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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2015

5 - Subverting Democracy: The Advantages of Incumbency and the Politics of Violence


In April 1994, a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali. Extremist leaders from the Hutu majority claimed that President Habyarimana had been assassinated by Tutsi rebels, and launched a wave of violence against the minority Tutsi community, which ultimately claimed the lives of more than 800, 000 people.

As we saw in the last chapter, the international response to the genocide called into question the commitment of western government to promoting democracy and protecting human rights. The scale of the violence also raised questions about the wisdom of introducing elections in deeply divided African societies. At the time, Rwanda was supposed to be pursuing a dual process of peace building and democratization that was intended to pave the way for multiparty elections. But the mass killings and atrocities, more shocking and unforgettable than any horror movie, made a mockery of this plan. Moreover, the sight of neighbour turning on neighbour in the most intimate of conflicts called into question the feasibility of democracy in Africa. If the first crisis of democracy in Africa was the implosion of the Belgian Congo and the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s, then the second was the Rwandan genocide. In the influential formulation of Michael Mann, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda represented the “dark side of democracy”. But as we shall see, the reintroduction of multiparty politics was only the latest in a series of events that contributed to the genocide. It was not simply the prospect of elections, but the manipulation and politicization of ethnic identities by successive authoritarian governments, that pushed Rwanda to its darkest hour.

However, while it is far too simplistic to blame democracy for the genocide, it is also clear that the reintroduction of elections exacerbated political instability in a number of African countries.

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Democracy in Africa
  • Online ISBN: 9781139030892
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Des Forges, Alison. “Leave None to Tell Their Story”: Genocide in Rwanda. New York & London: Human Rights Watch, 1999.
Geschiere, Peter. “Autochthony and the Politics of Belonging” in Cheeseman, Nic, Anderson, David, and Scheibler, Andrea (eds). The Routledge Handbook of African Politics. Oxford: Routledge, 2013.
Horowitz, Donald L.Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Mann, Michael. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
For a bibliography for this chapter go to