Why and how does genocide takes place—and why does it not happen in places where it may have seemed likely or even inevitable? This is the starting point of Scott Straus’ new book, Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership and Genocide in Modern Africa. Straus, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests that existing theories of genocide over-predict the outcome they attempt to explain. While many countries share commonly understood risks for genocide—including civil war, political instability, xenophobic rhetoric—only a few cases escalate to genocide.
On October 20, 2015, the World Peace Foundation and Tufts Initiative on Mass Atrocities and Genocide invited Scott Straus to present the key findings from his book. Straus started his presentation by laying out the research puzzle. Why does mass violence develop in some cases but not others? He tackles this problem by systematically comparing cases in post-Cold War, sub-Saharan Africa that experienced genocide with those that did not, despite the presence of similar risk factors: Mali, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Sudan (Darfur). He finds that deep-rooted ideologies—national founding narratives—play a crucial role in shaping strategies of violence.
In his lecture, Straus explained his decision to rely on qualitative, controlled comparisons to explore his research question. By focusing only on post-Cold War Africa, he wanted to avoid the challenge of comparing highly dissimilar cases that has plagued the genocide literature. Most studies of genocide focus on cases as divergent as Ottoman Turkey, the Holocaust during World War II, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and more recent conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda. Further, Straus’ study of “negative cases” alongside two recent African “positive” (in the sense that genocide did occur) allowed him to identify not only drivers of escalation, but also factors of restraint.
The logic of genocide, Straus argued, is different from other types of mass violence in three main ways: it is group-selective rather than indiscriminate, group-destructive rather than coercive, and it is large-scale and sustained. Leaders who pursue genocide typically view the target group as dangerous, unco-optable, and uncontainable. Nonetheless, genocide should be seen as the outcome of an escalatory process rather than a predetermined campaign. As such, it is subject to decisions that drive escalation and de-escalation.
What explains escalation? Straus emphasizes the combination of security motives and ideology. Threat is a key driver of violence, typically maximized in wartime. But not all wars lead to genocide. Straus’ theoretical innovation is to highlight the central role played by founding narratives. Founding narratives define the core identity of a state – who is part of the political community and who is not, and who are the rightful power holders. These founding narratives are shaped by political leaders at critical junctures in a country’s history—in the case of post-colonial African states, independence often provides this moment. When a state’s founding narrative establishes a core and exclusive “us” whose fundamental project is threatened by war, genocide becomes more likely. By analyzing presidential speeches and interviewing local elites, Straus found that in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal, inclusive founding narratives crafted by influential postcolonial leaders constrained the strategies of political elites in moments of acute crisis. He further noted that weak state capacity and economic interests can serve as additional factors of restraint.
For instance in Cote d’Ivoire, the country’s first president Félix Houphouët-Boigny downplayed internal divisions and emphasized the country’s multiethnic identity. In his interviews with Ivorian military and political elites, Straus found that decision-makers repeatedly referenced this inclusive vision as a key barrier to genocidal violence. In contrast, Rwanda’s founding narrative was Hutu majority rule that rejected both Belgian colonial rule and the Tutsi monarchy, a principle embraced by both post-independence presidents as well as the main political opposition actors through the 1990s. This narrative associated democracy with Hutu rule and framed Hutus as the only legitimate power-holders.
In conclusion, Straus highlighted the need to bring ideology back into the study of political violence. Particularly in the African context, he emphasized the need to pay attention to the legacies and political vision of nationalist presidents, which have had a lasting impact on politics on the continent today. The implications for policy, he underlined, are to some degree pessimistic: the sources of genocide prevention are primarily domestic. However, Straus suggested that regional and international actors can work to reinforce pluralism, diminish the threat of war, and interrupt armed coalitions and capacity.
In the Q&A with the audience, Straus noted that his definition of genocide differs from the legal definition to some degree: it focuses less on establishing intent than on defining a distinct logic and capacity to inflict widespread violence on a targeted group. Asked about the role of civil society, he argued that he did not find it to be a powerful explanatory variable in the cases he examined, particularly in the face of a powerful state. He concluded by reflecting on the nature and resilience of founding narratives. The “stickiness” of these narratives, he suggested, is likely to be associated with the success and legacy of the leaders who framed them. New leaders can rise and offer counter-narratives, such as President Gbagbo did in Cote d’Ivoire. Different narratives might also vie for dominance at different points in time. These narratives are antecedent to elite strategies – they shape what is viewed as acceptable or unacceptable in war. The research task laid out by Straus is a crucial one: understanding and specifying the causal stories that lead from ideas to violence.
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