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Reviewed by:
  • Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace by Susan Thomson
  • Kathryn Mara
BOOK REVIEW of Thomson, Susan. 2008. Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace. New Haven: Yale University Press. 326 pp. $30.00 (cloth).

As a welcome follow-up to her first book, Whispering Truth to Power: Everyday Resistance to Reconciliation in Postgenocide Rwanda (2013), in which she explores how ordinary Rwandans find subtle ways to resist state power, Susan Thomson presents readers with Rwanda: From Genocide to Precarious Peace, in which she turns her attention to urgent questions concerning why the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) pursued the path it did, while providing much needed historical and cultural context for these choices, [End Page 145] along with further examination of how Rwandans experienced life under the RPF in the twenty years following the 1994 genocide.

In her introduction, Thomson casts doubts on the popular image of Rwanda as “a country of peace and prosperity” in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide (2). She elaborates on her skepticism by detailing the RPF’s history in the book’s four parts. In the first part, “Genocide, and Its Causes and Consequences,” she lays out the conditions that made genocide possible in Rwanda. Specifically, she contextualizes the political and military choices of the RPF before, during, and after the genocide, helping foreground her later assessment of the government’s self-proclamations regarding its role in the country’s postgenocidal development. In the second part, “Transitioning to Peace?,” Thomson discusses how the country rebuilt itself after the genocide, considering, in particular, the apparent conflicts between the transitional government of ethnic unity and the RPF’s continued human rights abuses, increased land shortages in light of displaced Tutsi survivors, floods of Tutsi returnees, and the forced repatriation of Hutu refugees. Here, too, she details the RPF’s responses to a “legitimate fear of a return to genocidal violence,” including the creation of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, its one-sided cooperation in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and its staging of public executions of Hutu prisoners, alongside other escalating initiatives to gain control and centralize state powers (119).

In the third part, “Setting Up for Success,” Thomson talks about RPF initiatives designed to empower citizens by standardizing government policy, including ingando (citizenship reeducation) and itorero (civic leadership training), legislation forbidding references to ethnic identity, acts of “ethnic divisionism,” “trivializing the genocide,” “genocide ideology,” and the instrumentalization of gacaca (traditional justice) courts throughout the country (162–63). Simultaneously, she explores the graver side of these policies, including government-enforced conformity, a de facto one-party state, increased surveillance, and the discernable tension created by (in) visible ethnic politics. She builds on this critique in the fourth part, “The Fruits of Liberation,” in which she discusses the government’s efforts to wean itself from foreign aid, as well as increased restriction on the actions and discourse of everyday Rwandans, including aggressive responses to those perceived as enemies of the state. In her epilogue, “The Politics of ‘Never Again,’” Thomson concludes by commenting on the centrality of the titular phrase to the RPF’s approaches to both real and imagined threats to the state, and though she acknowledges that she finds no evidence for encroaching mass violence, even in the short term, she warns of recurring outbreaks throughout the nation’s history, which she fears the RPF’s particular approach will not do away with. “Rwandans,” she claims, “regardless of political affinity, socio-economic class[,] or ethnic identity, know this [history] all too well” (255).

Thomson effectively demonstrates the necessity for a study like hers, insofar as she aspires to forewarn about possible consequences of [End Page 146] ongoing state policies. Moreover, she underscores one of the more successful elements of her book, the incorporation of everyday Rwandans’ experiences right alongside more historical, political, and cultural commentary. By declining to pick apart her interlocutors’ accounts, instead relying on them as evidence in their own right, she not only lends credibility to Rwandans’ words about their own experiences, she also exemplifies how studies like hers can never truly be objective. Indeed, she never neglects the lived reality of her subjects, nor does she allow her audience...


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pp. 145-147
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