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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.

10 thoughts on “Why Warlords Fight: The David Yau Yau Story”

  1. Good post! I learned a lot from it.

    I wonder, though, if the settlement with Yau Yau qualifies as corruption? As Mao once tweeted, “Political power flows from the barrel of a gun”, and politics differs from ethics. Some quotes from Macchiavelli could be added here, too, if I thought you didn’t already know them.

    In any society, prosecution of evil doers must be balanced against the damage they could do to social peace, institutions, etc if they were required to obey the law. That’s what Mandela decided when he set up Truth Commissions rather than prosecutions, and that, in my opinion, is why George Bush wasn’t prosecuted for authorizing torture.

    So, Yau Yau proved that he was too big to fail, and so a deal was struck. Is that really “corruption”?

    1. I wouldn’t call the deal itself corruption. I’d call the orgy of graft he’s 100% certain to engage in once in office corruption.

      But of course I agree, given the blood-soaked alternatives, letting him steal is the lesser of two evils.

    2. Of course it’s corruption. Corruption means rot and this is as rotten as it gets. Corruption is a process, not an act. Somehow I don’t think YauYau’s objective in accepting the governorship was to introduce management by objectives. The kids who die of preventable diseases because he stole the health budget will be just as dead as the ones he shot.

  2. This was a blood-chilling post. It is amazing to come to the point where you need to pick between bloodshed and corruption. The level of cold-headed thinking required for those decision are astonishing.

    1. You’re right of course. I intended for “rookie” qualify the mistake, not the person. I mean, don’t they train you to deadpan your way through these things at U.N. School?

  3. I think maybe Mr. Yau Yau told her that if she didn’t smile, the deal was off. Her personal (corrupted) smile has ensured peace!

  4. I actually think this rebellion was quite different than most of the other tiny wars, especially in South Sudan. Less about corruption and rent, and actually, maybe more about marginalization and ethnic based brutality. Your blog oversimplifies by omitting some significant facts, particularly the rationale for the SSDM/A Cobra (ie, David Yau Yau) rebellion in 2012. You simply jump from 2010’s election related rebellion to the present rebellion – and these are actually two distinct events, with difference causes, etc. DYY accepted ‘amnesty’ in 2011, took a big army position, some cash, came to Juba and behaved like a good boy. However, he rebelled again in 2012, did not accept amnesty or cash; and you fail to mention why.
    The reason for 2012 rebellion: DYY went ‘back to the bush’ because Pibor and the Murle were basically under siege, as the SPLA raped and pillaged and murdered their way through the country-side under the pretense of ‘disarmament’ – primarily under the authority of the state governor (now national MoD). Thousands were displaced by this event. Young men fled from the towns, to the cattle camps. DYY was able to harness these thousands of angry youth who had been run from their homes by the SPLA. The rebellion was led by DYY but in a sense caused by the violence of the SPLA against the civilians in Pibor County. It could have been avoided.
    DYY didn’t rebel simply because he could: there were legitimate Murle-wide grievances that extend well beyond the desire for cash and positions. This rebellion is different than the many other ‘opportunist/warlord cash grabs’ in South Sudan, because the trigger was a sustained campaign by the SPLA against civilians; and because the ‘ask’ of the Cobra Faction was not money and power (or they would have accepted amnesty and high ranks in 2013/2014, but did not), but substantively: separation from the ruling powers of Jonglei State (ie, the Dinka Bor). You also fail to note that DYY refused to accept amnesty in 2013/2014. Why? Amnesty means everyone forgives and forgets, and gets rich for being good boys. The Murle/DYY didn’t want to forgive, be forgiven, or forget; nor did they believe they were criminals. They wanted a political solution to the Jonglei problem, which is: coexistence between Dinka and Murle and Nuer is impossible as evidenced by the yearly cycle of inter-communal conflict, and more specifically, the abuse of power against the minority tribes (ie, Murle) and concentration of state power by one community (ie Dinka). This is why they were fighting, and why they did not accept cash and rewards for amnesty.
    You also unfortunately paint a one sided picture to the terror caused by the Murle and you lump all the blame on DYY as a military movement. Well, it’s more complicated that that. Yes, atrocities (bad ones!) were committed by Murle youth against Nuer (and sometimes Dinka), and indeed, some or many or most would have been affiliated with the DYY rebellion. Was this a result of DYY command? Was it part of a military strategy against the state? Or was it related to inter-communal conflict with the Nuer? Or both? These things are blurred in this context. Recall that: the Nuer, armed by the SPLA on numerous occasions (somehow government proxies), occupied most of Pibor County for weeks in late 2011/early 2012, and again in July 2013, and killed thousands of civilians too, stole perhaps 100’s of 1000’s of cattle, and burned scores of villages.
    Also, the article’s you cite to support your blog here are really poor, and inaccurately reflect facts (ie, DYY had not been named a ‘governor’, and as yet has not been, and it could be someone else, and its actually a “Chief Administrator”).
    Anyway, DYY is no angel, but I think the origins and outcomes of that particular rebellion are qualitatively different than your story suggests, and have to do with evidenced brutality and marginalization of a particular community. You left out most of the key rationale for the conflict.

    1. One of the perils of blogging is that there’ll *ALWAYS* be a reader who knows much more about the detail than you do. Thank you, Todd! Guest post?

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