Why Didn’t the Tiv have a State?
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

The lesson we learned from the Lebanese case is a general one. Here is a seemingly unlikely case, which we would argue is very similar.

The Tiv are a pre-colonial society of Southeastern Nigeria. You can see Tivland on the next map.

The Tiv were a stateless society but lived in villages of extended kin. The next photograph illustrates how these villages looked like from the mid-1940s onwards when the anthropologists Paul and Laura Bohannan studied them.

There are many interesting things to say about the Tiv but here we make only one point building on Paul Bohannan’s 1958 paper “Extra-Processual Events in Tiv Political Institutions”.

During the summer of 1939 the colonial government and most social and economic activity came to a standstill in Tivland because of a cult called Nyambua. At the heart of the cult was a shrine and a man called Kokwa who sold charms to provide protection from mbatsav or “witches”. Tsav means “power”, particularly power over others. A person with tsav (it is a substance that grows on the heart of a person) can make others do what they want and kill them by using the power of fetishes and tsav can be increased by cannibalism.

Bohannan explains this as follows:

A diet of human flesh makes the tsav, and of course the power, grow large. Therefore the most powerful men, no matter how much they are respected or liked, are never fully trusted. They are men of tsav — and who knows?

 The people will tsav belong to an organization — the mbatsav.

Mbatsav has two meanings:

 -   Powerful people (it is the plural of tsav)

 -   A group of witches organized for nefarious purposes (robbing graves to eat the corpses)

Now this is a pretty interesting double meaning. Imagine if in English the word “politicians” simultaneously meant “people who contest for or control political offices” and “A group of witches organized for nefarious purposes (robbing graves to eat the corpses)”!

People initiated into the Nyambua cult were given a leather covered wand and a fly-whisk. The whisk allowed one to smell out “counterfeit” tsav — created by cannibalism. In 1939 the whisks were pointed towards the ‘chiefs’ created by British indirect rule (the Tiv had no chiefs prior to the colonial period and in consequence the British colonial government imposed them from the outside). But historical evidence shows that the roots of these practices ran much deeper. According to Akiga’s Story: The Tiv Tribe as Seen by One of Its Members:

When the land has become spoilt owing to so much senseless murder [by tsav] the Tiv have taken strong measures to overcome the mbatsav. These big movements have taken place over a period extending from the days of the ancestors into modern times.

In essence these religious cults were a way of stopping anybody from becoming too powerful. Bohannan explains this as:

Men who had acquired too much power … were whittled down by means of witchcraft accusations… Nyambua was one of a regular series of movements to which Tiv political action, with its distrust of power, gives rise to that the greater political institutions - the one based on the lineage system and a principle of egalitarianism - can be preserved.

But to have a state someone has to become powerful, start giving orders to others who accept their authority. Witchcraft accusations were therefore not just a method of stopping someone becoming too powerful but simultaneously stopped in its tracks a process that could have culminated in state formation.

Hence the Tiv were a stateless society in the pre-colonial period. To our reading of Tiv history this is a quite similar situation to what we find in modern Lebanon, though obviously Lebanon is not a stateless society. The Tiv feared that if people became too powerful they could not be controlled, and the only solution was to block power accumulation. They did not get as far as institutionalizing a state and then keeping it weak, like in Lebanon, but the mechanisms are very similar.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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