State-building and local autonomy in South Sudan

African Arguments recently wrote about the semi-autonomous form of government granted to the Murle ethnic group in South Sudan, under the leadership of former rebel commander David Yau Yau.  It’s an interesting meditation on the micro-politics of state-building:

The ‘Murle secession’, although it is not always termed as such, is problematic from a state’s perspective because it implies the existence of a challenge to the dominion of South Sudan. So why and how did Yau Yau succeed in obtaining the sort of concessions that others failed to acquire?

A definitive answer is hard to come by, although several conjectures may be made: First, geographic concentration of the Murle is likely to have influenced and reinforced their separatist stance vis-à-vis the rest of South Sudan. Furthermore, the moment may have been opportune – given southern Jonglei’s strategic geographic location as a buffer between the Nuer-controlled Greater Upper Nile and the Equatorias, alienating the Murle on the advent of the newest civil war may have been perceived by the [goverment of South Sudan] as a bad idea…

As Yau Yau engages with communities within [the autonomous area] and transforms his militant group into an acceptable political entity, he has focused, sometimes by choice and often out of compulsion, on social welfare, economic development and building sustainable security arrangements. Schools have been renovated, agricultural activities restarted and health facilities re-introduced for the first time in a long time.

In September 2014, Yau Yau appointed seven commissioners, followed by additional ministerial appointments in December to kick-start local governance institution building. A selection process for the [regional] council is underway and Pibor town has emerged as the de facto center. As of November 2014, local authorities have also started implementing fiscal policies to compensate for budgetary shortfall, and Yau Yau’s group have begun levying taxes on traded commodities and goods being moved in or out of the area.

It will be very interesting to see if this leads to better development outcomes for the Murle, or if the area ends up drawn back into future conflicts.

Rural Uganda photos

A few favorites from outside Kampala.  As always, the rest are on Flickr.

IMG_8736Hills outside of Kabale.  Not the highest resolution photo, taken from a moving bus with an old iPhone, but I rather liked the way the blocks of color make it look like an oil painting

IMG_8781Nshongi Camp, Rushaga.  Also something rather Rembrandt-like about a banda lit by an oil lamp.

IMG_8934Gorgeous papyrus fields outside Rushaga

Does precolonial political centralization matter in Africa?

7-KumasiKumasi in the late 19th century, from Encyclopaedia Britannica

For a long time, Northern scholars of Africa used to write about the continent as though the colonial period was the beginning of history.  Jean-François Bayart famously argued against this, but even after his book appeared well-known authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young made the case that colonization changed everything in Africa.

More recently, however, Northern researchers have started to take precolonial politics seriously again.  I was thinking about this recently when Tanu Kumar sent me a link to this working paper by Mark Dincecco, James Fenske, and Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato.  They argue that precolonial warfare in Africa led to greater levels of political centralization, but is also associated with higher rates of civil war today.  Since civil war is generally bad for state capacity and development outcomes, this suggests that more centralized states in the precolonial era should be less developed today.

How does this argument hold up?  Jacob Hariri suggests that stronger precolonial states outside Europe tended to resist the spread of European institutions which could promote democracy and economic growth, leading to lower income levels and higher rates of autocracy today.  However, a number of other authors find that precolonial centralization in Africa is actually good for development.  Nicola Gennaioli & Ilia Rainer and Stelios Michalopoulous & Elias Papaioannou all find higher rates of local public goods provision in places that had strong precolonial states.  The mechanism here is presumably that strong states are able to solve coordination problems and engage in more economic activity.  Philip Osafo-Kwaako & James Robinson also find that stronger precolonial states lead to better development outcomes today, although they argue that centralization wasn’t driven by warfare like Dincecco, Fenske and Onorato suggest.

It’s a really interesting literature, and I think it would be even stronger with more of a focus on mechanisms, and more explanatory case studies.  If you look at subnational examples within Ghana and Uganda, you do tend to see stronger economic growth in the southern parts of those countries where precolonial polities were strongest (the Asante and Buganda kingdoms, respectively).  But does this mean that the kingdoms were solving coordination problems somehow, or that centralized states simply arose where the economic prospects were better in the first place?  Similarly, the link between precolonial centralization and contemporary civil war isn’t very intuitive to me.  Civil war is badly overdetermined in Africa, in that most countries fit the criteria (poverty and weak institutions) that are thought to increase civil war risk.  Academics still don’t seem to have a good model of why war happens when and where it does, rather than looking at aggregate risk factors, and I think until we understand more about the specificity of civil war it’s hard to know how to add precolonial centralization into the equation.

Kabila reevaluates his plans

Africa Confidential has a good update on Kabila’s latest machinations to stay in power. There’s a lot of speculation that the protests over Blaise Campaore’s plans to stay in office had led Kabila to reconsider his proposed constitutional modification to give himself a third term.  But, as any good strongman knows, there are many ways to stay in power, and he’s clearly brainstorming other ones.  From the AC piece:

Speculation is rising that the probable postponement of local elections due in June and October is part of a plan by President Joseph Kabila to put off next year’s presidential election. … The government says it wants to ensure the reliability of the electoral register by conducting a national census first. The opposition fears that the real goal of the exercise, which would be difficult and controversial, is to delay both local and national elections. …

Kabila is planning not only to coopt [the opposition by offering them top political positions] but to confront. Last September, he appointed his favourite trouble-shooter, Major General Gabriel Amisi Kumba (aka Tango-Four), a notorious former militia leader, as operational commander of the Western Defence Area, which just happens to include the provinces where Kabila’s 2011 presidential vote was lowest (AC Vol 55 No 19, Kabila for ever). …  The new Defence Minister appointed in December, Aimé Ngoy Mukena, is a former Governor of Katanga whom the think-tank International Crisis Group held responsible for sponsoring militias which are creating havoc in North Katanga.

Book recommendations: war and the state in Africa

I’m in the midst of preparing for my first comprehensive exam in African studies, which has been a wonderful opportunity to delve into all the unread Africana on my bookshelves.  Three books in particular have stood out to me as uniquely insightful.

  • Warfare in African History, by Richard Reid.  A concise (180 pages) and engrossing look at changes in the technology of warfare and patterns of African state formation from roughly 500 CE onwards.  Read it along with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa.  Herbst makes a series of good points about the way that exerting authority over clearly bounded territories was not generally the focus of precolonial African states, but Reid’s work is a valuable reminder that centralized polities with complex military organizations also arose when social and environmental conditions permitted.  Another good book in the same Cambridge series on “new approaches to African history” is Will Reno’s Warfare in Independent Africa.
  • Political Topographies of the African State, by Cathy Boone.  This has been out for more than a decade, and I have no idea why I haven’t seen it recommended more often, because it’s a fascinating piece of theorizing on the relationship between states and rural elites in west Africa.  I read this in the context of the debate about the nature of the colonial state, which (in a stylized way) ranges from Jean-François Bayart’s depiction of a state that was undermined and instrumentalized by traditional leaders, to Mahmood Mamdani’s description of states that captured and manipulated rural power brokers to their own ends.  Boone’s work cuts through this argument by pointing out that the nature of colonial states’ interactions with traditional leaders depended on the strength of those leaders as well as the overall governance strategies pursued by the state.  Even within a single country, colonial and post-colonial officials often dealt with rural elites in different ways.  Some were empowered by the state and granted substantial revenue streams from it, while others (particularly those with independent sources of funding) were undermined, and others were ignored entirely.  Boone’s major contribution is not just pointing out this variation, but establishing a compelling theoretical framework to explain why such variation is observed.  Between this book and Property and Political Order in Africa (which I wrote about here), she’s one of the most innovative American researchers in African politics today.
  • Violence and Social Orders, by Douglass North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast.  Also not a new recommendation, having come out in 2009, but I’ve read a number of books about statebuilding and was particularly impressed by this one.  I am often not convinced by simplification in the name of theory, but in this particular case the sweeping set of generalizations they make in dividing contemporary polities into “natural states” and “open access orders” really rang true for me.  It’s an analytical framework that seems to capture the fundamental growth challenges faced by states as otherwise disparate as medieval France, the Congo in 1965, and contemporary Cambodia (just to pick a few cases I’ve been mulling over recently).  It’s also refreshingly positive rather than normative, pointing out the sheer unlikelihood of establishing secure and equitable systems of property rights rather than faulting countries that haven’t been able to do so.  Probably my new recommendation when someone asks me why some countries are rich and others poor.

For what it’s worth, all three of these books were published by Cambridge.  I’ll be keeping a closer eye on their publication catalogue from now on.

Kampala photos

Some of my favorites from my recent trip to Kampala.  Check out the rest on Flickr.

IMG_8615Moving women’s education forward at Makerere University

IMG_8600Gorgeous barkcloth at the National Museum

IMG_8645Nile Special is the true reward

Great survey software from Surveybe

A few months ago, Steven Broadbent kindly gave me a demonstration of Surveybe after seeing my earlier post on survey softwares for mixed method research.  There were a number of features that I found quite useful.  Among the highlights:

  • The household roster section is designed for panel data.  After a roster is created at baseline, names can still be edited and additional family members added during the follow-up.  It’s also easy to enable or disable labor and education options based on household members’ ages.
  • Questions can have photos displayed alongside them.  My favorite part!  In the sample survey, photos were used to clarify measures or definitions.  For instance, the photo below is of a “medium-sized” bunch of bananas.  This is ideal for agricultural surveys, where production is often measured by volume instead of weight.  I imagine it would also be useful for health surveys (“what did that rash look like?”).  I would have really liked this feature for the survey where I had a number of detailed conversations about which types of toilets in Kinshasa counted as “improved” – simply showing people a photo of the qualifying toilets would have been much faster.


  • Support for multiple languages.  Surveybe can handle non-Latin scripts, and can easily switch between instruments in different languages.
  • Cool export features.  Data can be exported in Stata, SPSS or CSV formats.  If you’ve ever gone through multiple versions of a questionnaire trying to match variable q3_a4 to its original question, Surveybe fixes this by providing options to export question text directly to Stata.  You can also set variable names within Surveybe, and they’ll remain the same even if you later change the order of the questions.  (I only asked about Stata, since that’s what I use, but I assume this is also true for SPSS.)
  • Data security.  Exported data is automatically encrypted and can only be unencrypted by the Surveybe file manager.  This sounds particularly attractive after the demise of TrueCrypt sent everyone scrambling to re-encrypt raw survey data.

Surveybe does appear to require slightly more programming competence than KoBoToolbox, particularly a minimal familiarity with SQL.  Unlike most of the softwares I mentioned in my other post, it runs on Windows.  There do seem to be a number of good options for Windows tablets available, and they’re comparable in price to Android tablets, which I know is a consideration for many people who end up choosing ODK-based survey softwares.  While I don’t personally have plans for large-N data collection for my thesis at the moment, Surveybe will definitely be high on my list if I end up managing this type of project in the future.