Bringing Out the Big Guns

Bringing Out the Big Guns

Is it power over the means of violence and coercion that distinguishes the ruling class from the rest of us?


How did a small, landlocked country without significant natural resources become Africa’s “most inspiring success story”? A hint: Stats about “natural resources” usually don’t include bullets.

In less than 30 years, Rwanda went from being a literal war zone to one of the most successful developing countries on the planet. It was known for a genocide, and is now known for being one of the safest places to travel in the world. That success extends to social and economic features as well: Rwanda boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the region, and the highest percentage of women legislators in the entire world. All of this has been maintained by the iron grip of the country’s leader, Paul Kagame, and an army turned ruling party in the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Welcome to the fifth entry in the series “How Much Could a Banana Republic Cost?,” where we use that question to help figure out who and what rules the world. The first post introduced our candidates: Big Green (investors, corporations, or individual plutocrats), Big Guns (armies, militias, and mafias), and Big Graphs (technocrats and knowledge-based organizations). The second explained why our formal political officials aren’t necessarily the only ones in charge using the example of the United Fruit Company’s de facto reign in Guatemala. The third and fourth posts tried out two versions of the Big Green theory: a “Monopoly” version where the rich separately buy individual parcels of our political world, and a “Round Table” version where they work together in concert to run the whole thing.

Today, we’re bringing out the Big Guns—that is, moving onto the second category of ruling-class theories. Big Guns theories hold that power over the means of violence and coercion is what distinguishes the ruling class from the rest of us. Mao Zedong put the ethos of this theory well in his oft-quoted statement: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The virtues of this perspective probably seemed obvious at the time: The full-scale invasion of China launched by Imperial Japan the year before Mao’s speech had featured one of the worst wartime atrocities in human history and launched the Second World War.

But there’s more to be said for Mao’s picture of things than mere historical convenience. We might notice, as the late, great historian Tyler Stovall did here at The Nation, that the kinds of political leaders produced by eras of political revolution in recent centuries tend to come from the military—and they tend to rule like it. Stovall’s analysis centers on the four major historical revolutionaries who served as the focus of David Bell’s history Men on Horseback: the United States’ George Washington, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte, Haiti’s Louverture, and the Venezuelan pan-American liberationist Simón Bolívar. But we could add many more: say, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and of course, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

We could do more with this insight than a historical Who’s Who. Maybe the connection between political power and military might is no special feature of revolutions but a more general and enduring feature of politics. Call this the “Strongman” version of the “Big Guns” approach: The most real, effective, or otherwise important kind of power is generally held by those who control the formal institutions of violence. Our elections and formal power structures matter only insomuch as they make a difference to how military and policing institutions function—to exactly what extent the president is in fact also the commander in chief, to use the US political system as an example. But whether in uniform or clad in a politician’s suit and tie, the real political leader is always a commander. Revolutions and times of crisis are simply the moments in history where this enduring fact is most visible and obvious.

That brings us to Kagame and Rwanda. Archaelologists Andre Ntagwabira and Chapurukha M. Kusimba classify the Kingdom of Rwanda as one of the major state powers in the Great Lakes region of central Africa by its height in the 1800s—a position won by conquest and integration of neighboring communities. But in 1884 the kingdom was carved up alongside the rest of the African continent by an even bigger set of empires: the European ones meeting to divide whole swaths of the planet between them in faraway Berlin. Rwanda was handed off first to the Germans and then to the Belgians, but all throughout found itself fundamentally reorganized by the race science that dominated European elite circles at the time.

Social scientist François Masabo explains a deadly transformation that took hold over the decades: Led by the nascent field of eugenics (born just the year before the Berlin Conference), previously economic and social distinctions between Rwanda’s major social groups became understood as genetic and impassable racial distinctions. Despite high rates of intermarriage and centuries-long histories of cohabitation, the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa were treated by the colonial Rwandan state as different kinds of people. As political scientist Mahmood Mamdani chronicles, the Belgian state administration turned crackpot theories about Tutsi racial superiority (involving dreamed up lineages traced to biblical figures) into institutional fact. The Tutsis had been the privileged class before the Europeans and were favored by the colonial powers that be, but the Rwandan Revolution won independence from Belgium and brought about a grim reversal of fortunes.

The end of Belgian-supported minority Tutsi rule was punctuated by many ethnic massacres, with mass killings taking place in each of 1963, 1966, 1973, and 1990. But the worst came at the end of the Rwandan Civil War, in 1994. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this war as a whole: It’s well-known for including a genocide of world-historical scale, but it also further inflamed a regional refugee crisis and string of military conflicts that engaged so much of the continent that one of them has been called “Africa’s World War.” The political aftermath of the Rwandan Civil War and the Congo Wars reverberates through the region today.

Among the consequences of the war: Kagame’s reign. At the beginning of the war in 1990, Kagame was a commander in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, then in a dissident predominantly Tutsi military group. In response to the genocide in 1994, the RPF invaded the capital. Pasteur Bizimungu was installed as president, but from the first, then–Vice President Kagame was regarded by many as the true center of political power in Rwanda. Kagame became president six years later and has held power since, in a reign that has been dotted with accusations of murders and disappearances of political rivals on both sides of the Rwanda-DRC border, of a famine-related refugee crisis displacing Rwandans into Uganda, and of cooking the books of Rwanda’s development statistics. These allegations have not stopped a steady stream of international aid propping up the regime and providing more than a third of the government budget in some years. This financial support comes from a hodgepodge of actors: the World Bank, richer countries, and philanthropic foundations like the Clinton and Gates Foundations.

As we’ve seen in previous episodes, the urge to provincialize African history is likely to lead us astray. The history of most recent centuries has seen quite a bit of nakedly authoritarian rule: Rwanda has recently had a long-standing rule by a military leader, but then, so did Spain not so long ago. The dictatorial Estado Novo regime in Portugal was itself ousted by a military coup catalyzed by the African anti-colonial resistance to the Portuguese empire, in the so-called “Carnation Revolution.” Growing evidence in the wake of the January 6 attempted coup in the United States suggests that attempts to mobilize the National Guard were a significant aspect of President Trump’s coup plot. In the end the military refused to play ball, and it is difficult to imagine the coup fizzling out the way it did had they decided otherwise, and three retired generals recently took to the Washington Post to argue that the military needs to prepare for Round 2 in 2024.

We shouldn’t provincialize coups and overtly militaristic authoritarian regimes either. The Transnational Institute’s State of Power 2021 report chronicles how the increasing social and political investment in the vast majority of countries, including self-reported liberal democracies, are propped up on a vast and expanding coercive structure of global police power, border policing, and sophisticated surveillance systems. If the Strongman theory is correct, the episodes of overt war and invasion just dramatize a larger and enduring truth: To control politics is to control violence. Our guiding question of who runs the world turns out to have a simple answer: if you want to know who’s in power, you need only look at who’s on the other side of the gun barrel.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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