No, the West should not have governed South Sudan

In light of the ongoing civil war in South Sudan, Chris Blattman posed the question of whether the West should have governed South Sudan. My simple answer is that neotrusteeship would not have helped much with regard to long-term institutional stability in South Sudan, for the following reasons:

  • Neotrusteeship would still entail the same logic of old-style colonialism, only with a shorter time horizon. Whichever entity was designated as the ruler of Sudan – be it the UN, the State Department or the Foreign Office – would be working on a fixed timeline, with an exit strategy in mind. As Fearon and Laitin (gated) aptly noted: “In sharp contrast to classical imperialists, neotrustees want to withdraw as fast as possible. References to “exit strategy” have led the policy discourse and debate surrounding international and U.S. operations in the Balkans, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and now Iraq.” Assuming that South Sudanese elite are rational, they would play the game, if forced to, and bid their time until the overlords left and then they would get down to the business of settling their grievances. The building of institutions, unlike learning a language or programing, is not something that you are taught and then left on your own to practice. Institutions only work if they reflect the de facto balance of power, something that trusteeship would necessarily not provide. And what would be the time horizon? How long would it take to build good institutions? As Fearon and Laitin note, “….due to the sources of the civil wars that lead to collapsed states, successful exit from neotrusteeship will be extremely difficult in most cases. We have stressed the need to develop local tax-collecting capability as an incentive to move the country from international welfare toward self-governance and, in some cases, the notion of transfer not to full sovereignty but rather as a state embedded in and monitored by international institutions.” 
  • The proposed exit strategy would probably be elections. Such elections would most likely favor those that played the game well under neotrusteeship, possibly the favored choice of the Western administrators [to pay back Western tax dollars, time and connections, etc with contracts and influence in the post-trusteeship era]. But this is not the way to do it. Electoral democracy would then necessarily be used by disgruntled elites who were not given a seat at the table to correct the ills of the era of neotrusteeship. Depending on the outcomes, failure at the ballot would probably lead to armed conflict.
  • Also, the period 1952-1957 was not a benelovent neotrusteeship but the last mile of British Colonialism in Ghana. I would have liked to hear more discussion of post-1957 Ghana by Pascal Zachary and how it is a good lesson on the virtues of neotrusteeship. Are we to forget what Nkrumah did right after ascending to the Political Kingdom and all that happened in Ghana between 1957 and 1981 when Jerry Rawlings finally brought order to the political process with an iron fist?
  • Lastly, a Western-run neotrusteeship would fly in the face of current IR norms and the structural reality of the present international system. I think the myth of the benevolent disinterested Western institution-builder [known in an earlier time as a civilizer] should be put to rest. China and Russia [and probably the African Union] would oppose such a move and work to make it fail. So even if it were workable in theory, something that I highly doubt, reality would render the point moot.

In my view the talk about neotrusteeship as the solution to weak state institutions is an attempt to avoid the ugly face of the state-building process. No one likes paying taxes to another dude who uses it to buy a private jet. Throughout human history states have been imposed on people against their will, most of the time with force. The challenge in South Sudan is not that the leaders had not learned how to govern efficiently, and therefore all we need to do is train them for a few years, but rather that Kir did not have the capacity and full control over the army to credibly deter Machar and his allies from attempting to take power by force.

Put differently, state-building is not value-neutral because it requires the threat or actual use of force, which implies the taking of sides. The logics of local insatiability and time inconsistent preferences dictate that chaps will always want to reorganize existing institutional arrangements. The only thing that prevents them from doing so – from Denmark to CAR – is the difference in the costs of doing so. Even in democracies, people are restricted on how often they can throw out their elected leaders, with a credible threat of the use of force in place to make sure that people obey and accept the outcome of elections [PLEASE read Terry Moe on power and political institutions]. Democratic state-building (the means most preferred on account of our 21st century sensibilities) in the context of weak or severely truncated coercive capacity is very hard.

Seen this way, neotrusteeship can only be useful in the short-term to prevent mass atrocities, the creation of safe heavens for transnational terror networks, and provide an environment for a less violent process of institutional development. But it certainly cannot generate the state institutions required for long-term political stability.

I definitely appreciate the need for international assistance in the process of building institutions in young states. But with regard to strategies of long-term state-building I tend to lean more toward Jeremy Weinstein’s idea of “autonomous recovery” which stresses the need to identity and understand

 “internal processes of change that give rise to successful state-building, the conditions under which these internal mechanisms are likely to work, and the lessons international actors can draw from autonomous recovery for efforts to bring conflict to an end. Although it may be difficult to accept, one of the key lessons is that sometimes it makes sense not to intervene, or to intervene actively on behalf of one side.

To echo Weinstein:

……….. The durable resolution of the world’s civil wars will depend to a large degree on how  quickly international actors incorporate the lessons of history into current strategies. To reconstitute states with governments capable of projecting power, the international community must be prepared to identify and recognize legitimate and effective governance (in whatever form it takes). And if the political change that war produces is to survive the end of the fighting, international actors must develop new approaches to both support and constrain the winners as they consolidate power in the aftermath of conflict.

Governing on the cheap in Africa

What is striking and surprising here is just how easy it can be to take over some African states, or large parts of them.  The post-independence historical record provides numerous examples where dozens or a few hundred armed men have done it.  This is generally just assumed to be the way things are in Africa, but when you think about it it is actually really puzzling.  Being the president in African countries (and many others besides) can be an incredibly lucrative deal.  Why don’t these rulers, in their own self-interest, take some of that money and use it to build crack units, presidential guards, or strong and loyal army divisions that would protect their hold on power against two dozen putchists, or a hundred or a couple thousand rebels armed with rifles and maybe some mortars?

I don’t think we have really good explanations for this in the relevant Pol Sci literatures.  Maybe the most promising hypothesis is that African presidents are so afraid of coups and attacks from inside their regime that they don’t want to support the construction of any organization that would be competent at using force.  Keeping the military weak  may lower their coup risk somewhat, but effectively trades coup risk off against higher risks of rural rebellion, insurgency, and foreign depredations such as we are seeing in Eastern Congo.

That is Jim Fearon writing over at Monkey Cage. More on this here.

Jim’s concern extends beyond security matters. Much of Africa remains under-governed in other regards as well – tax collection, garbage collection, provision of public goods like water and sanitation, roads, etc etc.

One key driver of this phenomenon, I believe, is the manner in which sectional elites (and those that they purportedly represent) are incorporated into the national system.

You see, many African national governments tend to have a president surrounded by a coalition of ethnic/sectional elites representing specific geographic regions or communities. This sort of incorporation of elites and the regions/social groups that they represent allows African central governments to govern on the cheap since as long as ethnic chief from region X can bring his people and sort of make them feel represented in the centre then the government has no reason to establish a strong presence in the chief’s homeland region (unless that region is economically viable).

A keen observer may ask why co-ethnics of these “ethnic chiefs” never demand for more from their supposed representatives at the centre.

The answer lies in the nature of citizenship in most of Africa. In many countries citizenship (and the associated claims on the state) tends to be mediated through one’s ethnic group. Talk of “our people” is common across much of the region. Even educated people have internalized the fact that you can only get jobs if a co-ethnic is in a high position in government. Everyone therefore invests in having a powerful ethnic representative at the centre that can effectively bargain with whoever is president (or in the core of the governing coalition) to get enough jobs for the boys and girls from back home.

But having such a person obviates the need for the central government to establish its presence at the local level since it is much cheaper to give the ethnic chief his own fiefdom in the name of a cabinet ministry. Barriers to entry allow for very long tenures for these ethnic chiefs thus breeding incompetence of the worst possible kind – like the case of Kenyan police officers accepting bribes from al-Shabab operatives to allow for passage of explosives destined for Nairobi.

From the president’s/government’s perspective, all you have to do to prevent an all out rebellion is be on good terms with enough of these ethnic chiefs or make it beneficial for them to live under your rule.

Seen this way, under-government is not just for the sake of coup-proofing but also an unintended consequence of the manner in which the masses and their representative elites are incorporated into the national government/state.

The best book out there that I have read on this subject is Catherine Boone’s Political Topographies of the African State. Boone is best read with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa, although Herbst’s conclusions are too deterministic for my liking.