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  • Making and Unmaking Nations. War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa by Scott Straus
  • Thomas Kühne
Scott Straus, Making and Unmaking Nations. War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. 400, paper, $26.95 US.

Scott Straus, a sociologist at the University of Madison in Wisconsin, is well known to genocide scholars for his brilliant, theoretically ambitious, and empirically rich first book, The Order of Genocide. Race, Power, and War in Rwanda, on the mindset of perpetrators and the local dynamic of mass violence in Rwanda. His latest work, Making and Unmaking Nations, stays in sub-Saharan Africa and continues to inquire in to the genealogy of genocide, but does so in a rather different way. It shifts from local actors to national elites, provides in-depths comparisons of five countries, and eventually seeks an answer to the question of why genocide happens by, paradoxically, examining "why genocide does not happen." (ix). This is an innovative contribution to the field. Straus' comparative endeavor is not limited to cases of genocide—Rwanda, Darfur—but also draws attention to three countries—Senegal, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire—that at some point were at the brink of genocide but ultimately managed to avoid it.

The five case studies consider a broad specter of possible factors for genocide—colonial baggage, political continuities and discontinuities since decolonization, economic growths and declines, demographic, social, and ethnic structures, and not least political and military interventions from outside. Eventually, however, Straus tells us that it is ideologies and ideas—or "founding narratives"—and the way these inform the strategies, tactics, and decisions of political leaders that matter more than anything else. Founding narratives are, according to Straus, those mythically framed national ideologies that define who is in and who is out, or who rules and who is ruled—ideologies that establish hierarchies between primary and secondary citizens and juxtapose the 'good,' state-supporting part of the population and the 'evil' part that is blamed for undermining and destroying the state. While national ideologies of this sort may be encountered and inform violence in many states, including the ones examined in this book, the step towards genocide is taken only if the outsider-group is constructed as an "unwinnable collective identity category" (276) because it is perceived as "inherently dangerous" and "uncontrollable and uncontainable" (26, 33) so that cooperation or negotiation are no longer options. This was the case with the Tutsis, according to the ethnic imagery of the Hutus. The Tutsis were suspected of working to overthrow the Hutus and return to oppressing the Hutus as they had in the colonial and postcolonial past. And it is this construction of ideologies and their appropriation by political actors that lead, or do not lead, to genocide, as Straus asserts throughout the book, not only with regard to Rwanda. The political actors decide which narrative they appropriate and deploy, and how to adjust those narratives in order to perpetrate genocide or not.

Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal provide examples of rather different, in fact opposite, founding narratives. The drift toward massive violence against civilians in Côte d'Ivoire for instance, as witnessed in the 2000s and from 2010 to 2011, could be associated with the onset of genocide and was embedded in an exclusionist nationalist ideology as well as a "crystallized anti-foreigner, anti-northerner, and anti-Muslim sentiment in the southern and western parts of the country" (123). Yet Côte d'Ivoire did not sink [End Page 251] into the quagmire of genocide. Although Straus considers the French intervention, he puts the decisive weight on the ideologies and the way the political leaders used them. While polarizing schemes existed, the varying elites did not radicalize them by constructing an inherently dangerous, thus "unwinnable," enemy. Instead they took up the country's strong tradition of values that revolve around dialogue, tolerance, and solidarity.

In a similar way, the political leadership of Mali navigated around genocide in the severe crises of the early 1990s and again in 2012–13, when armed conflicts between the "black" mostly sedentary hegemonic groups of the southern parts of the country around the Mand...


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