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Reviewed by:
  • When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda
  • Steven Pierce
Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda has already been the subject of a great deal of writing. This new study of Rwanda by the distinguished Columbia University political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, is a welcome, powerful, and clear-sighted addition to this literature. Mamdani is concerned to combat a popular image of the Rwandan genocide as emerging from intractable “tribal” hatreds, between the two groups making up the vast majority of Rwanda’s population, the Hutu and the Tutsi. His book places the genocide in its historical, political and geographical context, and also makes a powerful plea against the explanations of what he terms “African studies,” which he says avoids the claims of history and politics and explains the genocide as a manifestation of pathology in Rwandan or African society.

In most ways, the Hutu and Tutsi do not appear to be “ethnic” or “racial” groups. While there are stereotypical features characterizing both groups, they speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, and share a culture. Mamdani provides a useful overview of how the two categories emerged as politically salient. The colonial story, versions of which were adopted both by Tutsis who dominated the country until 1959 and later by Hutu genocidaires, was that the Tutsi were a group of immigrant conquerors. More recently, this story has been dismissed (among others, by apologists for Tutsi power) with the argument that the categories Hutu and Tutsi involve occupation and status (farmer vs. herder or cattle owner, commoner vs. aristocrat), and as many have pointed out, the social implications of being Hutu and Tutsi have varied across time and space. Indeed, the cultural origins of the categories are intimately wrapped up in the history of the kingdom of Rwanda and the means by which particular populations were brought under control, acculturated, and governed.

Mamdani attributes the politicization of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” to a consolidation and reorganization of Rwanda in the second half of the nineteenth century, in which state centralization also placed power more squarely with the king and his subordinates, who were Tutsi. Colonial rule, first by Germany and after World War I by Belgium, furthered this process in two ways. Because European officials depended upon the officials of Rwanda as territorial administrators, Tutsi power was enforced by the greater military might of the Europeans. A new “science” of race was used to explain Rwanda’s political balance of power: Tutsi were the aristocracy because of their racial superiority, since they were descended from Caucasoid “Hamites” from the north. Mamdani’s contribution to this account is to argue that the process resulted in a racialization of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” as categories. A theory of racial superiority explained a situation of political privilege, justified Tutsis’ near-monopoly on educational opportunities and jobs in the colonial government, and resulted in a regime of “racial” disenfranchisement for Hutus.

As independence neared, a Hutu revolution reversed the relative power of these newly created “racial” groups. The new government enacted policies that discriminated against Tutsis. These combined with continuing waves of popular violence against Tutsis to lead to a Tutsi exodus, especially to Uganda. A regime that seized power in 1973 lessened overt discrimination against Tutsis, but Hutu domination of Rwanda remained, as did the large refugee population in Uganda. Many other writers attribute a resurgence of anti-Tutsi, “Hutu power” propaganda to the government’s response to a crash in world coffee prices and structural adjustment in the late 1980’s. Mamdani places greater emphasis on the regional context. A wave of anti-Hutu violence in Burundi to the south — a similar Belgian colony that had not experienced a Hutu revolution and remained dominated by Tutsis — heightened anti-Tutsi sentiment in Rwanda. More seriously yet, the refugees in Uganda had by the late ‘80’s concluded that they would never enjoy full rights of citizenship there and so became determined to regain their status in Rwanda, launching an army under the name the Rwandese Patriotic Front. Rwanda’s domestic economic crisis forced the ruling party to...

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