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A State of One’s Own

On the colonial roots of postcolonial violence

Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities by Mahmood Mamdani. Harvard University Press, 416 pages. 

Ask someone to name a onetime European colony that hasn’t experienced extreme violence or suffered under a violently authoritarian regime since independence, and you’re likely to be met with a pause. Malaysia, perhaps, or Tanzania; Madagascar and Botswana. There are few. Even those countries who “made it” have, at times, edged perilously close to ruin. So pervasive has violence been in postcolonial societies that it can seem like the key thread linking their otherwise disparate experiences. To view it another way, civil war and communal bloodletting have been as much features of self-rule as colonial rule, if not more.

Apologists of empire may well see in this evidence of the chaos that ensues when supposed Western liberal values of tolerance and equality are spurned. The colonial endeavor was partly sold on the premise that European administrators were gifting to the colonies advanced systems of governance that could balance rival interests, pacifying otherwise volatile local communities. It was a civilizing enterprise, a way to “tidy up” and bring into modernity the seemingly confused, often unstable, mixture of tribal groupings that characterized pre-colonial societies. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, administrators set about introducing to colonies in Africa and Asia aspects of the nation-state model that was steadily being refined in Europe: populations would be organized into clearly defined majority and minority “races,” all the better to determine whose interests the state should primarily serve, while a central authority would steward relations between groups. Just as national identities in Europe were being forged via exclusive, often bipolar, notions of Englishness, Frenchness, and otherwise, so too would “races” in the colonies be depicted as innately different to one another: some more “evolved,” others more “backward,” and some accordingly better equipped than others to take strides toward modernity. Each would be granted their own territory and administered separately. From that, a newfound stability would emerge in the colonies—and for the most part, once the “organizing” work of early colonial state-making was complete, it did. But after independence, when those systems broke down, the true character of the native resurfaced. Cue decades of turmoil.

The violence of postcolonial societies should be understood as fulfilling the logic of colonialism.

In his new book, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Mahmood Mamdani stresses the fatal error of this reading. He argues that the fits of extreme violence that plague former colonies today serve the same ends, and draw on precisely the same rationale, as the violence deployed by European powers when they first took overseas territories. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, population transfer, separation, and confinement—ever since Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492, these techniques have served as vital means of organizing populations and restricting or removing those who disturb state-formation. Rather than a return to atavistic tribal ways, the violence of postcolonial societies should be understood as fulfilling the logic of colonialism.

Politics—specifically, violence as a form of politics—is central to Mamdani’s argument. Perpetrators in the postcolonial era have generally been met with court trials and punishment. But accepting these acts as an accumulation of individual crimes leaves untouched the structures of governance that legitimate violence as a means of nation-state preservation. In Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, genocide, pogroms, and other “organizing” techniques continue to be employed by states—with popular backing—in their unending efforts to build more socially and culturally cohesive societies. As long as the nation-state remains the defining institution of modern societies, those forms of violence will persist as key means of political engineering.

An ID card belonging to a Tutsi victim | Genocide Archive Rwanda

This isn’t new ground for the Ugandan scholar, who teaches anthropology and political science at Columbia University in New York and at Makerere University in Kampala. Over half a century, Mamdani has carved out a reputation as a forceful and articulate critic of political modernity’s supposed peace-bringing qualities, in a body of work that now spans some dozen books. His argument that the nation-state is inherently violent has stood as a sharp counter-narrative to modern, “progressive” understandings of the model, most clearly expressed in Benedict Anderson’s idea that national communities are “imagined” into existence through the proliferation of stories of their common histories and shared culture. Although principally educated in the United States, the bulk of Mamdani’s published work has focused on African nations once ruled by European powers—Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, and Uganda, with forays into India and contemporary U.S. foreign policy. He is popular beyond the academy too. A mainstay of the New York Times, the London Review of Books and other publications, he has been recognized more than once by British and American magazines in their lists of top public intellectuals.

In his early days as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Mamdani had joined the bus caravans heading south to Birmingham, Alabama, where civil rights integrationist campaigns were in motion. That would spawn one political awakening: “I had learnt that freedom knew no boundary, certainly not that of color or country,” he later reflected. Another would come the following decade. Having returned to Uganda in early 1972 to teach at Makerere, Mamdani was expelled from the country, along with the rest of the eighty thousand-strong Indian population. The British, who ruled Uganda until 1962, had encouraged Indian immigration with the intention of establishing a community of peoples that, schooled in European values but still “foreign” enough not to be European, would serve as a buffer between colonizers and natives. After coming to power, Idi Amin declared that he would be “giving Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans,” leaving Indians ninety days in which to depart. “I returned home in early 1972 as a convinced pan-African nationalist,” Mamdani remarked, “but was thrown out later in the year as an Asian.”

A third awakening would come decades down the line. In July 1995, Mamdani paid a visit to Rwanda to try to understand the cause of the massacres of the previous year. “It was not until [then],” Mamdani notes in Neither Settler nor Native, “that many of us African scholars started thinking systematically about why, contrary to what we had expected, political violence had exploded rather than diminished after political independence.” Colonialism had long since ended, but local nationalists were reviving its most lethal instruments. The campaigns of ethnic cleansing in which the majority of European nations had been forged were now being mimicked in their former colonies. In the wake of the horrors of 1994, one question came to define his inquiry: “Why had Europe’s past become our present?”

Even as Nazi rule was unprecedented in its barbarism, it drew from the repertoire of the nation-state.

Mamdani’s 2001 book, When Victims Become Killers, remains among the finest studies of the Rwandan genocide and colonialism’s role in laying its foundations. In it, he wrote against the notion that such calamities were the final outcome of local “tribal” dynamics—that genocides in former colonies had no history, and no relationship to the work of political and race scientists a continent away. Specifically, he analyzed how the separate colonial-era governance regimes for Tutsis and Hutus, built on the understanding of the Tutsi minority as superior to Hutus, had exacerbated and politicized older ethnic tensions and identities. Tutsis, once considered more “European” in their manner than Hutus, were elevated first by the German colonial power in the eighteenth century and later by the Belgians. They ruled over Hutus until the revolution of 1959, which secured Rwanda’s independence and began the Hutus’ ascent. Decades later, the foot soldiers of the 1994 genocide would understand their role as one of “[defending] the social gains of 1959,” as Mamdani wrote in a seminal New Left Review essay. Tutsis would be eliminated, Hutus would cement their rightful place as rulers, and the Rwandan nation would coalesce around a distinct, purified identity. The genocide, in short, was evidence that the nation-state model had endured across decades and across transitions, fueling the orgiastic killings and ultimately arresting the process of full decolonization.

In a later work, Define and Rule, Mamdani took a step back to explore the roots of postcolonial violence in a comparative perspective, shedding light on the insidious effects of the system of “indirect rule” that came to determine how the colonies were managed from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. A series of rebellions around that time in India and elsewhere had made clear the growing fragility of the colonial project. Working off of the theorizations of Henry Maine, a historian and barrister who broke with the previous lofty attitudes of colonial scientists to insist on the agency of the colonized, European administrators halted their attempts to homogenize subject populations in the image of the conqueror. A new system was developed whereby native elites loyal to the colonial power would themselves rule, thereby lessening local resentment and, so it was hoped, allowing the imperial project to endure. Colonies underwent “a shift from a homogenizing impulse to a preoccupation with defining and managing difference.” The distinct character traits assigned to “races”—and the categorization of some as indigenous and others as non-indigenous—provided a basis for determining which privileges would go to whom, and what status each group would acquire in emerging state institutions. Once rather more fluid boundaries between Tutsis and Hutus, Dinka and Nuer, Oromo and Tigrayan hardened—a process of definition and management that “was developed as the essence of governance” from the 1850s onwards. Such policies, he wrote more recently, “fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.” For many African scholars, it would be the events of 1994 in Rwanda that brought into sharp focus the long-term consequences of this endeavor.

Mahmood Mamdani |Wikimedia Commons

Neither Settler nor Native is Mamdani’s most comprehensive exploration yet of the subject of majority-minority relations. In a comparative analysis of five countries—or, more accurately, five country-specific “moments”—he locates the origin story of contemporary postcolonial political violence far back in history. The first chapter lands the reader amid the decimation of Native Americans that began in the fifteenth century. If we take Mamdani’s assertion that the birth of the modern state happened in America in 1492 (and not in Westphalia in 1648, or in France in 1789, as many argue), then this makes sense as a starting point. It was the conquest of the New World that gave Europe its first taste of the riches to be gained from extermination, both material and otherwise. Native Americans were all but wiped out, with survivors confined to reservations where they were kept at a remove, spatially and politically, from settlers. The reservation system played a vital role in allowing Europeans to settle land, to “pacify” opposition to that settlement, and to facilitate the growth of a majority, “ethnically” distinct from a newly created minority, around which the political infrastructure of the emerging state would revolve. Demographic engineering; the creation of sharply delineated group identities; the formation of a state designed to protect the interests of one group (in America’s case, an implanted majority) at the expense of others—it was this “innovative American colonial technique” that would breathe life into the imperial conquest of other continents and provide a blueprint for foreign control of societies the world over.

The book then skips forward several centuries to the courtroom at Nuremberg, where Nazis are being tried for their crimes of the 1930s and 1940s. The leap at first feels unwieldy, but there we find the event that sits at the heart of Mamdani’s argument. It was Nuremberg—a trial intended to punish perpetrators—that enshrined a criminal approach to dealing with what were fundamentally political processes. Individual Nazis of course committed grave crimes, but these were inseparable from the social structures and ideologies of the Third Reich. Even as Nazi rule was unprecedented in its barbarism, it drew from the repertoire of the nation-state: a political system designed to protect the majority, in which minorities are second-class citizens, or worse, and where forms of violent bigotry can proliferate. The Nazis were adapting, not inventing. Hitler had declared in an unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf that America was a “race-state that deserved admiration,” and his affection for the early settlers’ purification work there is widely known.

If postcolonial violence is indeed political, it requires a constituency, and galvanizing issues.

Nuremberg was the international trial that broke with both the sovereignty of the state and the assumed link between mass violence and war—it tried Nazis for crimes committed beyond state borders, and before the war began. Yet the tribunal solely focused on who, not why, missing the political dimension of the Nazi crimes. Nuremberg-style denazification thus “became a punitive effort rather than a politically transformative one,” Mamdani writes. It put people away, but it didn’t put systems and ideas away.

Germans today, he argues provocatively, “lament the Final Solution without admitting that they live out its success every day in a state where the national majority was effectively severed from the national minority, and the majority elevated as the nation at the expense of the minority.” The failures to challenge the model that led to the Final Solution are today in evidence across the world, nowhere more so than in the state created directly in response to the Holocaust. Founded on the mass dispossession of Palestinians, Israel now stands as the “most perfected expression of European political modernity in a colonial context.” In that statement, which appears in a separate chapter on the Zionist state, we find the thread that links the conquest of the New World seven centuries ago to the colonial endeavor of today. Like the Europeans who first arrived in America, it wasn’t immigrants—people who join a pre-existing society—who began to reshape the sociocultural landscape of Palestine in the late nineteenth century. Rather, and not discounting the Jews who already lived in the region as part of the Arab community, it was settlers: those who arrived from elsewhere to create an entirely new state of their own.

These aren’t exactly new ideas. The inherent violence of the nation-state, and indeed of European liberalism more generally, has been stressed many times, by liberals (Anthony Giddens) and Marxists (Eric Hobsbawm) alike. But in showing how early settler campaigns played a vital role in shaping contemporary projects of conquest and rule, Mamdani takes the inquiry back farther in history than most scholars have done. And in centering Nuremberg as a “founding moment of a neoliberal understanding of mass violence,” he opens up a compelling new angle into the subject. If postcolonial violence is indeed political, it requires a constituency, and galvanizing issues. But the courtroom offers little space in which to understand and undermine the salience of this broader context. The clamoring today among Western human rights advocates for swift punishment of perpetrators of state crimes indicates just how embedded that individualistic response is.

Yet at times, Mamdani’s analysis raises more questions than it answers. South Africa, the focus of another chapter, is a country where a majority long subjugated on the basis of colonial-era race hierarchies has since won enfranchisement. Once run by, and for, whites, it is arguably the only African nation today in which the criteria used to determine who is and is not to be served by the state has been deracialized. But the successful birth of a new political order in South Africa has not been accompanied by social transformation. “The political prerequisite for attaining social justice would have been a revolution,” as Mamdani admits. “But this was not attainable given the balance of forces.” While he recognizes the struggle against white power to be an unfinished project, we are given little sense of the worth of a new political order in which Black South Africans’ ability to truly exercise democratic citizenship is still precluded by acute inequality. The World Bank calls South Africa “the most unequal country in the world by any measure.” Ten percent of the country owns ninety percent of its wealth; that ten percent is predominantly white, and the remainder predominantly Black. The Apartheid government’s agreement to cede political power was indeed owed in no small part to the guarantee that the economic privileges held by its members and constituents would survive the transition. Was the political transformation all along just a concession made by whites to ensure that the social order remained largely intact? That appears to be the case; by any number of measures, yesterday’s victims remain just so.

In his book, The West and The Rest: Globalization and The Terrorist Threat, the late British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton wrote of a “legal culture” present in modern states like the United States and Britain that obliges tolerance of people of different customs, providing they “live by the rules and obey the legal requirements of our common housekeeping.” In these circumstances, he continues:

A culture of toleration emerges of its own accord, and that is why the nation-state, which to many who study only its degenerate and belligerent forms seems a threat to Enlightenment values, is really the best guarantee that we have of a regime of toleration.

Postcolonial societies need to shed the oppositional nature of majority-minority identities.

It’s true that there are states in our contemporary political order where tolerance has, for the most part, prevailed. Mamdani would respond that this is just the lull once the cleansing had been completed: “Tolerance had to be imposed on the nation-state long after its birth to stanch the bloodshed it was causing.” But that isn’t always the case. Scholars have looked to Switzerland’s cantonal system as an example of a nation-state structure that has been carefully engineered to ensure inclusiveness and stability. There, a single-tier citizenship system based not on nationality but on civic status is popularly accepted, while minorities are enfranchised—and politically and culturally recognized—through decentralized structures of governance. Tolerance is thus neither baked into the nation-state, as Scruton argued, nor does it always follow on the heels of extreme violence, as Mamdani insists. Rather, it might well be a function of how flexible the nation-state form in any one place can be. 

The Switzerlands of the modern world are rare. For the most part, as the historian Mark Levene has argued, the story of the nation-state is one in which “the only way to survive . . . is either to start out strong or to become so.” Nowhere is this strain of social Darwinism more evident than in the genocidal campaigns of the late twentieth century in Europe’s former colonies. There we see how extreme violence is cloaked in the language of conservation: it is for the protection of “us” that we eliminate “them.” This speaks to the innately violent logic of the nation-state. The nation is the home, and without it, we are adrift. Violence secures its continuance.

The destructive cycles will endure as long as the political structures that frame violence as a legitimate instrument of conservation remain intact. Legal action won’t bring about their demise—you cannot punish a structure. Mamdani stresses towards the end of the book that postcolonial societies need to shed the oppositional nature of majority-minority identities, and in its place to find a “singular identity of survivors.” It’s a warming prospect, and would stand as a firm repudiation of the racist experiments of European powers. But across world—and not least in Western nations that boast of their longstanding democratic traditions—political leaders continue to raise the specter of threatening minorities in order to develop their voter base. The génocidaires of African and Asian nations today merely understand how that technique can be taken to its extreme. They too are adapting, not inventing.