If LSA Professor Allan Stam hadn’t realized how much hot water he was in just for asking some simple questions, it became clear as he and an assistant sat in a windowless room in an abandoned warehouse in a suddenly unfriendly Rwanda. They were surrounded by guys with machine guns and an interrogator who intoned pronouncements such as, “The last people who asked questions like this are dead.”
It didn’t help that the assistant, to remain unnamed, poor thing, was beginning to scream as the interrogator piled on poisonous innuendos, at which point Stam—who remained cool, for reasons later explained here—finally had to shout to said assistant, “Shut the f--k up! You’re not helping!”
Ah, academic research. It just doesn’t get better than this.
This statement sums up to some extent Stam’s attitude today as he looks back on what began as innocent trips to Rwanda in 2000-2001. His goal was to learn more about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis, the country’s minority population, were slaughtered by the Hutus, the country’s majority.
Wait, scratch that.
800,000 people died, and—
Wait, scratch that.
800,000 deaths were reported—
Scratch that, too.
Okay. Let’s start over.
Scratch that. Let’s start over. No two phrases could more succinctly sum up what the research about the 1994 Rwanda genocide has wrought for Stam, a political science professor, and his colleague, University of Notre Dame Professor Christian Davenport. Suffice it to say that today, you’re in trouble with some if you go with the original 800,000 number and in trouble with others if you don’t.
It all started in 2000, when Davenport asked his friend Stam to accompany him on his next trip to Rwanda. This was little more than a professional courtesy trip to the country. Davenport, then working at the University of Maryland, was responsible for ministering a multi-million-dollar, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grant to the National University of Rwanda in Butare. He had been back and forth on this how-can-we-help-you mission several times in previous years.
Since there had been no real strings attached to the millions of USAID dollars pouring into Rwanda, Davenport was trying to talk to key people about how the money helped, where, and if anything else was needed. He and Stam were thus happily connected with every major player in the country, from the defense minister to the solicitor general to Supreme Court justices.
Everything was just fine until, as they talked to these officials, Davenport and Stam both noticed a peculiar repetition of that number: 800,000. No one attached to this number any qualifiers such as “about,” or “we’re not sure, but we think,” or “at least, but we’ll never know.”
“[Davenport] and I both got early training in survey research,” Stam says. “One of the things we were taught as graduate students was, if 95 percent or more of people agree on something, they’re lying. Because there is not anything out there that 95 percent of human beings actually agree on when they’re being sincere.
“So this number—it occurred to us that there was no range. In most of these kinds of events, you hear a range of 100,000 to 500,000, or 10 to 50, that represents huge uncertainty. This event? 800,000. Over and over and over again, everyone saying the same, precise number.
“So we wanted to see where this number came from.”
He and Davenport went back to Rwanda a couple of times, a bit more suspicious. In initial queries, they discovered that there was an underground Hutu movement that had been completely displaced from the government since the end of the civil war. Meanwhile, Paul Kagame—a Tutsi who had led the heroic resistance during the genocide—helped form the post-genocide government and has been its leader ever since. At least, that’s the story everyone knew and recited by heart, and was portrayed in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda.
This is where the term “received wisdom” comes into play. Stam and Davenport made contact with these Hutu political outsiders and learned that there were a lot of very unhappy people in Rwanda. They had questioned the standard story, the generally accepted version of what had occurred, i.e., the “received wisdom” of the genocide: Tutsis, the minority, beating the evil, genocidal majority Hutus after 800,000 Tutsis, and only Tutsis, had been killed. The Hutus Stam talked to questioned this received wisdom, he says, because they knew better. But the Hutus’ questioning had led to suppression, repression and even imprisonment.
“So we decided to start asking really hard questions,” Stam says. They approached the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where Hutus, and only Hutus, were being prosecuted for various crimes during the genocide. “We asked them why they weren’t prosecuting other people, and asking other questions.
“People stopped talking to us. That confirmed to us that something was going on here.”
It was during this time that Stam and an assistant (not Davenport) were “detained” in that hospitable warehouse. The reason Stam wasn’t intimidated? Years before he had joined the U.S. Army and been trained as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, where he learned about intimidation tactics. He also had learned that most political groups and governments know that killing American academics and journalists is ill advised, so most don’t, threats notwithstanding.
However, that did not stop the Rwanda officials from banning Davenport and Stam from the country.
They’ve been digging and investigating, and stirring up no small amount of controversy, ever since.
The result of all this is that Davenport and Stam have determined that, bottom line, no one has any idea how many people were killed in Rwanda in 1994. Not only that, but based on information they have uncovered, the killing was not confined to just Tutsis. In fact, it wasn’t even systematic killing after a certain point; it was just human beings being horrible, as human beings sometimes are, and always will be, given certain conditions.
Further, the so-called “received wisdom” assumes that there were good guys and bad guys, Stam says. “The good guys are the Tutsi (the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RFP), who came from Uganda, invaded the country to stop the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu-led Armed Forces of Rwanda. The story says that the RFP were the only people willing to act while the rest of the world looked on as this terrible thing took place.”
This story serves to help keep the RFP figures in power today, politically, Stam contends. But what likely happened is that while the violence did seem to begin with a Hutu extremist group targeting Tutsis, the brutality quickly got out of hand and spread. There were Hutu and Tutsi attackers and victims, most of them civilians, and mass killings taking place to settle all kinds of political, economic, and personal scores.
In other words, it was ugly, bloody chaos. No rhyme, no reason, no heroes—no sense.
That’s what Stam believes has led many who have read or learned of Davenport and Stam’s conclusions to call them “genocide deniers.”
“People don’t want to believe that such senseless killing is just part of who we all are,” Stam says. In other civil war scenarios, the same thing has happened: Once a government breaks down, “we get back to a place where things look an awful lot like the English Civil War in the 1640s, which was just brutal, and led to famous political philosophers, like Thomas Hobbes, writing about the ‘social contract,’ between the people and governments. Governments keep order if the people work. But when government breaks down, we get back to this place where things are violent, and where a lot of opportunistic violence takes place because there is no threat of incarceration.”
But Stam and Davenport aren’t denying the genocide at all—just its nature. After years of study, they estimate somewhere between 200,000 and 1 million people died. “Such a range means we’re really not sure, but it ends up being consistent with all of the other events like this.”
What, then, is the motivation behind the 800,000 number—a number that many high-profile, academic books, journals, and even careers have relied on? Why are many academics accusing Davenport and Stam of being “revisionist,” when it seems these accusers are actually doing the revising—or, at best, ignoring the more complicated truth of the Rwanda genocide and civil war, and the lack of any real proof of the received wisdom?
That is the subject of the book Davenport and Stam are writing now. The working title is: In Pursuit of a Number: The Creation of a Social Science Myth.
“It’s a moral story,” Stam says. “It’s not about Rwanda per se, but on the use of information by activists, academics, for political purposes.”
Davenport and Stam contend that a number of academic professionals in America purposely accepted the received wisdom of Rwanda, and even helped perpetrate it, so that the world would notice and set up a permanent war crimes tribunal. Such a permanent, international body would replace the ad hoc tribunals that operated after World War II, and in Europe, after the Bosnian bloodshed there. Each time, these tribunals need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Meanwhile, no such tribunal was created initially for anything in Africa, where mass killings have taken place for decades.
Reporting that no one knows how many were killed, or that everyone was guilty, would not help accomplish the creation of a permanent criminal tribunal. But 800,000 good people killed by bad people, clearly labeled?
In 2002, the International Criminal Court was established. Its jurisdiction is universal and it exists to prosecute crimes against humanity when such crimes are not prosecuted by governments in the countries such crimes take place.
All of this is noble, Stam says. Academics publishing work that is not truthful, or skewed, even for a good purpose, is not. It’s the classic “doing the wrong thing for the right reason.”
It’s not right, Stam says, “it’s fraud.”
For more information on Rwanda’s genocide, civil war, history and on Stam and Davenport’s controversial work, click here.