Two Thousand Years of History

by Jean-Pierre Chrétien

Reviewed by John Shattuck

In central Africa, a genocidal war has raged for nearly a decade, costing more than 4 million lives in Rwanda, Burundi and Congo and precipitating the worst humanitarian crisis in more than half a century. Central Africa shares this gruesome recent past with southeastern Europe, where in the 1990's the Balkans were swept by a wave of killing and "ethnic cleansing." In both cases, genocide was widely misunderstood to be the inevitable product of "ancient hatreds."

Jean-Pierre Chrétien, a French historian with vast experiences in the Great Lakes region of Africa, has undertaken the formidable task of tracing the roots of the region's violence and exposing the ideological myths on which the ancient-hatreds theory rests.

The story begins with the geography of the central African highlands. Despite its equatorial location, Chrétien says, "the region is blessed with good climate, is rich with diverse soils and plants, and has prospered thanks to some strong basic techniques: the association of cattle keeping and agriculture; the diffusion of the banana a millennium ago; and the mastery of iron metallurgy two millennia ago." In this healthy environment, complex social structures evolved in which the idea of kingship and strong central authority took hold and flourished for more than 300 years before the arrival of colonial powers in the mid-19th century.

The fertile lands around the Great Lakes were settled by indigenous Hutu cultivators, while the more mountainous areas were used for the raising of cattle by Tutsi pastoralists. In the early kingdoms of the region, agricultural and pastoral systems were integrated because they controlled complementary ecological zones and served mutually beneficial economic interests. As Chrétien argues convincingly, nowhere at this time could the "social dialectic be reduced" to a Hutu-Tutsi cleavage.

That began to change in the 19th century. As social structures became more complex, the success of the central African kingdoms depended increasingly on territorial expansion through raiding, colonizing and annexing of neighboring lands. At the same time, Tutsi cattle raisers in search of more land began to emerge as a new elite and a driving force behind expansion. The kingdoms of Rwanda and Uganda were particularly expansionist, but were soon thwarted by the arrival of colonial powers.

At this crucial point, the issue of race entered the picture. Obsessed by their theories of racial classification, 19th- and early-20th-century Europeans rewrote the history of central Africa. Imposing their own racist projection of superiority on Tutsi "Hamito-Semites" and a corresponding inferiority on Hutu "Bantu Negroes," missionary and colonial historians began to attribute the rise of the Great Lakes kingdoms to the arrival of a superior race of "black Europeans" from the north.

Anointed by the Belgians as their administrators and collaborators in Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsis, who never constituted more than 18 percent of the population, were presented with a poisoned chalice combining ethnic elitism with economic favoritism. In education their chosen elites, the Belgians were relentlessly racist.

Not surprisingly, the majority Hutu population chafed at this discrimination, and in the late 1950's a Hutu counter-elite began calling for the end of "Tutsi feudalism." On the eve of independence, the growing Hutu rebellion was backed, in a catastrophic reversal, by the Roman Catholic Church and the colonial administration. The outcome was that "the new Rwanda declared its national past 'Tutsi' and thus despicable." In Rwanda, the Hutu revolution led to progroms agains the Tutsi minority, culminating in the 1994 genocide.

Thus, modern hatreds, not ancient ones, destroyed Rwanda. Far from being inbred in the country's ancient social structures, these destructive animosities were created during its recent colonial past. Even then, it took the manipulation of ethnic identity by the country's new elites to produce the atmosphere of fear and recrimination that expanded through the Rwandan countryside and later into vast reaches of Congo in the genocidal war.

In this respect, the Rwandans were no different from Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman and the other authors of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. But the world has so far done far less to confront them.