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.

Recent articles on conflict

Here’s a handful of interesting articles & books that have passed through my huge pile of unsorted PDFs neatly tagged Evernote notebooks recently.  I’ve included links to ungated versions when available; please let me know if you have access to a free version of any of the gated texts.

  • Danielle Beswick on the paradoxes of military capacity building in Rwanda (published version appears to be available for free right now).  Nothing new here if you’ve been watching Rwanda and M23 for a while, but the focus on the risks of a strong military is a useful addition to policy discussions of security sector reform.
  • I haven’t read Severine Autesserre’s Peaceland yet, but it’s high on my list.  Another article covering similar territory to Autesserre’s last book is Jens Stilhoff Sörensen’s piece on the failure of statebuilding.  Key quote: “In its aim to secure, I argue, contemporary state-building and global liberal governance contribute to social and spatial fragmentation in different forms, rather than reconciliation and re-integration.They do so by dismantling previously existing frameworks and introducing market relations where the state has few instruments for attracting cross-sectarian loyalty” (p. 49).
  • Michael Gilligan et al. on how conflict affects social cohesion at the community level in Nepal.  Key point: “We find that violence-affected communities exhibit higher levels of prosocial motivation… We find evidence to support two social transformation mechanisms: (1) a purging mechanism by which less social persons disproportionately flee communities plagued by war and (2) a collective coping mechanism by which individuals who have few options to flee band together to cope with threats” (p. 604)

What explains peace?

In case you missed it, Jon Temin had a great article at Foreign Policy last month asking a critically important question: “Why don’t the policymakers and practitioners looking to end the world’s deadliest wars spend more time studying peace?”  This could mean peace at the country level (he compares Niger’s peaceful relationship with its Tuareg minority to the fraught relationship in neighboring Mali), or within a single country (as shown by the surprising stability of the state of Western Equatoria in South Sudan).  At an even more granular level of analysis, one could look at the case of Butembo – a Congolese city which has remained fairly insulated from conflict despite its location in restive North Kivu province.  But the question in any case is the same: why do some places fall into conflict, while others with similar characteristics manage to avoid it?

There’s a large body of literature in political science looking at cases where civil wars have occurred, but much less looking at war’s absence.  Based on my reading of the conflict literature, here are three factors that the study of peace might start exploring.  (Update, 14 July: read the comments, they’re quite good.  I’ve also added a fourth item here based on feedback from Digitaldjeli.)

  • Regional conflict complexes.  Peter Wallensteen (PDF), Idean Salehyan & Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (PDF), and many others have pointed out that many civil wars are not sui generis, but are linked to conflicts in neighboring countries, often through the mechanisms of refugee movements and state support for armed groups next door.  The canonical example is the way that conflicts in Rwanda have spilled over into and exacerbated conflicts in neighboring DRC.  The obvious question here is why some refugee host countries get drawn into the wars of their neighbors, while others (like Ghana, which hosts a number of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire) manage to avoid this.
  • Ideological collective action.  In The Order of Genocide, Scott Straus finds that Rwandan provinces with administrators who belonged to the ruling MRND party acted quickly to start carrying out genocidal killings after the order came down from Kigali, while administrators who belonged to the opposition were sometimes able to delay the start of violence in their area.  The tactics they employed to do this included organizing self-defense militias for vulnerable communities, threatening to punish people who carried out genocidal attacks, and dispersing groups of men who gathered to start hunting victims.  This, of course, touches on the age-old question: why do some groups of people espouse violent ideologies, while others in the same society do not?  And to what degree are peaceful places peaceful because citizens actively worked for peace, as opposed to simply not having the right preconditions for war?
  • Land tenure policies.  Cathy Boone’s recent book Property and Political Order in Africa argues that places where land tenure rights are assigned by the state are more likely to see both violent and non-violent conflicts scale up to become quarrels with the central government.  By comparison, in places where land tenure is administered by tribal leaders or other local groups, conflicts over land tend to stay “bottled up” at the local level, and are less likely to become national political issues.  Boone stops well short of making the claim that systems of land tenure can explain the prevalence of civil war, but I think there are some ideas here that are worth digging into more deeply.  For example, the highly politicized process by which the state granted land use rights in the Kenyan highlands has created lasting and sometimes violent grievances there, while the politicized process of agricultural collectivization in neighboring Tanzania hasn’t led to large-scale violence (as far as I know).  What mitigated against the violent resolution of land access disputes in Tanzania?  And more generally, are places with tribal or other local systems of land allocation less likely to have civil wars?  This would be an interesting counterpoint to the idea that “tribalism” lies behind many conflicts.
  • Stationary bandits.  Digitaldjeli’s point was that “peace” in Butembo looks more like a protection racket, but the idea that protection rackets can grow into (peaceful, Westphalian) states is actually a classic in the American political science literature.  Mancur Olson (PDF) builds on work by people like Charles Tilly (PDF) to argue that the type of mafioso running the racket matters – “stationary bandits” will protect the people and territory under their control so they can continue to tax them in the long run, while “roving bandits” will steal everything they can from people in the short run, and offer no protection.  Put differently, decisions by political elites can matter a lot for the types of violence that occur within a state.  The million dollar question is why some elites are able to look past the short term gains of roving banditry and decide to make longer term investments in protecting their territory.

At this point I’m actually coming up against the precise problem that Temin highlights: the region I’ve studied most thoroughly, central Africa, is comprised exclusively of countries that have had civil wars, and I’m running out of non-war cases to use for comparison.  What other hypotheses or case studies can you think of that might explain instances of peace in regions seemingly predisposed to war?

Rift Valley Institute courses still accepting applications


The Rift Valley Institute’s summer courses on the Horn of Africa, the Sudans, and the Great Lakes region are starting very soon, but according to their Twitter feed applications are still being accepted.   I’d recommend the courses for anyone who is interested in these regions.  I took the Great Lakes course in 2012, and was very impressed by the group of scholars, journalists and human rights activists from within the region and beyond who led it.

Here are the dates and syllabus (PDF) for each course.

  • Horn of Africa: Nairobi, 31 May – 7 June. Syllabus
  • Sudan & South Sudan: Nairobi, 14 – 20 June.  Syllabus
  • Great Lakes: Bujumbura, 28 June – 5 July.  Syllabus