Making and Unmaking Nations

Making and Unmaking NationsWar, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa

by Scott Straus, Cornell University Press, 2015

“In the end, he concludes, whether interethnic strife results in genocide depends almost entirely on national leadership.”

“…Strauss views threat by itself as an insufficient explanation, as elites have multiple options
for responding to grave and immediate threats and because these types of threats to leaders are
much more common than genocide. Strauss argues that leaders, in the face of grave and immediate
threats, will only choose genocide if preexisting ideological frameworks—which he refers to as
“founding narratives”—view the primary political community (such as a specific ethnic group) as
a sub-set of the overall population of the state and see a specific group of people as representing
the threat to that primary community. It is thus the combination of the strategic environment
(armed conflict which represents a significant threat) with ideology that determines when
genocide occurs.”

ISBN-100-8014-5332-1
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Review by Nicolas van de Walle in ‘Foreign Affairs,’ December 2016

 —–
Reviewed by David E. Cunningham, University of Maryland in ‘Genocide Studies and Prevention,’ Vol. 11, 2017

Genocide occurs with disturbing frequency. A large body of research from scholars writing
in a variety of disciplines seeks to explain why genocides happen. This scholarship has identified
factors associated with genocide—such as armed conflict, autocratic governments, ethnic divisions,
and a low level of trade openness—and has led to the development of advanced statistical models
to forecast genocide. Scholars and practitioners pay close attention to the possibility for genocide
when new armed conflicts emerge or instability breaks out around elections or other contentious
events.
Yet, while genocide is distressingly common, it is relatively rare when compared to the factors
identified as associated with it. Many countries are autocratic, ethnically divided, and experience
armed conflicts without genocide occurring. Forecasting models do a reasonable job of predicting
occurrences of genocide but generate many false positives, in which the likelihood of genocide
is seen as high but it does not happen. While the scholarship on genocide has made significant
advances, it has been limited because it has tended to focus on cases of genocide without making
comparisons to similar cases where genocide was plausible but did not occur.
In this excellent book, Scott Strauss sets out to advance the literature on genocide by theoretically
and empirically treating it in a comparative context. Theoretically he does so by both analyzing the
factors that encourage actors to contemplate genocide as well as the factors that encourage restraint
when there is a real possibility of engaging in genocide. Empirically, Strauss conducts detailed case
studies in which he compares cases of genocide to others where he argues genocide was possible,
but did not happen.
Strauss’s argument focuses on national elites, because he argues that genocide almost always
requires elite coordination and, while local leader and individual participation is important, in
the absence of leadership by national elites it is very unlikely. He argues that genocide is a type
of political violence with a fundamentally different agenda than other kinds such as insurgency,
terrorism, riots, or counter-insurgency because it is designed to eliminate a perceived enemy, rather
than to change the behavior of that actor. As such, Strauss argues that elites will only contemplate
genocide when they believe they face a grave and immediate threat.
The focus on threat is not new, in fact, it is one of the main arguments in the existing literature.
However, Strauss views threat by itself as an insufficient explanation, as elites have multiple options
for responding to grave and immediate threats and because these types of threats to leaders are
much more common than genocide. Strauss argues that leaders, in the face of grave and immediate
threats, will only choose genocide if preexisting ideological frameworks—which he refers to as
“founding narratives”—view the primary political community (such as a specific ethnic group) as
a sub-set of the overall population of the state and see a specific group of people as representing
the threat to that primary community. It is thus the combination of the strategic environment
(armed conflict which represents a significant threat) with ideology that determines when
genocide occurs.
Strauss examines and develops this argument through five cases, two in which genocide and
mass killing occurred (Rwanda and Darfur) and three that had similar circumstances as those two
but where genocide did not occur (Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, and Mali). All five cases are in Africa,

which allows him to hold constant a number of other factors that could influence genocide and also
to examine the role of founding narratives in states that are relatively young.
Strauss’s argument is most clearly supported in the case of Rwanda, which is also the case
he has researched in the most depth. In Rwanda, there was a clear military threat, as the rebel
Rwandan Patriotic Front had the upper hand militarily over the Rwandan army in a civil war at
the signing of a peace agreement in the summer of 1993. That peace agreement led to a temporary
suspension of hostilities, but was not fully implemented, and it broke down completely when the
plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down and he died. There has
been much controversy over who is responsible for the downing of the plane, Strauss argues (and
I agree) that it was almost certainly the RPF. To some degree the question is irrelevant, as many
Rwandan Hutu elites believed the RPF shot down the plane to re-start the war, and the RPF did
in fact return to the battlefield very quickly. Massacres of Hutu opposition politicians and Tutsi
civilians began hours after the plane crashed, and over the next 100 days around 75% of the Tutsi
resident population was killed.
All of these details are well known, and the typical story of the Rwandan genocide is that
Habyarimana’s plane being shot down allowed Hutu hard-liners in the Rwandan military to begin
a genocide they had been planning for months. However, Strauss demonstrates convincingly,
drawing on years of research by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as well as his own
extensive field research, that the initial response to the resumption of the war was more focused
on countering the RPF threat directly, and that the plan to wipe out the Rwandan Tutsi population
developed in the days that followed. Genocide was enabled by the founding narrative that Rwanda
was a state for the Hutu that had come into existence by both defeating the European colonizers
and Tutsi-led monarchy and feudalism. This narrative allowed for overcoming forces for restraint
at the individual, local, and national level and combined with the grave and imminent threat of the
RPF (who did, three months later, win the war) to allow the slaughter of 500,000-800,000 Rwandan
Tutsi.
The case of Darfur is an interesting one for Strauss. It has similar elements to Rwanda, in
that the founding narrative of Arab-Islamic nationalism excluded a large element of Sudan’s
population. However, the Darfuri conflict had a key difference—while the RPF was a very real
military threat to the Rwandan government, the Darfuri rebels never posed a direct military threat
to the government in Khartoum. However, the fractious nature of politics in Sudan and the history
of armed conflict meant that the government saw any threat to the Arab-Islamic identity of the
state as grave and responded very harshly to it. In doing so, it worked with groups on the ground
in Darfur who saw the rebels as a very real direct threat to their interests.
The three “negative” cases all share similarities with Rwanda and/or Darfur, but have key
differences in the ideology guiding elite decision-making. In Cote D’Ivoire, international actors
saw genocide as a real possibility, as two civil wars and controversial elections combined with
the emergence of an explicitly nationalist ideology (“Ivorité”) seemed to set the stage for mass
categorical violence. Yet, the country avoided genocide, and Strauss argues that this is because
of several domestic factors, the primary of which was the first President Houphouet’s founding
narrative emphasizing dialogue and multiethnicity. In Mali, like Darfur, a peripheral insurgency
was fought between groups divided along a racial cleavage, but again genocide did not occur,
which Strauss attributes to an elite-led ideological focus on dialogue as the way to resolve political
disagreements. In Senegal a Christian ethnic minority has fought a long-running secessionist war
against a majority ethnic group that is primarily Islamic and the conflict is very clearly perceived
in identity terms. However, a founding narrative of pluralism prevented genocide from occurring
in Senegal.
The five case studies in this book are very well researched and provide strong support for the
theoretical argument. The reader of this book learns much about these individual cases, genocide,
as well as nation-building in African states. I finished the book hungry for more, which is not a
criticism, but rather a reflection of how stimulating and thought-provoking it is.
In particular, I would be interested in seeing more research in two areas. First, the book here
is focused on Africa, a concentration which makes sense both for telling a clear story about nationbuilding
there and from a research design standpoint. Strauss does make reference to other cases
outside of Africa, including Guatemala and Nazi Germany. However, it would be interesting to
see how well the theoretical argument here works to explain cases outside of Africa, particularly
in countries that are not nearly as new as the states studied here. In many cases, the “founding
narratives” emphasized here were established at or soon after independence, less than fifty years
before the events being analyzed and some of the people instrumental in these events were present
at the formation of these narratives. Looking at states that are outside of Africa could allow for
analyzing how and when founding narratives shift and the effect that this has on genocide.
The second area is related. I was persuaded by the discussion of the role of founding narratives
in each of the five cases here. However, I was less clear on how one would identify a founding
narrative prior to a period of crisis where it is anticipated to have an effect. While I find the
argument here very helpful in understanding cases that have occurred, I wonder about the utility
in predicting future genocides. Strauss provides a very helpful appendix focused on identifying
the risk of genocide, but future research that established more objective indicators of ideological
narratives that are likely to be related to genocide would be useful.
In summary, Strauss’s book makes a clear theoretical and empirical contribution to scholarly
understanding of genocide and the process leading up to it. It should be required reading for
anyone interested in understanding this important topic and should generate substantial additional
scholarly research.
from Cornell University Press

Straus’ previous book was a penetrating analysis of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Here, he returns to the issue of large-scale ethnic violence in Africa, demonstrating an impressive command of the historical material to contrast the cases of Rwanda and Sudan, where genocides took place, with three cases in which ethnic conflict did not reach that point (Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal). In the end, he concludes, whether interethnic strife results in genocide depends almost entirely on national leadership. Straus argues that African genocides occur during civil wars when governing elites prove willing and able to mobilize the majority of the population and the state apparatus to commit systematic violence against an ethnic minority. That is what happened in Rwanda and Sudan; in the other three countries, leaders instead embraced a pluralistic nationalism that made space for ethnic minorities and sought to end their civil wars through negotiation.

  • Winner, 2018 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order (University of Louisville)
  • Winner, 2015 Best Book Award (Human Rights Section, International Studies Association)
  • Winner, Conflict Processes Section Best Book Award (American Political Science Association
  • Finalist, 2017 Lemkin Book Award (Institute for the Study of Genocide)
  • Winner, 2015 Joseph S. Lepgold Book Prize (Georgetown University)

In Making and Unmaking Nations, Scott Straus seeks to explain why and how genocide takes place—and, perhaps more important, how it has been avoided in places where it may have seemed likely or even inevitable. To solve that puzzle, he examines postcolonial Africa, analyzing countries in which genocide occurred and where it could have but did not. Why have there not been other Rwandas? Straus finds that deep-rooted ideologies—how leaders make their nations—shape strategies of violence and are central to what leads to or away from genocide. Other critical factors include the dynamics of war, the role of restraint, and the interaction between national and local actors in the staging of campaigns of large-scale violence.

Grounded in Straus’s extensive fieldwork in contemporary Africa, the study of major twentieth-century cases of genocide, and the literature on genocide and political violence, Making and Unmaking Nations centers on cogent analyses of three nongenocide cases (Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal) and two in which genocide took place (Rwanda and Sudan). Straus’s empirical analysis is based in part on an original database of presidential speeches from 1960 to 2005. The book also includes a broad-gauge analysis of all major cases of large-scale violence in Africa since decolonization. Straus’s insights into the causes of genocide will inform the study of political violence as well as giving policymakers and nongovernmental organizations valuable tools for the future.

Introduction: The Puzzle of Genocide

Part I: Concepts and Theory

1. The Concept and Logic of Genocide

2. Escalation and Restraint

3. A Theory of Genocide

Part II: Empirics

4. Mass Categorical Violence and Genocide in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1960–2008

5. Retreating from the Brink in Côte d’Ivoire

6. The Politics of Dialogue in Mali

7. Pluralism and Accommodation in Senegal

8. Endangered Arab-Islamic Nationalism in Sudan

9. Fighting for the Hutu Revolution in Rwanda

Conclusion: Making Nations and Preventing Their Unmaking

Appendix: Identifying the Risk of Genocide and Mass Categorical Violence
References
Index

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