quiver of the policy of ‘divide and rule’: a standard weapon of colonial imperialism. Mamdani shows with a concreteness that is quite startling how it was made use of by Belgian colonialism in particular in the circumstances of Rwanda; and how this myth and the social and political processes that were initiated by its use under colonial rule as a method of social control of the Rwanda population, both Hutu and Tutsi, continued after independence - indeed they acquired a life of their own, unfolding according to a historical logic that is quite explicable within such an ideological framework. This was one of the worst crimes of imperialism: the creation of a spurious, poisonous ideology of racial difference that started a process eventually leading one group of Africans to slaughter their close kinsmen and women on a massive scale, decades after the end of colonial occupation itself.

As I say, Mamdani does not treat this question abstractly: he examines the history of Rwanda - intertwined with that of the countries surrounding it, such as Burundi, Uganda and western Congo (Zaire) - at each stage of historical development. His analysis encompasses the pre-colonial period; the decades of initially German, then Belgian colonialism; the period in which ‘independence’ was achieved in the late 1950s/early 1960s; and the subsequent turmoil that finally led to the genocide. He deals in considerable detail with the various changes in the relations between the two main peoples of Rwanda (the pygmy-like Twa, who make up only around one percent of the population, are peripheral in terms of the main issues at stake and therefore are only minimally mentioned in the book).

Class becomes ‘race’

The transformation of the Hutu/Tutsi divide from something that in the pre-colonial period was indeterminate, ill-defined and appeared to have more to do with class and social status than ethnic difference, into something defined as ‘racial’ and thereby inherent and immutable, was one of the main ‘achievements’ of colonialism in Rwanda. The Hamitic hypothesis was seized upon by the Belgians as the key to ruling the country and creating servility among both Hutu and Tutsi, and Mamdani devotes a whole section of his book to this process of racialisation.

The means by which this was carried out varied. One important method was changing the forms of patronage, privilege and exploitation: the reinforcement of some forms of pre-capitalist servility at the expense of others to increase the dependence of the mainly Hutu lower classes on the mainly Tutsi privileged classes, while at the same time undermining any semblance of independence by those same privileged classes, depriving them of real control of the social surplus they had formerly extracted and effectively transforming them into functionaries of the colonial state.

The racialisation of the Hutu/Tutsi divide went hand in hand with the mass conversion of the Rwandan population, both Hutu and Tutsi, from traditional religion to the catholic form of christianity. Mamdani writes: “As a process both ideological and institutional, the racialisation of the Tutsi was the creation of a joint enterprise between the colonial state and the catholic church. Missionaries were ‘the first ethnologists’ of colonial Rwanda … for father François Menard, writing in 1917, a Tutsi was ‘a European under a black skin’. If the church heralded the Tutsi as ‘supreme humans’ in 1902, the same church would turn into a prime site for the slaughter of Tutsi in 1994” (p87-88).

As Mamdani explains further, this phenomenon was not just about inculcating an ideology: “… Belgian power turned Hamitic racial supremacy from an ideology into an institutional fact by making it the basis of changes in political, social and cultural relations. The institutions underpinning racial ideology were created in the decade from 1927 to 1936 ... Key institutions - starting with education, then state administration, taxation and finally the church - were organised (or reorganised, as the case may be) around an active acknowledgement of these identities. The reform was capped with a census that classified the entire population as Tutsi, Hutu or Twa, and issued each person with a card proclaiming his or her official identity.” The purpose being: “If the theory was that the Tutsi were ‘a civilising race’ then there would have to be institutions that would discriminate in favour of the Tutsi so as to make the theory a reality” (pp88-89).

Artificial though this grotesque piece of almost Nazi-like social engineering was, it had crippling effects on the Rwandan polity long after Belgian colonialism had ceased to be a force in world.


As another pointer to the root causes of the Rwandan genocide, Mamdani talks about the reactionary role of nativism, or indigenism, in Africa. This manifests itself in a dual conception of citizenship in many African states. There is the formal political, or civic, citizenship of a particular state on the one hand, and there is ethnic citizenship - membership of an ethnic group considered ‘indigenous’ to a particular territory.

In societies where large sections of the population still live on the land and engage in economic activities centred on subsistence agriculture, this second form of citizenship often equates to the right to own or even to use the land. In countries (and there are many in Africa) where both these types are in existence side by side, the possession of civic citizenship of the state, without at the same time being regarded as belonging to one of the main ‘ethnic’ groupings that make up the state, leaves large numbers of people doomed to a second-class status and in many cases to persecution, oppression or potentially starvation.

As Mamdani lays out, the latter form of citizenship is itself a creation of the colonialists and their methods of divide-and-rule. For administrative convenience, and for the purposes of keeping control of the population, what were often relatively fluid relations between different linguistic groups in the pre-colonial period were deliberately solidified into systems of ‘homelands’ for different ‘tribes’. One purpose of this, of course, was to make mobility more difficult for those that the colonial state would prefer to tie to a specific piece of land for the extraction of a surplus from mainly agricultural activities.

Another was a more general utilisation and strengthening of the power of traditional authority over those below, while at the same time creating dependence of those traditional elites on the colonial state, putting some apparent distance between the decrees of the colonial authorities and the tribal chiefs, etc, who were often charged with carrying out their will. In this sense, Mamdani argues that, contrary to appearances and the rhetoric of many of its most vociferous agents and supporters, indigenism is both a creation of colonialism and one of the key political factors that holds back the social and political development of Africa. Unfortunately, like the survival of colonial borders, it has proved extremely tenacious and has not only survived the end of colonialism, but played a major and reactionary role in post-colonial political developments.

One of the key contributing factors in the build-up of social and political events that eventually led to the Rwanda horror was a crisis whose essential root was these dual forms of citizenship. This had several different layers and ramifications at different times, and was a regional, not merely a Rwandan, crisis.

As the decline of colonialism neared its end point in the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘racial’ polarisation between Hutu, as the ‘indigenous’ majority people, and allegedly ‘alien, civilising race’ of Tutsi, which had been artificially solidified and promoted by the colonialists, meant that the movement for independence in Rwanda had an indigenist character. That is, as well as being directed against the Europeans, it was also directed against the Tutsi as a supposedly non-indigenous people. Thus you saw, as concretely expressed in the so-called ‘social revolution’ of 1959, the emergence of the movement later known as ‘Hutu Power’. This expressed ideologically the rise of what Mamdani terms a Hutu “counter-elite”, aiming at the exclusion of the ‘alien’ Tutsi from any share of political influence.


Particularly after the coming to power of communalist political currents (that would decades later give birth to Hutu Power) after a coup in 1961, followed by elections to confirm it, this gave rise to a wave of persecution and communal killings that drove thousands of Tutsi into exile in the surrounding states. The large numbers of Tutsi who ended up in exile in neighbouring Uganda were later to play a pivotal role in the events surrounding the 1990-95 civil war, of which the genocide was the deadliest and most notorious phase. However, before matters could get to that stage, there intervened three decades of struggles, of harsh intercommunal polarisation interspersed with ill-fated attempts at conciliation, from a variety of different regimes.

The rise of the Rwandan ‘Second Republic’ after another coup in 1973 led to an attempt - doomed in the long run, but significant nevertheless - by the more enlightened Hutu regime of president Juvenal Habyarimana, to deracialise the Hutu/Tutsi divide, redefining the Tutsi from a ‘race’ to an ‘ethnicity’ and declaring them ‘indigenous’ to Rwanda.

At the same time, Hutu grievances over the still in many ways privileged social status of the Tutsi continued to be expressed throughout the Second Republic. A highly complex situation, fraught with potential for communal explosions, continued to develop. Hutus, who were politically dominant at the level of the state, were at the same time engaged in struggles to transform Rwanda and raise the social status of the Hutu vis-à-vis the Tutsi. The social and economic advantages of the Tutsi were considerable, thanks to the social engineering of the colonialists in preferentially educating and promoting them as an alleged ‘superior race’ into higher positions throughout the country.

The relatively enlightened policies of the Second Republic were doomed. The official pronouncements of a section of the Hutu elite did not eliminate the sense of grievance of the Hutu population as a whole against the Tutsi, nor the popular hostility to them as an alien ‘race’. Nor did it eliminate the social tinder represented by the desire to return of large numbers of Tutsi who had been driven into exile. One particular important historical event in the region had given these exiles a great deal of potential leverage. That event was the triumphant entry into the Ugandan capital, Kampala, of the National Resistance Army led by Yoweri Museveni in January 1986.

The initially progressive, democratic thrust of this guerrilla struggle is illustrated by the participation of the Rwandan fighters of Tutsi Banyarwanda in Museveni’s guerrilla army right from the beginning in 1981, thereby breaking with the reactionary ethos of indigeneity. Of the 27 fighters whom Museveni was able to assemble at the beginning of his struggle - after the first post-Amin elections were rigged in favour of Amin’s dictatorial predecessor, Obote - two later played a major role in Tutsi armed struggle in the 1990-95 Rwanda civil war. One was in fact the current Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. In the early period the Museveni regime made a significant break with the dual citizenship model by attempting to abolish ‘ethnic’ citizenship, first in the areas controlled by the NRA guerrillas prior to their conquest of power, and for the initial period after their victory, where citizenship in a unitary sense was granted on the basis of 10 years’ residence, not of indigeneity. The granting of Ugandan citizenship on this basis to thousands of Tutsi Banyarwanda exiles in 1986 was a quite remarkable departure from the norm.

Unfortunately, it lasted only a few short years. The programme of the NRA and the National Resistance Movement regime that grew out of it was, for all its democratic aspirations and the ‘Marxist’ reputation of its leaders, a social democratic - ie, bourgeois - one: for a ‘mixed economy’, etc. With the enormous ideological and practical pressure on such aberrant third world movements to conform to the imperialist-dictated norm after the collapse of Stalinism, the Museveni regime moved decisively in the direction of neoliberalism by the beginning of the 1990s. Also, in the context of an indigenist outcry against the Banyarwanda sections of the NRA, the Museveni regime reversed its progressive citizenship law and deprived the Banyarwanda exiles of their citizenship rights.

As an aside it is worth noting that, such is the sensitivity of this question and the antagonism between the Museveni regime and its former Banyarwanda comrades as a result of this betrayal, in Museveni’s otherwise rather illuminating autobiography Sowing the mustard seed (Kampala, 1997) neither Paul Kagame, nor Fred Rwigyema (Museveni’s Tutsi former deputy head of the NRA army, who was killed in the Rwandan civil war), nor indeed the presence of Banyarwanda at all in the NRA, are even mentioned at all.


This reversion to indigenism and reaction in Uganda precipitated the crisis in Rwanda. The deprivation of Ugandan citizenship of the exiled Tutsi Banyarwanda, including many hardened veterans of Museveni’s bush war, led directly to the formation of the Rwanda Patriotic Front and the armed invasion of Rwanda in 1990 by those fighters, which marked the beginning of the civil war. The regime of Habyarimana responded to the advances of the battle-hardened Tutsi NRA veterans of the RPF with conciliation and further attempts at democratic reform and improving the position of the Tutsi, who were, it is to be recalled, a formerly privileged minority now facing persecution.

In turn, this conciliatory response of Habyarimana to the RPF invaders (perceived by the more extreme communalist tendencies, whose watchword was ‘Hutu power’, as constituting a potent armed threat to all the ‘gains’ that had been made by the Hutu at the expense of the Tutsi since independence) produced its own negation. That negation was the génocidaires, who were in Mamdani’s analysis not the same thing as Hutu Power, but rather an outgrowth of it under specific historical conditions. Finally triggered off by the apparent assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana in a highly suspicious air crash in April 1994, the killing rapidly assumed the mass character that ensured its infamy.

This is in some ways the seminal section of Mamdani’s analysis of the Rwanda genocide - its specificity to a particular, special set of circumstances. The genocide was perpetrated by the masses of a population who perceived themselves as ‘racially’ oppressed by a ‘foreign’ population, to whom they were seemingly losing a civil war and about to lose the perceived gains that had taken decades to achieve. The fact that this perception was radically at variance with reality, that the ‘racial’ division between Tutsi and Hutu was a complete myth and an invention of the real oppressors of both Hutu and Tutsi, the imperialists, was beside the point. A radically false perception of reality and history had, through its ability to conquer the minds of large numbers of the ordinary Hutu population of Rwanda, become a material force of devastating destructiveness.

In this context the genocide - both of the Tutsi, who were seen by large sections of the Hutu population as a threat to their fragile supremacy and rights to be free of what was falsely perceived as ‘racial’ oppression, and of the ‘traitor’ Hutu who were seen as protecting the Tutsi - becomes explicable. This tangle of historical circumstances constitutes a concrete explanation for the mass participation in the slaughter.

Partial analogies are possible with situations elsewhere in the world, where elements of mass false consciousness have led to the growth of genocidal sentiments, or atrocities against other peoples, albeit on a less massive and all-encompassing scale - the Middle East and the partition of India, or the growth of extreme nationalist sentiment in Germany, as it was subjugated and reduced to penury after World War I, are appropriately illustrative examples.

Mamdani’s elaboration of those elements of the Rwandan situation that were common to other instances - as well as the historical specificities that made for something qualitatively even worse, in terms of the proportion of people slaughtered and the mass participation - is a powerful refutation of the neo-racist myth that there is something uniquely sinister and inexplicable about what happened in Rwanda. In the context of the truly poisonous legacy of colonialism, and in particular of one of its most ruinous and paradoxical creations, indigenism, as well as the malign neglect of Africa by capital that is today most epitomised by the ravages of the Aids crisis, particularly in the south of the continent, what happened is perfectly explicable.

The remainder of Mamdani’s book deals with the outcome of the Rwandan civil war and the ramifications of the genocide for the entire region of east-central Africa, as well as his own views on what is to be done in terms of fighting the causes underlying the crises in the region. There is a chapter that deals with the citizenship crisis in eastern Congo caused by the post-genocide migration of hundreds of thousands of Hutu, including large numbers of génocidaires, over the eastern border into a region of Congo/Zaire already inhabited by exiled Tutsi and Hutu, who until that point had lived in a kind of equilibrium with various native Congolese peoples.

This destruction of equilibrium and stability of course laid the basis for the welcome and overdue collapse of the corrupt cold war regime of Mobutu. However, it was also the starting point for the Congo wars that have blighted the region since, drawing in armies from as far away as Zimbabwe and Angola and leading to the deaths of over three million people in what is believed to be the most bloody armed conflict anywhere on the globe since World War II.

Mamdani warns of the natural tendency for the surviving Tutsi to establish a Tutsi-dominated state in post-genocide Rwanda; he makes a rather inept analogy with the formation of the state of Israel in terms of explaining what should not be done. But his essential point is correct: despite the participation of large numbers of Hutu in the genocide, there has to be a political understanding of the conditions that created it and a democratic political solution to defuse the antagonisms and pseudo-racial hatreds that gave rise to this situation.


In terms of his general conclusions and proposals for democratic reform after these terrible events, Mamdani takes aim above all at indigenism and ‘ethnic’ citizenship, and calls for a regional reform along lines which strongly imply the need for a transcendence of the existing borders.

For a coherent analysis of the causes of the Rwandan genocide, this book is essential reading, and offers rich food for thought regarding some of the issues involved in other complex national/ethnic conflicts around the world. A concrete understanding of the complexities of interlocking grievances and oppressions, and how the natural desire for emancipation and democracy can be distorted into its opposite, is something that the socialist movement needs in order to maintain an independent class perspective in a world where our rulers constantly put on airs of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’, while promoting their own predatory agendas.

The insights contained in this book contribute significantly to such a class understanding.