Scott Straus – Making and Unmaking Nations

This is a guest post by Scott Straus, Professor of Political Science and International Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison


In Making and Unmaking Nations, I set out to understand why genocide occurred in some places but not in others. The answer is complex, of course. But a good part of the story, I found, has to do with long-running political ideologies, which stem from decisions that presidents had made previously. To understand then why genocide happens, or does not happen, leadership matters. I further argue that some of Africa’s first generation of presidents, which today do not often receive credit, had a long-term positive impact on the political trajectories of their countries.

Some background on the project: for the past 18 years, the focus of my research has been genocide. My first book focused on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. From there, I sought to develop a general theory by employing comparative methods. As I worked on that subject, I developed two main critiques of the existing literature. The first is that scholars typically compared genocide cases to genocide cases. A common comparison included the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and Bosnia, for example. The second is that scholars compared cases that were quite different—in terms of world region, historical time period, and the countries themselves.

My research thus privileged two comparative principles. First, genocide cases should be compared to non-genocide cases, in particular ones that possessed many of the drivers that scholars believe cause genocide. The operative question became: what was commonly different among the non-genocide cases compared to the genocide cases? Second, the comparative frame should aim for greater structural similarity among the cases. All told, I decided to focus on post-Cold War Sub-Saharan Africa. For the non-genocide cases, I examined Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal. For the genocide cases, I examined Rwanda and Darfur.

The non-genocide cases all experienced a civil war that could be construed as being fought along identity lines. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, there was a civil war that began in 2002 in which the rebels were based in the north and were primarily Muslim. They fought against a Christian, southern-led government, and the rebels fought in the name of ending discrimination against Muslim northerners. In Mali, in the early 1990s, Tuareg and Arab rebels fought the government in the south, also in the name of their communities. In addition to war, the countries experienced political transition. In Côte d’Ivoire, there was a succession fight, failed elections, and a coup. In Mali, the country was transitioning from an authoritarian system to a multi-party one. Moreover, in each country there was low-level, unpunished violence against civilians committed by state forces and in some countries there were pro-government militias, even hate media. On balance, these factors represented much of the consensus in the genocide studies literature about the causes of the phenomenon.

So what was different about the non-genocide cases? Part of the answer lies with the dynamics of the armed conflict, in particular the level of threat that the rebellions posed to the central governments. In Côte d’Ivoire, an international intervention halted the rebel advance and separated the two sides. In Mali, the rebels were confined to the north. In Senegal, the rebels were restricted to the far south. In contrast, in Rwanda the rebels ultimately overpowered government forces. Darfur is more complicated. There the rebels were limited to the west but they were able to score some significant military success and threaten local, government-allied actors.

But alongside questions of threat, I also discovered an element that surprised me. In particular, in the non-genocide cases, when I conducted interviews with leading military and political actors, as well as intellectuals in the country, they consistently said something along the lines of, “We do not define this fight as a war between one identity group and another identity group.” In effect, they argued that the nation was multi-ethnic or plural. In some cases, they also claimed that dialogue, rather than war, was a founding principle of politics in their country.

That raised the question of why? Why in places like Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal did at least some elites not define the armed conflict in identity terms? Obviously not everyone held such views. In these countries, there clearly were elites who framed the fight as a war between ethnic groups or religious groups. But a significant current did not.

The answer that I develop in the book concerns “founding narratives,” or public stories that define who constitutes the primary political community of the country, who should hold power, and what values, if any, define the national political community. They are “founding” in the sense that they define first principles of the nation and were developed at critical junctures when regimes changed. That included when countries became independent or when regimes transitioned from one type to another, say as they transitioned from authoritarian states to democratic ones.

At these critical junctures, presidents faced and made choices about how to define their nations. In some cases, they explicitly fashioned and promoted a plural or multi-ethnic vision. They said, in effect, “we are a country of many groups,” and they in turn developed policies that allotted institutional or development power across the country. To be sure, there was favoritism, but the vision was of a multi-ethnic nation. In contrast, in other countries, the claim was that the state belonged to a primary identity group, which was said to have political primacy over another identity group that shared the same territory.

To explore this proposition, I developed a database of presidential speeches for the five main countries in the study. For each year, prior to the onset of a military crisis, I selected the same two national holidays when presidents typically delivered addresses to the nation. I in turn sought to track what kinds of themes were developed, and then to see whether those themes reappeared when the military crisis unfolded.

The finding in brief is that presidents in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal consistently developed themes of pluralism, unity, tolerance, and dialogue as fundamental to their nations while in Rwanda and Sudan presidents promoted the idea that the state represented the interests of Hutu and Arab Muslims, respectively. In war, these ideological visions in turn shaped the strategies and tactics that military and political leaders crafted in response to threat. Where the nation was imagined as plural, the idea of fighting a final war against another ethnic or religious group was not in the repertoire of action. By contrast, if elites saw a threat emanating from a group that did not deserve power against a group that did, the idea of a war of destruction against the former group became imaginable.

The story is more complicated than that. One has to ask whether and how these founding narratives took root in a country. One has to ask whether there were counter-narratives and also whether other factors shaped escalation or de-escalation. But in the end I attribute significant impact to ideological visions and to the presidents who developed and promoted them. In Africa, the likes of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Léopold Senghor, and Alpha Oumar Konaré displayed real leadership. They were not saints, but their visions for the nation created bulwarks against genocide and similar forms of mass violence against civilians.

Scott Straus is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at UW-Madison. Scott specializes in the study of genocide, political violence, human rights, and African politics. His most recent book publication is Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa (Cornell University Press, 2015). His introductory book on genocide, Fundamentals of Atrocity Prevention, is scheduled for publication in late 2015 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has also published several books on Rwanda, including The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda (Cornell University Press, 2006); Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011); and Intimate Enemy (Zone Books, 2006). Scott also co-authored (with David Leonard) Africa’s Stalled Development (Lynne Rienner, 2003), translated The Great Lakes of Africa (Zone Books, 2003) and co-edited (with Steve Stern) The Human Rights Paradox (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). He has also published in the American Journal of Political Science, Perspectives on Politics, Foreign Affairs, World Politics, Politics & Society, Journal of Genocide Research, African Affairs, Terrorism and Political Violence, Genocide Studies and Prevention, and the Canadian Journal of African Studies. Scott has received fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the United States Institute of Peace. In 2009, he was awarded the campus-wide William H. Kiekhofer Distinguished Teaching Award and in 2015 a Distinguished Honors Faculty award. In 2011, he was named a Winnick Fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He co-edits the book series Critical Human Rights with Steve Stern. Before starting in academia, Scott was a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.


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