Category Archives: Limited Access Orders

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.

How the ICC Gift-Wrapped Kenya and Delivered it to Beijing’s Doorstep

In my more Machiavellian moments, I almost think China’s Foreign Ministry must have paid off somebody in The Hague to get Uhuru Kenyatta indicted for crimes against humanity.

I don’t mean that literally, of course. Yet if, like me, you subscribe to the Cui Bono School of International Relations, you almost have to wonder. Certainly, no one has gained more from the now President Kenyatta’s indictment than China.

Here’s what that ODI report has to say about this:

In August 2013, President Kenyatta made state visits to Russia and China. The government profiled the visits as the Jubilee government’s initiative to grow new markets for Kenya’s exports of coffee, tea and fresh produce. The visit to China was to seek new trade agreements and investment opportunities. Kenyatta’s opening to the East came almost a month after the US President had shunned Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and visited the neighbouring Tanzania instead. Earlier in May 2013, Kenyatta had visited London for a Somalia conference, but failed to get what the media called ‘a photo opportunity’ with the British prime minister. These two events were generally seen as humiliating and those around the president quickly crafted a new agenda to intensify contacts with the East.

The ‘Look East’ initiative that then happened was a continuation of what the Kibaki and the coalition government had already established. The visit to China in particular resulted in the government signing a number of agreements worth about 5 billion USD in investments in several sectors, including the building of a new standard-gauge railway line from Mombasa to Malaba on the border with Uganda as well as energy projects. While the ‘Look East’ initiative has a political motive, as a response to how the West has treated the president because of the cases at the ICC, it is also aimed at generating economic opportunities

So, assuming Uhuru’s indictment wasn’t plotted in Beijing, you can only conclude that it has backfired catastrophically. In the first place, because by painting him as a victim of foreign meddling, the indictment actually helped the guy get elected, meaning it closed the door on any prospect that he will one day pay for whatever he did in 2007/8 with jail time. What the indictment did achieve, on the other hand, is to basically put a bow on East Africa’s biggest economy and deliver it to China’s front door.

Let’s just review: back in December 2007, the wheels came off of Kenya’s elite pact. A close, contested election led to a spasm of communal violence, as leaders in the Limited Access Order scrambled to make a grab for as much of the rent-stream as possible. Hundreds of people were killed in violence that shocked liberal internationalist sensibilities, but that was broadly seen as “part of the way things work here” by many Kenyans.

To be clear, that in no way means Kenyans liked or approved of the post-election violence – who would? It’s just to say that recourse to violence when your ethnic group’s access to power is threatened is not perceived as illegitimate in East Africa to anything like the extent it is in the West. So not-a-big-deal was this in Kenya that Kenyatta actually got elected, fair and square, with over 6 million votes, even after his ICC indictment had been published. Some would argue that the indictment was a net positive to him in the campaign, allowing him to take on the mantle of Kenyan nationalism in opposition to a neoimperialist West.

Few people in the West seem to appreciate quite how wrong indicting a guy whose name literally means “Kenya’s Freedom”, and also happened to be the literal son of the father of the nation, would rub proud, patriotic Kenyans.

Worse, almost no one seems to have thought through the way the indictment, and Kenyatta’s subsequent ostracism from polite international society would play directly into the hands China’s ambitious African strategy.

That last observation calls for a tiny detour: A lot of Westerners seem to be under a basic misunderstanding about China’s strategy in Africa. People think China’s studious avoidance of human rights and good governance talk there is driven by values: China doesn’t care about these things back home, so it doesn’t press them abroad. Surely there’s something to that, but perhaps less than people figure. The major reason China never talks about these things is strategic: silence on governance and human rights is the one thing they can offer that the West can’t.

In some ways, China is playing a relatively weak hand as it tries to extend its reach into Africa. It doesn’t have as much capital as the west, or as much engineering expertise or technological sophistication, its people don’t speak English or French as well, it doesn’t have anything like Western military capacities, and it doesn’t have the historical ties Western countries have with their former colonies. China feels hobbled by all of this. Like it needs an Ace-in-the-Hole to overcome all these disadvantages.

Simply shutting up about governance or human rights is that Ace in the Hole. From Beijing’s point of view, it’s all up side. For one thing, it’s free. Not just financially, because it also doesn’t demand any additional scarce technical or human or administrative resources. It’s very literally costless. And it allows China to score killer deals in Africa that the Western powers unwittingly rule themselves out of through their lecturing.

The Chinese really can’t believe their luck. And the West seems oblivious to this whole dynamic. It still has the model in its head where capital equals Western Capital and where lecturing the continent has no consequences.

But why on earth would Uhuru Kenyatta put himself through the indignity of sitting there as he’s called a war criminal, for doing things his constituents don’t think are outside the rules of the game, by a bunch of effete European peaceniks, when he can just look east and get all the investment and technical cooperation he needs from people who intuitively grasp the rules of the game in a Limited Access Order in ways western partners just can’t?

Seriously, why would he?

He wouldn’t. And he doesn’t.

[This post, again, mostly pilfers its ideas from that ODI’s report on East Africa’s Political Economy. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re really missing out: it’s a treasure trove of hard-to-come-by clarity on the real power dynamics in the region.]

Why Warlords Fight: The David Yau Yau Story

Douglass North’s theory of political order based on elite pacts to carve up access to rents can seem like a pretty distant abstraction. Surely the dirty deals that give rise to North’s “Limited Access Orders” are academic speculation rather than anything you’d encounter in the real world today, right?

Well, consider David Yau Yau.

Yau Yau is the South Sudanese Warlord pictured above next to the nervously smiling centrist politician from Norway who runs the U.N. Mission to South Sudan, Hilde Johnson.

On again off again since 2010, he’s led the most vicious, mindlessly murderous little tribal war you’ve never heard of for control of his home region in Jonglei State’s Pibor County, just near Ethiopia.

At the head of a small but dogged group of fighters from his Murle tribe, Yau Yau organized dozens of heavily armed attacks on villages of the neighboring Lou Nuer tribe.

These attacks are somewhat misleadingly referred to as “cattle raids”. Yes, cows are stolen, and in a society where cattle is the main store of wealth and prestige, that’s deeply destabilizing. But the level of armament and violence used was out of all proportion to that goal, and the more salient fact is that these cattle raids often leave dozens of villagers dead.

The crowning achievement of Yau Yau’s little rampage in Pibor came on April 8th last year, when his fighters murdered five UN peacekeepers from India in an ambush, as well as seven civilians. By October, the government in Juba was visibly exasperated: unable to put down the rebellion, it declared him a terrorist and called on the International Criminal Court to prosecute him for war crimes.

To be clear, SPLA’s response to Yau Yau’s rebellion often matched him for brutality, with civilians sometimes singled out for reprisal just because they were Murle. And the abuses on both sides of this little war pale in comparison with the much larger scale carnage the country has witnessed since the start of the broader Civil War in December last year.

What’s sad is how common stories like Yau Yau’s are. If you’ve never heard of him it’s because there isn’t really anything particularly noteworthy about he’s done. There’s nothing to distinguish his rebellion from the dozens of tiny wars taking place in Africa at any given time. The only way these things end up in your morning newspaper is if someone goes to the trouble to attach a hashtag to them.

But why exactly does a guy like Yau Yau start a fight? And what would it take to stop him?

It all goes back to 2010, when he ran for a seat in Jonglei State’s Legislative Assembly. It wasn’t a particularly powerful post. But he lost. And having lost, his best chance for a share of access to local contracts, patronage jobs and other rents was abruptly closed.

At that point, David Yau Yau had a decision to make.

Yau Yau wasn’t even a unifying figure among the Murle. But he was charismatic enough that he could muster a few hundred Murle kids from in and around Pibor with the promise of cattle. Using links with Khartoum, he got them guns and persuaded them to go shoot up some near-by Nuer villages. Certainly, he had no prospect of overthrowing the government in Juba, nor any intention to try.

If SPLA was even minimally competently run, it could’ve disposed of his matchbook rebellion in a weekend.

But the army is a basket case. If your tribal roots are strong enough, and you find a foreign partner willing to supply a stream of ammo, you don’t even need all that many soldiers to sustain a rebellion that maybe can’t win, but can’t be defeated either. In the meantime, it can create plenty of chaos, and chaos is leverage.

So how did that work out for him?

The clue is in that photo. If David Yau Yau is suddenly getting to mug for pictures with Norwegian Christian Democrats it’s because the government threw in the towel. Facing the much bigger challenge from Riek Machar, the government decided to cut a deal with him.

Earlier this month, David Yau Yau was appointed “governor” of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area in return for calling off his rebellion. In effect, the National Government handed him the keys to the area he’s been terrorizing for years.

So Yau Yau drove down to Juba – he reportedly refuses to board a helicopter – to work out the details and get his picture taken with the grandees.

And that’s when Hilde Johnson committed the unforgivable rookie gaffe of smiling through her Warlord photo op – a gesture her murdered peacekeepers’ relatives back in India will doubtlessly have found charming.

Considering the kind of unreconstructed, blood-soaked thug David Yau Yau is, it’s not easy to suppress your gag reflex as you consider his rehabilitation.

But if you look it analytically, you start to see how beautifully it illustrates North’s description of elite settlements and how they work to establish order in societies on the edge of violence.

Because, really, what choice did the South Sudanese government have? The real solution should’ve been to defeat him militarily, but if there’s one thing Yau Yau’s rebellion made clear is that SPLA couldn’t do that. Yau Yau wasn’t just threatening open-ended chaos in Pibor County, he was delivering open-ended chaos in Pibor County.

You don’t reach a political settlement with a guy like David Yau Yau because you want to. You do it because you have to, because the only other alternative is a never-ending cycle of blood. You give him power over Pibor not so he’ll deliver good government, but so he’ll keep himself busy stealing from the public purse rather than torching villages.

It’s in this sense – this simple, primordial sense – that corruption acts a mechanism to limit violence. It sure ain’t pretty. You do it because you have to do it. And so, a Limited Access Order is born.

To be clear, David Yau Yau has certainly never heard of Douglass North. But he knows what it takes to turn the barrel of a gun into a constant stream of rents. And that’s all it takes.

Time to Let Go of “Corruption”

Given his stature, it’s a little disappointing that Douglass North’s recent work, along with John Wallis and Barry Weingast, on “Limited Access Orders” hasn’t had more of an impact on the development world. Probably, a lot of mistakes would be avoided if practitioners took the time to really digest the lessons there.

For one thing, we’d have a more nuanced, less moralistic, more realistic understanding of corruption, or to put it in language North would recognize, the role personalized exchange plays in maintaining political order in developing countries.

The Limited Access Order approach is nothing if not ambitious. In a single, slim volume, North and his collaborators put forward the kind of Grand Theory of History more usually associated with multi-volume 19th-century door-stoppers. Writing well into his 80s, North seems to have been in no mood to write about anything short of everything.

A taste:

Systematic consideration of violence, and the role it plays in shaping societies, is fundamental to the problem of economic, political, and social development. All societies possess institutions, organizations, and beliefs that enable them to deal with violence with varying degrees of success. These social structures embody a fundamental logic, captured in the concept of a social order. Standard development advice fails all too frequently because it conflicts with the social logic that maintains order.

It’s not really possible to conceive of a brush broader than that, and yet I think there would be a lot less confusion and wasted effort in the development enterprise if practitioners would just take the effort to grasp even just that much.

For North, the vast majority of societies for the vast majority of human history have been Limited Access Orders: systems that keep violence at bay by limiting competition – both political and economic – while allowing elites to carve up the rents between them.

This, when you think about it, isn’t actually a controversial point at all: until 250 years ago or so, no settled society had operated in any other way. And, in North’s view, it’s how most of the world still operates today.

Both in historical and comparative perspective, “Open Access Orders” that limit rent-seeking while allowing open political and economic competition are the exception, not the rule. In the context of an Open Access Order, working to limit competition and extract rents is deviant behaviour. Criminal behaviour. Behaviour so reprehensible we describe it with a word that doubles as a moral judgment.

It’s corruption, plain and simple. In societies organized around the principles of Open Access, it’s intolerable.

But, of course, in the 17th century, nobody thought of Europe’s extractive elite as “corrupt.” When, as Braudel meticulously documents, French manufacturing guilds went to extreme lengths to prohibit technological innovation and colluded to limit entry into the textile sector, nobody thought of them as corrupt.

In the context of a Limited Access Order, leveraging personal contacts into political power for the purpose of limiting competition and extracting rents isn’t deviant. It’s how things work. It’s the way society preserves order.

What’s peculiar about the situation in today’s Least Developed Countries is that donor countries have exported the category of “corrupt” to describe behaviours that are deviant in the donor countries, but essential to preserving political order and preventing generalized violence in the recipient countries.

Of course, this doesn’t make LDC elites any less extractive: it just means that their extractiveness happens in a legitimacy vacuum. Politicians in today’s LDCs grasp realities about the nature of politics in their countries that seem nearly impossible for observers in Washington or Geneva to grasp – but that decision-makers in Beijing understand instinctively. They grasp the role rent-seeking plays in maintaining the viability of the basic political settlement. They grasp that, given the economic and social structures of their society, the alternative to rent-seeking isn’t squeaky-clean technocracy but generalized chaos.

They grasp, in other words, the progressive potential of corruption, its role in strategies of state formation that offer some kind of reprieve from generalized violence and some sort of potential for stability and growth.

You can see why development practitioners have a hard time taking on this kind of message: the kind of hard-bitten realism baked into North’s late work on social orders might run with the grain of African Power and Politics, but it runs directly against the grain of the narratives that dominate Western development discourses.

It’s a hard sell, back when you’re writing that grant proposal back in Brussels, or Ottawa: “yes, we’ll be working with a completely corrupt government, but that’s inevitable, and actually it could be a feature, not a bug.”

You’re way out beyond the development Overton Window there, out on your own. And when you’re that far out at sea, Douglass North probably can’t help you.

East Africa, Minus the BS

How often do you come across an Think Tank report that doubles up as a genuine page-turner? Doubt such a thing even exists? Well, I’m here to tell you East African Prospects by ODI’s David Booth, Brian Cooksey, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi and Karuti Kanyinga is that report.

Shockingly readable, unendingly quotable, and deeply entertaining, it’s a kind of weary Hobbesian counterpart to the standard, pollyannaish hogwash that dominates so much think tank writing about aid.

Starting from Douglass North’s analysis of Limited Access Orders, David Booth and his collaborators pick apart the political economy of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda with rare clarity and insight.

There’s a frankness to the writing that’s like a balm. Take this bit of straight talk from the introduction:

Comparative history suggests that, as a group, the EAC countries will retain for some time yet most of the features of what North et al. (2009; 2013) call a limited access order (LAO). That is to say, the political and economic power of elite groups will remain closely entwined. Markets will not be highly competitive or inclusive. Capitalism will begin to take hold but in the form of ‘crony capitalism’ in which non-market relationships play a crucial role. The generation and allocation of economic rents will play an important role in limiting political violence and maintaining the fundamental agreements underlying the rules of a patronage-based political game. This will limit the use of rents to finance the learning processes and provide the market coordination required to turn fast economic growth into real economic transformation. It will also prevent politics and policy-making from becoming primarily a battle of ideas based on contending programmes or ideologies.

The feeling you’re left with is that a grizzled old East Africa hand, somebody who’s been around the block two dozen times and knows exactly how things go down, has decided to take you under his wing and is giving you the straight dope over beers.

What Booth and his colleagues have done is turn the Gates Foundation’s formulation on its head: rather than Impatient Optimists, what we have here is the Patient Pessimists’ view.

Booth et al. are pessimists, but not fatalists. It’s an important distinction to grasp. The work of dispelling the facile fantasies of the Gates/Sachs set is the first step in their journey, not the final word. If they lay some unpleasant realities squarely on the table it’s so you’ll have a clearer grasp of what is achievable, how, and on what time-scale. The realities are somewhat sobering, but sobriety seems like a much needed corrective to the cycle of over-promising and under-delivering that so much of the aid world seems stuck in.

For now, I’ll make it easy on you: if you’re even a little bit interested in the region, you have to read it. The good news is, it’s great fun to read.