THE OUTBREAK of ruthless and organised mass killing that disfigured Rwanda between April and June 1994 sent shock waves through Africa and the wider world. The attempted, and half- successful, genocide of Tutsis by Hutus not only poisoned and paralysed the international system that might have been expected to respond to such events. Its political reverberations are still being felt across a vast region of central Africa.
In the face of such systematic slaughter, which claimed the lives of at least 800,000 people in just 100 days, perhaps there can be no effective prevention or intervention. But there can be no avoiding the consequences. Humanity is compelled to respond by trying to ensure that such events cannot recur and by seeking answers to basic questions: how apparently peaceable people first generate, and then act on, the notion that their survival is only assured by killing others.
Reporting and documenting the killings came first. Observers such as the BBC's Fergal Keane produced vivid and horrific accounts. Such evidence was vital in establishing judicial processes that could indict some of those held responsible. Simultaneously, the role of the international community was scrutinised; a Scandinavian report, Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, castigated it for failing to come to grips with political problems on the ground.
The origins of the genocidal mentality stirred up by the perpetrators of Hutu Power came into focus in Gerard Prunier's The Rwanda Crisis: history of a genocide. This highlighted the malign influence of Belgian colonial policy on Tutsi-Hutu relations - a policy that had prompted both a pre- independence "revolution" against the favoured Tutsis and the creation of an ethnically obsessed Hutu elite (which came to count on unquestioning support from France).
The historical context is crucial to any understanding of what happened and why. Few are better qualified to explain the tensions of post-colonial Africa than Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan …