Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Extreme incidents of violence in post-Colonial Africa have frequently been explained through the discourses of tribalism and ethnic hatred. A variant of this narrative is the obsession with Africa’s ‘failed’ and ‘collapsed’ states that are said to be paralysed by kinship and ethnicity-based patronage politics. However, systemic violence has far more entrenched structural causes and the scholarly eye searches for these underlying conditions.

Aetiology of Violence

-by Sreeram Chaulia

(A review of Patricia Daley’s Gender & Genocide in Burundi: The Search for Spaces of Peace in the Great Lakes Region, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, June 2008. ISBN: 978-0253219251. Price: US$ 24.95. Length: 268 Pages)

Extreme incidents of violence in post-Colonial Africa have frequently been explained through the discourses of tribalism and ethnic hatred. A variant of this narrative is the obsession with Africa’s ‘failed’ and ‘collapsed’ states that are said to be paralysed by kinship and ethnicity-based patronage politics. However, systemic violence has far more entrenched structural causes and the scholarly eye searches for these underlying conditions.

Feminist academic Patricia Daley’s major new theoretical work on Burundi argues that presenting genocide in Africa as irrational violence that is internal in origin obfuscates crimes against humanity and Western complicity in abetting them. Affixing blame on innate dysfunctions within African societies helps reduce genocide to the continent’s allegedly ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’ traditional culture. It diverts attention from colonialism, neo-colonialism and foreign aid that have a causal relationship with atrocities in Africa.

Daley’s book seeks to move understanding of genocide away from the analytical framework of ethnicity, which debases African lives, to one that taps into their emancipatory capacity for peace. The author’s notion of peace is the antithesis of the market economy-promoting ‘liberal peace’ that is imposed on African societies by Western states and multinational corporations.

The book’s early chapters elaborate how the racism and violent masculinity of European colonialism created a ‘genocidal state’ in Burundi. Prior to European social engineering, Burundi lacked a ruling class composed exclusively of one ethnic community. Since the late 19th century, the Germans followed by the Belgians supplanted the country’s fluid pre-colonial social identities with rigid ethnic boundaries so as to construct a class of native collaborators. Europeans deployed Christianity and a discriminatory educational system to convert complex social categories like Hutu, Tutsi and Twa into ‘ethnic’ identities in relation to state power.

To maximise economic exploitation of the colony, Belgians subjected Burundian peasants to forced labour and compulsory coffee cropping. By 1945, they totally ‘Tutsified’ land chieftaincy, sowing the seeds of “genocidal economics”. Colonial masters endowed Burundi with a centralised military that was recruited on the basis of European stereotypes of martial races. Together with the evolues (native elites certified as ‘civilised’), the ethnically poisoned Burundian military constituted the machinery for organising genocide after the country’s independence.

In 1961, outgoing Belgian colonialists teamed up with local anti-nationalists to assassinate Louis Rwagasore, the Burundian equivalent of Patrice Lumumba of the Congo. Western powers then suborned the reigning Burundian king to destroy the cross-ethnic consensus that Rwagasore had soldered. A military coup d’etat in 1966 cemented a lasting alliance between the armed forces and Tutsi hegemony against majoritarian pressures from the Hutu. As a minority, the Tutsi elite could ensure control over the state only through recurrent violence aimed at keeping the Hutu under check.

The 1972 genocide by government forces killed 200,000 Hutus in five months and pushed an equal number into exile. The United States knew about the unfolding genocide but chose not to upset the Burundian government with whom it had friendly relations. The military regime in Bujumbura manipulated Western fears of communism to evade sanctions or prosecution. International failure to intervene in 1972 offered successive Burundian governments licence to commit further rounds of genocidal violence in 1979, 1984, 1988, 1991 and 1993. The genocidal military elite drew inspiration from the state-society relationship of the colonial period and resorted to frequent pogroms for settling intra-elite competition for power.

The Tutsi-dominated state grew more murderous and militarised with the assistance of foreign development aid worth $75.6 million per annum from 1976 to 1987. Pierre Buyoya’s 1996 military coup was welcomed by Western governments that subscribed to the hierarchical ‘strong man’ approach to political stability in developing countries. Daley ascribes Buyoya’s favourable image outside Africa to “the military masculinism that pervades Western ideas about governance in Africa.” (p.88) Pervasive military rule reinforced genocidal politics and provoked numerous Hutu rebel movements and militias that carried out attacks against Tutsis. In all, some 300,000 civilians were killed in the wars between rebels and the government from 1993 to 2006.

The post-colonial Burundian economy replicated colonial practices of mandatory cultivation. Daley illustrates the intersection between free market economics and political violence through the story of the ‘gold wars’, wherein a Free Trade Zone funded by the World Bank attempted to make Burundi the epicentre of gold distribution in central Africa. The project, which reflected connections between international capitalists and local elites, led to the assassination of the country’s President in 1993.

By virtue of its reputation in the West as a “model African country”, Burundi was the highest per capita recipient of World Bank low-interest loans in the 1980s. Consequently, “eager to display the success of their market reforms, donors ignored (Burundian) state repression.” (p.101) The same trend is repeating today, with the IMF patting Burundi as a “good adjusting state” (p.103) in return for the government’s privatisation of healthcare and agriculture.

In genocidal states, sections of society deemed to be ethnically inferior are not considered worthy of protection. Burundi’s judicial system saw only Tutsis as ‘citizens’ and informally condemned Hutus and Twas to arbitrary violence. The Burundian government limited application of the term ‘civilian’ to the Tutsi ethnic group. Between 1996 and 2000, the state coercively relocated about 14 percent of the population, mostly Hutus, to regroupement camps with the pretext of protecting them. In actuality, these camps were akin to those of Nazi Germany. Moulded in an atmosphere of impunity, Hutu rebel groups shared the state’s callousness for human life.

Sexual violence against women rose dramatically in Burundi after the peace agreement of 2003, exposing the shallowness of ‘liberal peace’. The recent rape epidemic, comparable to that in the neighbouring Congo, was an outcome of Burundi’s violent masculinity, social breakdown, and absence of legal restraints on abusing women. Resurrection of traditional justice mechanisms (Bashingantahe) under conservative religious figures has not rectified the genocidal state’s gender bias. The government hides behind alibis of ‘political crisis’ or ‘civil war’ when taken to task for non-implementation of its gender equality-obligations to international law.

Daley emphasises the historical interconnectedness of genocidal culture in the entire Great Lakes region, where imperial domination and globalisation dehumanised the African body. Militarist regimes in Burundi cooperated with fellow autocracies in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Armed with the guarantee of non-interference from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and bankrolled by France, Belgium, Britain and the USA, this gallery of rogues conducted relentless warfare on its own people. Private military firms, acting as surrogates of Western states, proliferated in the region in the guise of ‘peacekeeping’ missions and added to the culture of non-accountability.

‘Neo-liberal humanitarianism’, spearheaded by UN relief agencies and Western NGOs, further “strengthened the characteristics of the discriminatory state, privileging one social group above the other.” (p.166) In the Great Lakes, humanitarians acted as accomplices of genocide. The forced confinement exercises of the Burundian state were predicated on the ready availability of humanitarian provisioning by NGOs. Forcible repatriation of Burundian refugees from Tanzania with the connivance of humanitarian organisations signalled “the acceptance of Western donors of the undemocratic practices of the Burundi state.” (p.178)

Humanitarians also buttress Western conflict resolution models that exclude African masses from the political community. In the scheme of ‘liberal peace’, says Daley, “victims become the responsibility of humanitarian agencies and politics the sole preserve of representatives of political parties.” (p.191) When the OAU embargoed the Buyoya dictatorship in 1996, aid agencies backed the World Bank and Western countries to campaign aggressively for lifting of sanctions. UN agencies also convened alternative peace talks in Paris in 1997 to confer international legitimacy on the Buyoya regime’s refusal to abide by mediation of Africa’s elder statesman, Julius Nyerere.

Humanitarians thus had a hand in undermining African agency for transformation. Their role demonstrated ways in which peace in Africa has become an industry overflowing with Western ‘experts’ and consultants.

Daley concludes her book with an exposition of the Arusha peace settlement for Burundi. Its masculinist vision of peace as power-sharing among ethnic leaders reinforced the position of Burundian elites who committed genocide and crimes against humanity. Neo-liberal economic packages for reconstruction returned Burundi to heavy reliance on international aid and kept society in a non-transformative straitjacket.

Drawing on years of field research in Burundi, Daley finds that people need a “peace that rehumanises the African body, physically, materially and spiritually.” (p.232) Towards this end, the author proposes privileging of alternative forms of masculinity and femininity that decouple African self-worth from atrocities. She calls for “regionality and regional citizenship” that transcend genocide-fuelling territorially bound forms of statehood and security.

By rigorously rethinking fundamental concepts like ‘humanitarianism’, ‘reconstruction’, ‘peace’ and ‘transformation’, Patricia Daley’s book induces a paradigm shift on studying genocidal violence and offers a brave manifesto for empowering Africans.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse University, New York.