South Sudan: An Elite Pact’s Baptism of Blood

If you look past the enormous human tragedy involved – which is by no means easy, nor necessarily ethical – South Sudan is an amazing case study in state formation.

Political theorists normally have to look at fragmentary records from long ago to try to figure out how states were born. Like astronomers looking at flickers of light from unfathomably long ago, they rely on scraps of data to put together a picture of how states form.

It’s the latent threat to return to arms that earns you a place at the top table in the first place.

But in South Sudan that’s all happening right now, in the Twitter age, like a Supernova going off just near by…and nearly as violent.

Guys like Mushtaq Khan and North, Wallis and Weingast have a little model about this that I find pretty persuasive. Their view is that in very poor countries, states usually end up being formed by coalitions of their most dangerous and most violent people. Each player would prefer to take over the whole area for himself – and sometimes that’s possible. But in many cases, it’s not possible, and the “violence specialists” fight one another to exhaustion.

Eventually, though, a moment comes when they’re all fought out and they’ve given up the dream of killing all their most dangerous opponents. Only then can the process of elite-bargaining that gives rise to a political settlement arise.

Even then, the “violence specialists” who end up in coalition will not give up the threat of returning to arms if they feel the settlement they’d bargained for is not being upheld. In fact, it’s the latent threat to return to arms that earns them a place at the top table in the first place. And sometimes settlements do unravel. In fragile states, they can unravel exceptionally fast.

South Sudan follows this pattern to a T. The country has been formally independent from the North only since 2011, but de facto it’s run its own affairs since 2005.

The 1983-2005 war was an unimaginably brutal affair. Usually glossed as a North-South, Arab-vs-Nilotic fight, it was actually a good bit more complex than that: really a series of nested civil wars, with a baffling array of inter-communal conflicts between different tribes and leaders in the South getting sometimes subsumed by, sometimes papered over by the broader North-South conflict.

The scale of kleptocracy that South Sudan fell into even before it was technically an independent country amazed observers.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement worked on two levels: by both getting the North to withdraw its remaining forces from the South and, at the same time, by setting up power-sharing mechanisms that would keep various warlords in the South from turning immediately on one another.

The centerpiece of this powersharing settlement was an agreement to split power between the two biggest tribes in the Nile floodplain: the Dinka and the Nuer, who had a long, troubled history between them.

In effect, the biggest, baddest Dinka warlord, Salva Kiir, was made President while the biggest, baddest Nuer warlord, Riek Machar (pictured above) was made Vice-President. Both would have access to spoils, both would get great big gobs of petromoney to fund their patronage networks, and both would, it was hoped, limit themselves to plunder rather than taking an interest in trying to eliminate the other.

Was the CPA a success? In a way it was. In a place with really no tradition of independent government, the CPA kept the most dangerous people in the country behaving relatively civilly to one another. Instead of fighting, they devoted themselves to the relatively benign pursuit of stealing everything that wasn’t bolted down to the coffers of the state.

The scale of kleptocracy that South Sudan fell into even before it was technically an independent country amazed observers. Outsiders were shocked to realize the plan wasn’t to steal some of the oil money, or even most of the oil money: it was to steal all of the oil money.

Even Kiir seemed taken aback by the scale of it: in 2012, he was reducing to writing an inexpressably sad, badly misjudged letter basically begging his cronies to give back some of the loot.

The Juba this political class “leads” is so screwed up most of the top power players aren’t actually willing to live there: they keep their wives in very nice McMansions in gated complexes in Nairobi and fly in and out of Juba to go to parliament or to their ministry as needed.

That’s not entirely surprising: if you had an 7- or 8-figure dollar bank account worth of loot squirreled away in Dubai or the Cayman Islands, would you want to live in a city with no water mains, no sewers, almost no paved roads, almost no electricity, sporadic gasoline, no proper schools, no proper hospitals and no proper police? Let’s be serious now…

Outside the predatory elite, the country has shockingly little to show for the billions that poured into SPLM since 2005. What very little “governing” – in the sense a first world person would understand it – that gets done gets done by donors, with donor money and donor staff. It’s NGOistan out there. The prevalence of International Cooperation has led to this weird warping of incentives where the local elite doesn’t see “service delivery” as “governing” at all. (And why would they? There are always foreigners around to do that stuff…for free!)

From a state-formation point of view, the wild corruption spree was a feature of the 2005 agreements, not a bug. The political logic at play was clear: it was either that or this. What we’ve had since December. Loot, or carnage. Take your pick.

Some Western observers once speculated that Machar my retaliate by challenging Kiir for SPLM’s presidential nomination. Fat chance.

And, indeed, the political crisis that led up to the current fighting fits the state-formation realists’ mold to a T. Basically, what we have is a fragile Limited Access Order whose political settlement fell apart, and is having to be reached again through a baptism of blood.

Let’s just review how we got here again:

Early last year, the senior member of the ruling coalition thought he could elbow out the junion member. First, President Kiir unilaterally withdrew a long set of powers that he had delegated onto the vice-president. Then he fired him outright, and appointed a loyalist.

Some Western observers once speculated that Machar would retaliate by challenging Kiir for SPLM’s presidential nomination. Fat chance. Machar didn’t make it to #2 for his ability to win votes. His core skill is equipping, organizing and leading armed rebellions. He’s been doing that his entire adult life. He still had the contacts with the mid and low- level military commanders, especially among the Nuer. He knows the operational side of reblling like you know your commute. There are no mysteries about why Machar ended up back in the bush.

What’s sobering about the South Sudanese civil war is the way Kiir and Machar, along with their military commanders, conduct themselves with total – and I mean total – disregard to the opinion climate, both domestic and international.

As best as I can tell, there is exactly no one not under arms who actively favors one side over the other. There’s a sort of powerless unanimity to unarmed opinion: these guys are both toxic, South Sudan doesn’t have any kind of future as long as either of them are in the picture.

But that doesn’t matter to them. Not even a little bit.

The conflict has seen the rudimentary proto-structures of the South Sudanese state wither on the vine. The SPLA, insofar as it was ever anything other than a set of cobbled-together ethnic militias (which isn’t very far) has reverted all the way back to straight-out war-lordism, with command based entirely on the chieftancy of charismatic ethnic militia bosses repurposed as “generals” in battle fatigues.

The sides’ willingness to fight might be undiminished, but their ability to fight is looking threadbare.

In recent weeks, what was left of the SPLA’s administrative infrastructure seemed to collapse, with the army failing to make payroll payments, leading to mass desertions of what remained of its professional soldiery. (So, you know, normal stuff.)

Meanwhile, the shambolic regionally-mediated peace-process in Addis Ababa seems to have fallen apart altogether, as leaders who’ve killed thousands and displaced millions take deep offence at being called “stupid”. Thankfully, this hasn’t led to the resumption of mass violence (yet) mostly because the rebels appear to be out of ammo, and out of re-supply options.

And that, right there, points to the one path out of conflict: both sides’ willingness to fight might be undiminished, but their ability to fight is looking threadbare. Perhaps the only bright spot in this whole desolate scenario is that Machar seems not to have the kind of powerful foreign backers able to supply the kind of materiel that could make his rebellion permanent.

Which is why the noises coming out of the rebel camp in recent weeks have been all about “federalism”. (That whirring buzz you hear is the sound of James Madison turning in his grave at high RPM.)

In this context, a call from Machar for “federalism” means something like “OK, ok, we both know I don’t have the strength to take over the central government, but we both also know you don’t have the strength to flush me out of Jonglei and Upper Nile. So let’s split the difference: you get to keep looting Juba, but only if you give me this bit of turf in the North and East to plunder without interference.”

It’s the David Yau Yau Solution, only on a much bigger scale.

And so we circle back around to North, Wallis and Weingast, to Khan, and the rest of the development realists. The looming settlement-born-of-exhaustion is precisely what theory predicts. At some point, having exhausted any fantasy of annihilating their foes on the field of battle so they can have a free run at the nation’s resources, the most dangerous people in the country have started to inch wearily towards cutting a deal with each another.

It’ll take more time and more heartache, but they’ll circle around eventually. They won’t do it out of public spiritedness or some sort of Rousseauian reverence for the General Will. They’ll do it out of sheer, battle-scarred impotence.

And that’s how states are born.

You don’t fight corruption by “fighting corruption”

I confess that until Martin Tisne turned me on to this Development Drums podcast, I’d known Mushtaq Khan only as the reverently cited sage that kept cropping up again and again in the footnotes of every book and paper I’ve read these last few months.

What a blindspot to have! Mushtaq Khan in full flow is a thing of beauty: the development equivalent to Karim Benzema chasing a winning goal.

An heterodox anglo-bangladeshi development studies professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Khan has long advocated for the type of nuanced, realpolitik-view of corruption’s role in development that Doug North’s writing initially turned me on to. In this 2009 recording, the legendary Owen Barder moderates as Khan debates the impact of corruption on development with eminent Chilean economist Daniel Kaufmann.

It’s no disrespect to Kaufmann to say Khan absolutely overshadows him, though, with a dexterity of argument and clarity of vision that’s just spellbinding. “The question,” Khan wants to ask, “is why do some poor country elites make their money by growing their economies and others make their money by ruining the economies?”

He’s terrifyingly funny as he pours scorn on the pathetic little mansions Mobutu built himself in Congo (pictured), next to the proper, big-time corruption of the Chinese elite. “It’s just a completely different scale,” he says.

Any gloss I could give his enormously elegant, entertaining rants would sell them short. Just go and listen to it. 


The Indomitable Rent-Seekers

Cameroon launch Africa’s World Cup later today after a couple of weeks that can only be described as “rocky”.

First, amid a bonus dispute, star striker and captain (swoooon!) Samuel Eto’o refused to receive the national flag from Monsieur le Premier Ministre after a warm-up match with Moldova, leaving the German-born coach in the bizarre position of receiving the symbolically loaded gift.

That right there drew charges of treason, which is always great for pre-tournament morale.

“What they did on Saturday,” said the head of the Cameroonian FA, “it is a shame to the nation, a total contempt for the government and people who came to watch them and say goodbye. If they do not respect the emblem of this country, can we still support them?”

Next, amid rumours that the notoriously corrupt Federation Camerounaise de Football had “forgotten” to book hotel and training facilities in Brazil, the team refused to board their plane in a last minute bid for yet more bonus money. This sent their FA scrambling for a private loan to persuade the players to board their luxury charter flight to Natal. Classy!

The local papers back in Yaoundé didn’t hold back:

Between a legitimate claim and fraudulent behaviour, there is a threshold that must not be crossed, but the Lions have happily crossed it shamelessly. Eto’o haggled premiums for the players until the last drop of his saliva to satisfy the pecuniary greed of our professional football players.

Later on, Eto’o – or, more likely, his lavishly funded PR handlers – did then go into damage control via social media. Frankly, the only apology likely to be accepted at this point is a thorough thrashing of Mexico and Croatia on the way to the Round of 16.

You almost feel bad for their FA until you remember, “wait, couldn’t they have set aside just part of the $24 million in stadium renovation funds they stole a few years back to cover this kind of contingency?”

I think it’s fascinating, because this Eto’o-Fecafoot fight is just this little keyhole allowing you to peer into the world of intra-elite haggling for rents in Cameroon. It’s just not normal for this sort of thing to be done so far out in public.

But here it is, in glorious, full technicolor display: the 1% of the Cameroonian 1% fighting it out for millions of dollars to chase a ball around a bit of grass in a place where 15 out of 100 children never make it to age five.

Personally, I’m supporting Mexico.

A Modest Proposal for FIFA

I have this theory that if you love fútbol your relationship with FIFA is a lot like a heroin addict’s relationship with the Taliban. We hear gruesome stories about what they do to bring us the good stuff, but we really don’t want to know the details. 

John Oliver said it beautifully on his show last night:

That’s about the size of it, isn’t it? We know that there’s no level of corruption FIFA could stoop to that would make us even consider not watching Brasil 2014.

Instead of having a vote, every four years FIFA should auction off the right to host the World Cup.

We’re hooked. We know it. They know it. It’s tawdry. But it’s like that.

Still, it’s sort of remarkable. The world’s favourite sports event is run by a kind of mafia: a sprawling, worldwide Limited Access Order headquartered in Zurich, of all places.

If you’re like me, though, the detailed allegations that Qatar bribed its way to being awarded the 2022 World Cup to the tune of $5 million is remarkable for all the wrong reasons.

I mean, just $5 million? That’s peanuts!

We need a sense of proportion:

  • Just a few years back, Cameroon’s (notorious) football association got $24 million for a stadium renovation project and every last penny was stolen with a grand total of zero statiums were renovated. When its head goes on vacation to France, he needs 43 hotel rooms at the cost of $40,000/night.
  • The Nigerian FA managed to charge around $5 millionfor the TV-broadcast rights for their domestic championship and kicked exactly zero of it down to the clubs.
  • When Ivory Coast’s FA received $1.6m a year from the Ivorian Petrol Refinery Company, SIR, local clubs never got any of the money.
  • In my own country, Venezuela, the same hyper-corrupt FA-head has been bleeding the FA dry for 4 decades and is immovable, even though we’ve qualified for the World Cup 0 times in 7 tries during his tenure.

Football bureaucracies are soft-targets for rent-seeking all over the developing world. A culture of easy-going looting seems to permeate the sector. FIFA, at the apex of that pyramid, reflects the values of the FAs that compose it. That’s the opposite of surprising.

What’s surprising is that a World Cup – an event that typically costs in the billions to tens of billions of dollars to stage – could be bought this cheaply.

Considering that, by some estimates, Qatar – a place where money virtually spurts out of the ground – has none of the infrastructure ready at all and may be prepared to spend $200 billion to stage the event, the $5 million in bribes Bin Hammam apparently doled out for votes is risible: 0.0025% of the cost of the event. He could’ve spent ten times as much and we’d still be talking about a rounding error.

The real scandal here is that Developing Country reps on FIFA’s executive are willing to give out one of the prime goodies in their bags for next to nothing.

Calls to reform FIFA to stamp out corruption are about as old as goal-line controversies. But let’s get a grip: you’re not going to be able to “reform” the corruption out of a global federation made up of lots of really really corrupt national federations.

What you need is transparency – real transparency.

So here’s a modest proposal: instead of a vote, every four years FIFA should auction off the right to host the World Cup.

Aspiring hosts would put together a technical proposal that would be evaluated by an independent set of auditors. Provided the proposal meets minimal organizational standards, they’d then be invited to submit a sealed bid to FIFA’s Executive Committee with the size of the bribe they’re willing to pay to host the event.

Economic theory suggests a Vickery Auction design would be technically efficient at eliciting truthful bids from aspiring hosts. The highest bidder would “win”, and they’d have to pay the bribe pledged by the second-highest bidder. The bribe would be apportioned to national FA officials in proportion with the number of registered amateurs who play football in that country. They would then be allowed to simply pocket the bribes, spending them on the same luxury vacations and villas they spend the current bribes on.

Not only would this substantially increase the amount of money going to developing countries but it would do something the current system utterly fails at: give football officials a real incentive to develop football in their own countries. By pegging the size of the bribe you get to pocket to the number of kids you interest in Football, you’d make FIFA into something it hasn’t been in years: a real force in spreading the popularity of the sport among young people.

It’s win-win!

Corruption? What kind?

Say it’s your life long ambition to manufacture Widgets in Africa. Since you were a small child, you’ve dreamed of your future as Africa’s Widget king. Now it’s time to make your dream a reality.

How could this go?

Scenario 1:

After cozying up to some people reputed to be well connected to the president – rounds of golf, wining-and-dining, the usual – you manage to secure an appointment for a face-to-face with the Big Man.

You walk in, nervous, and show the president the blueprints to your shiny new Widget factory. He’s excited. He tells you how passionate he is about these kinds of project, pledging his government’s support. He then tells you about another project he’s passionate about, the Presidential Scholarship Fund, to help poor children go to school. He tells you how much he would appreciate a donation – $750,000 would suffice – you know, for the children. You tell him you would be delighted to do that.

“You know,” he says, with a sly glance “the Ministry of Housing has an unused plot just up the road from the port – it would be ideal for your factory. There had been some plan to build apartments there but the project seemed to run into some trouble – I seem to remember the developer was not a supporter of the Presidential Scholarship Fund.”

You know perfectly well the Scholarship Fund “donation” is no such thing. You pay up anyway. You get the land for free.

Word gets around town that the president wants your widget factory built, and nobody messes with the president. The rest of the permits therefore flow easily. Within a year you’re making the finest widgets the country has ever seen.

Five years out you’re expanding, and looking at export markets. Seeing how well you’re doing, second-entrants start popping up near-by to manufacture copy-cat widgets, and more and more suppliers and service firms enter the market to service both your firm and theirs. To stay ahead of these copy-cats, you expand your R&D team to try to make a better widgets and continue to do so for a generation.

And of course, once a year, you make damn sure you remember to make that donation to the Presidential Scholarship Fund.

Scenario 2:  

After cozying up to some people reputed to be well connected to the president – rounds of golf, wining-and-dining, the usual – you ask for help getting an appointment with the Big Man.

“I could do that,” your new friend says, “but you know it’s hard for me to go to State House and ask for an appointment in my beat up old Toyota…” You buy your contact a BMW. A week later, you have your appointment.

You walk in, nervous, and show the president the blueprints to your shiny new Widget factory. He’s excited. He tells you how passionate he is about these kinds of project, pledging his government’s support. He then tells you about another project he’s passionate about, the new yacht he wants to buy his son  – $1.5 million would suffice – you know, for the children. You tell him you would be delighted to do that.

Word gets around town that your pockets are yacht deep. Every office you go to expects a cut. The municipal planning office wants a cut, the land registry office wants a cut, the construction workers’ union wants a cut, the environmental protection office wants a cut, the local cops, the labour law inspectors, the local military garrison… everybody wants a cut. The process takes time, and by the time you’re done paying the last bribe, the municipal planning permit has already expired, so they get a second bite at the cherry.

Two years later, your widget factory is built. But the shakedowns are ongoing. Worse, they’re unpredictable. There doesn’t seem to be any coordination. New administrators come in and worry their tenure won’t be long, and so they shake you down hard, trying to get as much as possible out of you as quickly as possible.

You complain to your friend the president and he tells you he’ll have a word with some of his underlings, but he has his own troubles too: now his daughter is jealous, imagine that, because she didn’t get a yacht and of course the widget business being so profitable and all perhaps you could help.

Your financial planning is a mess. You can’t really calculate cashflows because demands for kickbacks come more or less at random, from all sides, with no coordination.

Within a few years the factory is closed. Everybody you hired is unemployed.

Now, a Westerner looking at Scenario 1 sees corruption, just like in Scenario 2. And he’s not wrong! There’s a clear bribe involved. In giving you state land for free, the president in Scenario 1 is diverting public goods to private ends. That’s illegal pretty much everywhere. If you’re from the U.S., Scenario 1 leaves you just as exposed to a prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as Scenario 2.

But the developmental implications are completely different!

This is the insight at the heart of Tim Kelsall’s brilliant, new(ish) book, Business, Politics, and the State in Africa.

Starting from the realist premise that pretty much every developing country there’s ever been has been highly corrupt, Kelsall asks a rather obvious question: how come some of these super-corrupt countries go on to achieve good developmental outcomes while others just seem to sink deeper and deeper into the mire?

From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to asking what kinds of corruption can drive development outcomes, and what kinds retard those outcomes. 

[Tiny aside: Kelsall is, of course, too much of a gentleman and a scholar to call it all “corruption” – such brutality is fit only for bloggers. He settles on “rent-management” as his key euphemism. I can see the appeal of that: “corruption” isn’t an analytical category, it’s a moral judgment. It’s a word that tends to close minds and end debates, rather than open them. But we shouldn’t be too precious about it, either: that thing that he aseptically describes “rent-management” is what normal people call corruption.]

For Kelsall, there are a couple of key ingredients to the successful organization of corruption for development: it needs to be centralized, and it needs to be focused on the long-term. 

The go-to example here is Indonesia: a country that, from 1967 through 1998 saw stellar rates of investment, growth and poverty reduction alongside a famously, deliriously corrupt state. Suharto managed to steal tens of billions of dollars at the same time poverty rates in Indonesia were falling from 60% to under 15%.

Why? Because corruption was centralized around the president and his family, who were consciously trying to maximize their take over the long term.

Suharto wouldn’t allow petty officials in the ministries or the regions to competitively shake-down investors: he decided who got shaken down and for how much, and then he kicked bribes down the chain in the form of patronage. Centralization – whether in a person, like Suharto, or an organization, like the Chinese Communist Party – prevents the kind of kleptocratic free for all that can sink a country’s developmental prospects.

But centralization is not enough: you need some kind of a longer time horizon so you’re maximizing your take over time. The alternative in Mobutu-style Zairian kleptocracy, which certainly was centralized, but was so rapacious in its demand for more-loot-NOW that it just wasn’t compatible with longer-term investment and growth.

Whether Kelsall is right that centralization and a long-term focus are the key ingredients in the developmental corruption stew I don’t know. Probably there’s much more to say on this subject.

What I do know is that this is a conversation that’s long overdue. Moralistic tirades about corruption won’t help countries develop. A more mature, realistic and clear-eyed views of the kinds of corruption that help and the kinds that hinder in the context of a limited access order just might.

Is this the most evil company in Africa?

Think Africa Press’s James Wan has a stunning bit of reporting on TIENS – a Chinese company making a killing (literally, alas) by peddling transparent medical quackery to desperate, sick Ugandans.

TIENS gets props for the brazenness of the scam: I mean, this is a quack version of something that was already quack science to begin with:

“Whatever this is, it is not Chinese medicine,” says the Chinese-trained doctor with a combination of amusement and incredulity. He chuckles as he reads how TIENS medicines are supposed to treat about a dozen different conditions each, from preventing cancer to reversing impotence to promoting “the growth of children’s reproductive organs.”

The doctor’s amusement soon turns to horror as he reaches the section of the booklet advising distributors on what steps to take when patients are suffering from different diseases. TIENS customers are typically encouraged to undergo diagnostic tests in store, but most who go to TIENS have previously been to hospital and know some of the conditions from which they are suffering. The company guide offers clear and easy instructions on what they should be prescribed.

Of the few hundred conditions listed − which span from AIDS to Yellow Fever − a handful include the recommendation to ‘see a doctor’. But the rest just list a few products to be taken.

“This is a death sentence,” mutters the doctor, falling silent.

And if you thought the patient interface is bad, never fear: the way the company treats the people it recruits to run the scam on the ground manages to be even worse somehow.

Sitting behind his desk at the TIENS-Uganda headquarters, located at the top of King Fahd Plaza on a busy street in Kampala, Kibuuka Mazinga Ambrose is delighted to explain how the business model works in more detail.

“Anyone can join,” says the company chairperson, wearing a bright yellow TIENS-branded cap. “All you need to do is pay a small initial fee of $20.” Once you have done this, you can buy products at wholesale prices and sell them on at a profit. However, this is just the start, he says. You don’t get rich by selling a few bottles of herbal supplements. Under TIENS’ model, there are eight ranks and you need to move up the levels to really start enjoying the benefits.

The first few levels can be reached simply by buying more products, which essentially brings with it a small discount on goods. However, to get to the bigger rewards, you need to start recruiting others. This way, you receive a commission whenever they make purchases and also get rewarded if they recruit their own followers.

TIENS is, in other words, a giant pyramid scheme. How literally? This literally:

tiens-guide enhanced
The Great Business Plan of Giza

So why doesn’t anybody do anything to shut down this evidently exploitative, patently predatory company? Have a guess. Go on.

Not only does TIENS advertise on the Health Ministry’s calendar, but according to Wasswa, around ten MPs are members of the company and at the Iganga seminar, Stephen Wante, the mayor of Bugembe, made a guest appearance. In 2011 meanwhile, Vice-President Edward Ssekandi officiated a ceremony in which a distributor was awarded a car and organised for TIENS to donate some of its products to a government health centre. A photograph of the Ssekandi shaking hands with TIENS’ president also has pride of place on the company website.

Ah, Limited Access Order, thine homes are many…

“Like prison camps where tens of thousands of people live in floods of mud, rainwater and sewage, suffering from measles, malnutrition and diarrhea, at risk of cholera.”

One thing is clear: nobody comes out of South Sudan’s 2013-2014 Civil War looking good. Pitting a viciously sociopathic government against an every-bit-as-bad rebel movement, South Sudan’s civil war is Africa as we’re constantly being told not to imagine it.

Amid the mass-scale bloodletting, there’s the United Nations, which had done most of what little governing had been done in South Sudan since 2005 but still somehow managed to be totally unprepared for what came next.

Bases that the UN had set up as administrative centers or military outposts had to be repurposed, on the fly, into Protection of Civilians sites. These are places that had been designed to house dozens of bureaucrats or hundreds of blue-helmets, not tens of thousands of desperate civilians. Gradually, the UN more or less abandoned any pretense of defending civilians beyond the bases’ perimeters, even those just a few meters outside. The consequences, for civilians both inside and out, are dantesque.

In a rivetting series of investigative reports for the Dutch-funded, Sudanese station Radio Tamasuj, Daniel Van Oudenaren tells the story of how an out-gunned, over-worked, under-staffed United Nations Mission took on an impossible task and all too predictably failed to deliver.

A taste:

Within a week of the start of the crisis in South Sudan on 15 December, the defected SPLA 8th Division had overrun Bor town and sent tens of thousands of people running in fear. Government forces advanced to retake the town from the south while the opposition rallied reinforcements – mainly armed civilians – from the north, including from Akobo itself.

“Current situation at UNMISS Bor: we’ve been fortifying our defenses,” the military officer said in a message on 24 December. “We’re continuously hearing gunfire and mortars outside, but none has harmed the UNMISS camp yet.”

“Our greatest fear is not the rebel SPLA though, as Gadet’s forces have been rational and cooperative with our flights. Our greatest fear is the Nuer Youth, that they might cause another Akobo incident,” he explained.

“We can’t really conduct any patrols at the moment,” said the same source.

Meanwhile, as the UN dug in, civilians in Bor and in surrounding villages came under attack. Numerous human rights violations during this period later would be recorded by the mission’s human rights division.

National government officials would portray the Dinka Bor as the primary or only victims of the December to January violence, but in reality both Nuers and Dinkas were targeted during the back-and-forth fighting in the area.

Just before Christmas, ahead of the government’s recapture of Bor, the same UNMISS source explained, “Apparently remnants of the Dinka-SPLA forces are hiding in the bush during the day and conducting guerrilla offense during the night on Nuer people.”

“All of the gunshot patients treated at UNMISS Bor so far have been Nuer. Of course, with Nuer-SPLA and Nuer-youth dominating Bor area, things are difficult for Dinkas as well.”

UNMISS, he said, would try to defend itself if it came under attack. But beyond the walls of the base, he warned, the people were in danger of ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Worth reading in full. 

Rwanda is to Uganda what Uruguay is to Argentina

Rwanda and Uganda can seem a lot alike, and not just because their names rhyme: both are landlocked, both agrarian, both have a recent past of extreme violence that gave way to stability and economic growth. Even the tribes are pretty much the same on either side of their shared border.

Sure, Uganda is a lot bigger, but for the rest: both are competitive authoritarianisms run by powerful presidents who have roots in 70s radicalism but turned pro-business in tandem – which is maybe not a surprise, seeing how, back in the Bush Wars years of the 1980s, Rwanda’s (now) president Kagame was a founding member of Uganda’s (now) president Museveni’s guerrilla movement. 

And yet, for all the similarities, there’s a central, glaring, unmissable difference: Rwanda works; Uganda doesn’t.

The closest parallel I can think of is Uruguay and Argentina, South America’s peas-in-a-pod republics, which are similarly indistinguishable in every way but two: first, size and, second, the fact that Argentina is an ungovernable mess while Uruguay has its act fundamentally together.

Like Rwanda, Uganda has elaborate formal mechanisms to prevent the abuse of state power for personal enrichment. Like Rwanda, Uganda has a very powerful president who takes his own developmentalist discourse seriously. Like Rwanda, Uganda has an ambitious long-term strategy for economic diversification and growth. But in Uganda, none of these things seem to manage the messy transition from good intention into on-the-ground-reality. In Rwanda, for the most part, they all do.

That ODI Report I’ve been raving about includes lots of compelling detail about what this may be, but doesn’t go into the question directly. It points to the existential threat Rwanda’s ruling party, the RPF, has spent most of its existence under as a powerful incentive to get serious about governance, but Uganda under Museveni has faced military threats that seem on something near the same order, without anything like the same salutory effect.

The report suggests, without ever quite saying so, that it comes down to the difference in style between Rwanda’s President Kagame and Uganda’s Museveni. Actually it’s hard to read it without thinking that, to be blunt, Kagame is just much better at his job than Museveni.

Kagame has managed to create institutional structures for the administration of state power in ways Museveni has resisted, and these structures are merit based in ways their counterparts in Uganda just aren’t.

Strangely in view of Rwanda’s reputation, among critics and apologists alike, for being a one-man show, the dependence of policy on President Kagame’s personal initiative does not appear particularly striking in the EAC context. The cabinet appears to function reasonably well as an instrument of collective leadership and responsibility, with the president exercising a powerful demand for performance from individual ministers and their permanent secretaries. This contrasts with the perverse combination of lack of interest and micro-management that tends to characterise President Museveni’s approach to his cabinet. The underlying difference is that Ugandan cabinet members are there to provide balanced access to power and resources for the regional power-blocs that Museveni needs to placate. Rwandan cabinets have to reflect the power-sharing principle in the constitution (no more than 50 percent of ministers from the RPF), but they are otherwise merit-based and typically include a significant number of independents, among them several younger women.

One outcome of this is a Rwandan state that comes across as almost freakishly orderly considering the country’s level of development.

A bit of an extended quote from that ODI paper seems called for here, because I don’t think many people have quite grasped how far out of the East African mainstream Rwanda is in terms of transparency:

A clear difference between Rwanda and its closest regional ally Uganda, and also other neighbours, is that occupying political office does not open the way to the acquisition and accumulation of wealth. There are politicians who are wealthy. However, they are few and far in between, and none of them is known publicly to have acquired their wealth by way of taking advantage of the office they occupy or have occupied. For members of the business community who join politics, and again there are very few, it is a requirement under the law to give up active participation in managing any business once becoming a member of parliament or a cabinet minister. This law applies to others occupying public office. Enterprises belonging to people barred from doing business are managed through trusts or by spouses or children. The same applies to civil servants.

Influence peddling, and any attempt to use public office for personal gain, is a strictly prohibited, prosecutable offence and has landed public figures in jail. Others have been removed from office for failure to declare their assets or for failure to explain the source of wealth that could not be justified on the basis of their known legitimate incomes.3 Also, businesses owned by public officials are eligible to offer services to the government, but only following very strict observance of rules pertaining to conflict of interest and disclosure. In practice, so strict are the rules that it is safer to ensure that a company with which a particular officer is associated does not supply goods or services to the government entity in which they work… These rules are strictly enforced.

In Uganda, by contrast, it’s been a long time since anybody described any rule as “strictly enforced”. In ODI’s telling, Museveni is a leader sincerely devoted to developmental outcomes but prevented from achieving reforms by the toxic dynamics of rent-seeking politics in the elite that has grown up around him, dynamics that have arisen because he just has no idea how to delegate successfully.

Of course, when no major decisions can be made without the top leader’s personal involvement, whole swathes of policy-space can just stagnate indefinitely simply because they don’t happen to catch the leader’s interest. It’s easy for tiny cliques of self-interested officials to colonize those policy-spaces, turning bits of the state into effective fiefdoms purely because the one person in a position to rein them in is off chasing some other shiny thing.

At the height of the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, President Museveni frequently used the excuse of his preoccupation with defeating the insurgency to explain why the government had not done certain things. That preoccupation often involved his spending time camping in the theatre of war, presumably doing what field commanders were supposed to be doing and possibly distracting them in the process. It is a classic example of how he manages government business and why managing state matters in that way can produce stasis in areas he may not be paying attention to at any one moment. One of the outcomes of centralised or one-man decision-making is that there is a fire-fighting quality to the way the government is run, with things receiving limited attention before the president is off tending to something else. It explains why one of the biggest failures in Uganda is policy implementation across the board.

(This line interests me because it’s an excellent lead on the question that brought me to Ugandan political economy in the first place: how can it be that so much counterfeit seed stays in the market and nobody does anything about it? Maybe Museveni’s just not into seed.)

The overall picture that emerges is of a tragic Museveni, constantly undermining his own vision through his inability to create mechanisms able to deliver the policy goals he sincerely wants without his constant personal supervision. Or, alternatively, of a heroic Kagame, who’s managed to overcome the pull of personalized authority that’s proven irresistible in the whole rest of Africa to build a system in which he’s more law-giver than tyrant.

The social scientist in me wants to resist this Great Men-based version of history. We’re trained to think in terms of structures, not personalities. But in countries where the imperial presidency has such deep roots, is it really wrong to suspect one uncommonly gifted autocrat can shift a whole country into a different developmental path?

I don’t know, I’m asking…