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date: 26 February 2024


A Dictionary of African Politics

Nic Cheeseman,

Eloïse Bertrand,

Sa’eed Husaini


The deliberate attempt to eradicate a people (often a national, ethnic, or religious group). Only three genocides are widely agreed to have occurred in Africa. The first was the campaign of collective punishment that the German Empire carried out against the Herero and Nama people following their rebellion against colonial rule in what is now Namibia. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 100,000 Herero and around 10,000 Nama died between 1904 and 1907, in many cases from starvation and dehydration due to the decision of German forces to prevent them from leaving the Namib Desert after their military defeat. The second commonly recognized genocide occurred in Burundi in 1972, when between 80,000 and 120,000 members of the Hutu community were killed by the Tutsi-led government in a country in which Hutus make up around 85 per cent of the population. The wave of violence followed a rebellion by some Hutu members of the gendarmerie (militarized police force) and the killing of between 800 and 1,200 Tutsis and Hutus who refused to join the uprising. During the initial phases of the attacks, the forces of President Michel Micombero targeted those Hutu seen to be a threat, including individuals with military training and further education. After this, the security forces began to target the broader civilian population. The third—and best-known—genocide occurred in 1994 in Rwanda. As in Burundi, the foundations of this conflict had been sown long before, in the divide-and-rule politics of Belgian colonial government, the emergence of winner-takes-all dynamics in the post-colonial era, and episodic violent clashes that served to entrench ethnic divisions in a country where ethnic identities had historically been fluid. However, in contrast to Burundi, where a minority Tutsi government had been in power, in Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana’s National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) government was a predominantly Hutu regime. By the early 1990s, economic decline, tensions within the ruling party, international pressure for political liberalization, and an attempted invasion by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—a force of mostly Tutsi refugees living in exile in Uganda—had weakened Habyarimana’s hold on power. Fearing that democratization might lead to electoral defeat, hardliners within his regime began to articulate an extreme pro-Hutu agenda, which included the demonization of Tutsis and preparations for an unprecedented programme of political violence. When the president’s plane was shot down, these same hardliners used his death—for which they blamed the RPF—as a pretext for the onset of genocide. Subsequently, the presidential guards and Interahamwe instigated a wave of killing that was taken up—often under duress—by ordinary Hutus. The resulting tsunami of violence claimed the lives of over 800,000 Tutsis and many Hutus who bravely refused to participate. More recently, the attacks on the Darfuri people by the Sudanese government during the Darfur conflict have been described as a genocide by some academics and political leaders, but this classification is much more controversial.