In the early 1990s, Rwanda was devastated by civil war and genocide. From April to July 1994, an interim government lead by ethnic Hutu extremists implemented the systematic murder of almost three-quarters of Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsi minority as well as ethnic Hutu who did not support the plan for genocide. The genocide of at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsi took place in the context of a civil war that began in October 1990, when the then-rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) entered Rwanda from its base in Uganda. The genocide ended in mid-July with the RPF’s total victory. It too committed widespread and systematic murder of ethnic Hutu civilians before and during the 1994 genocide. Owing to its gravity, the Rwandan genocide generated intense international interest, which in turn shapes how foreign authors have understood its causes and consequences. Initial comment immediately following the genocide often identified “ethnic hatred” or “tribalism” as its root cause. Among nonspecialist and popular writing on the genocide, the idea of tribalism as a root cause remains pervasive today. Scholars, journalists, and human rights agencies have sought to debunk the notion that ethnic hatred is what drove the 1994 genocide—addressing the “tribalism” argument is a central theme in academic and popular literatures. The literature on Rwanda’s post-genocide reconstruction and reconciliation policies is more polarized, divided generally between those who praise the government for its economic growth and human development policies and those who criticize its human rights record. Much of the literature on the Rwandan genocide is published in English, which marks a break from the predominantly French-language scholarly literature on Rwanda before 1994. The lack of pre-genocide literature in English means that many well-intentioned and capable authors have sometimes failed to address the historically relevant details so essential to understanding Rwandan society. Lack of historical depth also means that some authors rely on politicized interpretations of ethnicity and statehood that in turn legitimate the current RPF government’s interpretation of how the genocide happened, and what needs to be done to rebuild the country. This matters because of Rwanda’s highly politicized research environment, which has in turn created a polarized post-genocide literature that praises or pillories the ruling RPF. Acknowledging this politicized terrain matters because it shapes what is written on Rwanda, and who is able or willing to do so. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Rwanda.
Rigorous work addresses the various facets of the causes and consequences of the genocide in Rwanda, all of which are invaluable sources. In English, the leading book-length sources are Fujii 2009 and Straus 2006 as well as Chrétien 2006 and Vansina 2004 on the historical antecedents to modern Rwanda. In French, key sources are Bertrand 2000, Gasana 2002, Guichaoua 2005, and Reyntjens 1995.
Bertrand, Jordane. Rwanda, le piège d’histoire: L’opposition démocratique avant le génocide, 1990–1994. Collection Les Afriques. Paris: Karthala, 2000.
A study of the rise of multipartyism in Rwanda that highlights the various ideological positions of new and existing political parties in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994.
Chrétien, Jean-Pierre. The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History. Translated by Scott Straus. New York: Zone, 2006.
An authoritative account drawing on colonial archives, oral history, and thirty years of scholarship, The Great Lakes of Africa synthesizes the history of the region to trace the roots of violence and the ideological myths on which theories of ancient hatred rest. Originally published in French as L’Afrique des Grands Lacs: Deux milles ans d’histoire. (Paris: Aubier, 2000).
Fujii, Lee Ann. Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.
A theoretically robust account of the role of social networks to explain the mobilization of Rwandans to kill one another. A careful study of why the ethnic hatred thesis does not explain individual acts of violence.
Gasana, James K. Rwanda: Du parti-état à état-garnison. Collection L’Afriques des Grands Lacs. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002.
Former defense minister in the Habyarimana government (1992–1993), Gasana offers a rare insider’s look at the ethnic chauvinism of Hutu elites in the critical pre-genocide period.
Guichaoua, André. Rwanda 1994: Les politiques du génocide à Butare. Hommes et Sociétés. Paris: Karthala, 2005.
An empirical account that explores the local logic of genocide in Butare Province, located 125 kilometers from the capital, Kigali. Guichaoua analyzes the power of central government to enforce its order to commit genocide in a region that originally resisted the call.
Reyntjens, Filip. Rwanda: Trois jours qui ont fait basculer l’histoire. Cahiers Africains 16. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995.
A careful analysis of the three days immediately following the downing of President Habyarimana’s airplane. As the event that launched the 1994 genocide, Reyntjens makes the immediate post-crash actors and their actions available for scrutiny, in the only study of its kind.
Straus, Scott. The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
An elegant multimethod account of why convicted ethnic Hutu men killed during the 1994 genocide. Posits the thesis that ethnic Hutu extremists did not need to preplan the 1994 genocide to have had it happen (p. 226).
Vansina, Jan. Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom. Translated by Jan Vansina. Africa and the Diaspora. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
A foundational text to understand Rwanda’s cycles of ethnically motivated violence, notably the genesis of Hutu and Tutsi identities, while carefully tracing their evolving sociopolitical impacts. Originally published in French as Le Rwanda ancient: Le royaume nyiginya (Paris: Karthala, 2001).
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