Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy, and the Ethics of State-Building

By Tobias Kelly; Sharika Thiranagama | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Betraying Trust and the Elusive Nature of
Ethnicity in Burundi

Simon Turner

In the African Great Lakes region, Hutu and Tutsi for the most part live peacefully side by side, while at times they have committed genocide and other atrocities in the name of ethnicity. On the one hand, ethnicity is strong enough to mobilize hundreds of thousands of ordinary Hutu peasants in Rwanda to kill, maim, and molest their Tutsi neighbors and to have the Tutsi-dominated army in Burundi systematically and brutally kill more that 100 000 Hutu civilians. On the other hand, they have so much in common that it is strongly debated and heavily disputed whether one can in fact talk of ethnic groups in these two, small central African states. Much of the literature on the area claims that the conflicts are not about ethnicity at all: that ethnicity is constructed, instrumentalized, and manipulated by political elites in order to achieve certain goals and that the main issue is access to resources and/or political power. Others claim that the conflicts are less about the skillful manipulation of identities by greedy elites and more about genuine grievances among the common population.1 Neither position explains in full, however, the ambiguity of ethnicity in the region—the fact that enemies become friends and friends become enemies almost overnight.

In this chapter, I explore the ambiguous nature of ethnicity through the figure of the traitor. The traitor transgresses the boundaries of ethnic belonging, thereby permitting the constant negotiation and policing of these boundaries. However, if we go beyond this obvious observation, we find that there are several kinds of traitors at play and that each kind of traitor figure presents a different kind of sociality. The first kind of traitor in popular imagination is the Hutu next door who used to interact freely with Tutsi and who suddenly turns into a dangerous ethnic “Other,” killing Tutsi neighbors and friends indiscriminately. He may

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