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.