The moronic inferno. The genocide in Rwanda has been rationalised as an outpouring of primeval savagery. But it had distinct historical, political and psychological explanations

We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: stories from Rwanda

Phil

It is tempting to see the slaughter of the British and American tourists in south-west Uganda as a symptom of the gruesome lawlessness that has become synonymous with Africa. The statements of explanation left behind by the Interahamwe assassins, claiming to have punished "les anglo-saxons " for their support of the minority Tutsi regime in Rwanda, were read in the west as the ravings of fanatics caught up in another incomprehensible African tribal war. Yet the genocide in Rwanda was not incomprehensible; there are distinct historical, political and psychological explanations for why that part of central Africa has become a kind of living hell.

The Rwandese themselves have not helped the world understand their experiences; most of the local writings on the 1994 genocide are sketchy and lifeless. Rwandan intellectuals, like many African and western observers, have argued that the genocide was an aberration caused by unprincipled politicians. There may be some truth in this, but it does not explain the full picture. There are other, deeper, more intricate causes behind the Rwandan tragedy, which Philip Gourevitch, a writer on the New Yorker, seldom touches on in his cumbersomely titled book.

Still, his study joins a long and distinguished list of attempts by Americans to understand Africa. Unburdened by a colonial past in the continent and driven by that very American assurance that most issues are graspable, journalists such as David Lamb (The Africans), Blaine Harden (Dispatches from a Fragile Continent), and Robert Klitgaard (Tropical Gangsters) have offered valuable perspectives on Africa. Now Gourevitch has travelled through Rwanda and the Congo in search of the perpetrators and victims of the 1994 massacres.

He offers harrowing accounts of wilful cruelty: Hutu men killing their Tutsi wives and relatives; neighbours raiding churches with pangas that had recently been imported en masse from China to club their neighbours' babies to death. Pastors, priests, nuns and other religious figures gleefully joined in the murderous frenzy. There are stories of kindness and courage, of Hutus who refused to support the government and the militias, and who paid with their lives. But overwhelmingly this is a narrative of unspeakable depravity.

For all that, We Wish to Inform is something of a disappointment. It fails to probe into the darker forces behind the genocide. Gourevitch, in line with some Rwandese intellectuals, seems to believe that the differences between the Hutus and Tutsis are overstated. After all, so his argument goes, the two groupings speak the same language and have shared the same country and history for centuries. So the killings were the result of a manipulative political system, dominated by ethnic Hutus.

But this is to underestimate the abiding inferiority complex of many Hutus and the vehemence of their ancient hatred. These long-nurtured loathings eventually manifested themselves in a frenzy of cruelty. Before killing Tutsi women, for instance, some Hutu extremists had Tua pygmy men - "the lowest of the low in the Rwandese caste hierarchy" - rape them. And at the height of the killing, the Hutu extremists never spared a mixed-race child, since the white expatriates were known to have favoured the taller Tutsi women, because of their Hamitic features of pale skin, fine nose and thin lips.

Aware of the mounting tensions in Rwanda in the weeks leading up to the genocide, groups such as Oxfam organised seminars on democracy in Rwandan villages. As it turned out, what was troubling these villagers most was not democracy, but the hatred they felt for those neighbours who belonged to a different ethnic group and whose hatred was being inflamed by a virulent media.

Gourevitch, like many Africans themselves, seems wary of wandering too deeply into the labyrinth of ethnicity should it lead to further divisions. I know Africans who would be offended if you asked their ethnic group. They would simply say they were Africans, full-stop. This sentiment, however, is not shared by ordinary people in villages or in the ghettos of several African urban centres. As the nation state becomes increasingly irrelevant to most Africans, their only meaningful unit of reference is their ethnic group. Understanding exactly what this means - exactly what is specific about certain ethnic groups - may help to prevent future clashes.

The old colonial rulers of Africa understood that ethnicity was an important frame of reference for most Africans. To retain their hold on different countries, the colonialists favoured certain groups over others, often bestowing special administrative powers on them. In Nigeria, for instance, the northern Hausa-Fulani group dominated the army, as did the Nilotic northern tribes in Uganda; in Kenya, the Kikuyus dominated the civil service. Despite their privileged positions in society these tribes saw themselves, in the end, as the equal of other blacks in their relation to the white colonials: that is, they were Africans first and foremost. This is why the subsequent fights for political power and influence were not to be as vicious as in Rwanda. In Uganda, for instance, there are chauvinists among the Bantu ethnic groups, such as the Banganda, who think the Nilotic northerners, the Badokolo, as they are disparagingly referred to, are inferior. Yet these snobberies have never reached the intensity of Rwanda.

The Belgian and German colonists in Rwanda upheld the notion that the Tutsis were overlords, endowed with superior genes, who could act as intermediaries between the whites and the other blacks; and the Rwandese, both Hutu and Tutsi, believed such nonsense. So far from rejecting quasi-fascist theories of race, the Rwandese enthusiastically embraced them. But Gourevitch offers no satisfactory account of how this might have happened.

At independence in 1959, the Hutus seized power. Many thousands of Tutsis fled into neighbouring Uganda. Juvenal Habiyarimana, who eventually seized power, ruled Rwanda in the characteristic style of an African despot. The state became nothing more than his personal court from which he and his powerful wife dispensed favours. The French, who saw him as a defender of la francophonie, propped up his dictatorship, as they have so many corrupt francophone regimes in Africa. Meanwhile, the Tutsi exiles in Uganda supported Yoweri Museveni in his fight against the autocratic rule of Milton Obote, and their loyalty was rewarded with high-ranking positions in the Ugandan military. For example, Paul Kagame, the de facto ruler of Rwanda, was Museveni's military intelligence chief.

The Rwandese Patriotic Front, as the Tutsi-led opposition to the Habiyarimana regime was called, eventually seized power in Rwanda, forcing thousands of Hutu refugees, including bands of Interahamwe militias behind most of the killings of the Tutsis, into exile in neighbouring Zaire-Congo. As the members of the Rwandese Patriotic Front pursued them into Zaire, there was an uprising by the Banyamulenge ethnic Tutsi Zairians. This, in turn, led eventually to the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, one of Africa's longest-serving (and most ruthless) dictators. The Tutsi-led alliance then placed Laurent Kabila, a one-time colleague of Che Guevara who had until then been running a bar in Tanzania, in power.

Kabila was hailed as part of a new African renaissance which ostensibly believed in good governance and accountability. But having renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kabila emerged as anything but a democrat, turning out to be yet another corrupt African "Big Man". Nepotism thrived as his own son was appointed head of the army and other relatives were given important positions of influence; he banished all political parties and journalists were brutalised.

The alliance that had brought him to power soon fell out with him and, with the backing of Rwanda and Uganda, it tried to overthrow Kabila. He has survived through the support of the Angolans, Zimbabweans, Namibians and Chadians. And while war ravages the central African region, the Hutu Interahamwe militias have been roaming murderously through the Congolese forests, supported by their new-found ally, Kabila.

So what is to be done? Well, I wrote an article in the Guardian in 1994, arguing that the international community ought to have allowed Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa, to expand into the then Zaire-Congo, a jungle nation that had huge tracts of uninhabited land. Many Africa watchers dismissed my suggestion as unwise, and argued for a political settlement in Rwanda. To many, the artificial borders Africans inherited from the colonial powers remain immutable; and this notion can only be sustained if people do not look closely at African particularities such as ethnicity. As long as the world remains oblivious to the many forces in Africa that are sometimes not so easily fathomable, newscasters will have to keep warning westerners to "turn away" as they report on another atrocity in the continent.

Sousa Jamba is an Angolan-born novelist