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Is Genocide Inevitable?

Other outcomes are possible in African conflicts.

June 15, 2015

Other outcomes are possible in African conflicts.

As thousands of Africans flee their home countries to cross deserts, hostile territories and the Mediterranean Sea to find refuge in Europe, so we are reminded daily of the brutality that is all too pervasive in much of Africa.

Mass violence in countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Mali, Chad and Uganda, let alone genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Sudan, continue to influence sub-Saharan Africa’s image.

The African Union, the United Nations and Western governments, too, often stand on the sidelines as tragedies unfold in Africa.

The greatest blight on President Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House was the United States’ passivity as more than 500,000 Tutsis were murdered by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.

The vulnerability to violence and civil war in Africa damages development and international support. There is a sense among other countries that genocide is built into the fabric of African nations.

A better understanding of the realities could strengthen international engagement in the region, curb extreme violence and forge human and national security.

Corruption, tribal rivalries, power grabs by ambitious soldiers and a range of other factors have unleashed civil wars and insurgencies. Time and again, the potential of these situations exploding into genocide seems real.

Yet, an intense examination of a range of country situations shows that many countries have held back from the brink of massive slaughter, while a few, such as Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have not.

Scott Straus, Professor at the University of Wisconsin, has spent the last 20 years researching conflict in Africa. His latest book – Making and Unmaking Nations – War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa – from Cornell University Press, explains why genocide is not the inevitable outcome in African conflicts.

This is an important book, not just for the thoroughness of the research, but also as an influence on the responsibility of foreign governments and international organizations to prevent genocides.

Genocide is a deliberate, sustained policy that stems from a process of decision-making. It is a distinctive form of political violence and an attempt to destroy or inflict maximum damage upon a civilian category within a territory.

It is intentional group destruction, pursued through sustained violence organized and inflicted by both national and local actors.

Examining the situation

Straus examines conditions during civil wars in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal that did not lead to genocide, as well as those that did in Rwanda and Sudan.

In Cote d’Ivoire, for example, a perfect storm of events that could have unleashed genocide came together: acute political instability, widespread armed conflict, economic decline, increasing poverty and a growing nationalistic/ethnic public discourse built on historic resentments that created an identity category for discrimination.

Moreover, militias tied closely to security forces were strongly armed. Yet, the factors did not lead to genocide.

An assortment of restraints was shown, including key decisions by the national government as well as French government engagement. But, this is not the whole story.

The crucial divider between those African nations that have gone down the genocide route and those that have not, rests in the core governing narrative that prevails in these countries.

Over extensive periods of time, the major speeches by national leaders build the national governing narrative. In Cote d’Ivoire, national leaders had promoted inclusion and a multiethnic state for years together.

This was also the case in Mali and Senegal where the governing narrative was sufficiently powerful to prevent an escalation of violence to the level of genocide.

All other African countries should have followed the examples of Julius Nyrere and Nelson Mandela, both of who promoted national governing narratives of nation-building, equality and economic opportunity.

It was the opposite in both Sudan and Rwanda. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power since 1993, has consistently promoted Arab-Islamic nationalism.

The relentless attacks on the non-Arab population of Darfur were coordinated from the nation’s capital. The excuse was that an insurgency had to be put down, but the mass murder went far beyond that objective.

In Rwanda, the Hutus built and sustained a narrative of being the true citizens of the country subject to ruthless feudal lords, the Tutsis.

The once persecuted Hutus saw themselves as the legitimate rulers and mass slaughter was pursued to ensure that never again would Tutsis have control.

The right approach to conflict resolution

Many Western policy-makers, in shaping African approaches, insufficiently consider the content and power of the national governing narrative.

Often, we become too tolerant or indifferent to the bigotry that some leaders espouse. The existence of civil society organizations and good journalists in most African countries ensures that we have the opportunity to learn about the outbreaks of violence and to be well informed on the views and policies of African leaders.

Straus provides excruciating detail to demonstrate the complexities of violent outbreaks in a range of African countries.

The message clearly emerges that opportunities for foreign governments and international organizations to intervene almost always exist.

However, they need to understand the dynamics and ideology driving the situation and respond early and forcefully enough, to prevent massive tragedies.

A deeper understanding of the dynamics of violence and power in today’s Africa should lead Western governments to more pro-active roles.

This would not only curb the propensity for genocide in some countries, but would also help build conditions to enable citizens to stay at home and seek better opportunities for themselves, than flee into the hands of human traffickers and smugglers or drown in the Mediterranean.


There is a sense that genocide is built into the fabric of African nations.

There needs to be better understanding of the realities and ideologies that drive conflict in Africa.

The core governing narrative of a country decides whether it will go down the genocide route or not.