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Why Didn’t the Tiv have a State?

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.


Why Lebanon Has a Very Ineffective State (with thanks to Ishac Diwan and Danyel Reiche)

In our last post we argued that a problem with the approach to state formation pioneered by James Scott is that he takes it for granted that states want to expand and dominate society. It turns out that this is not true in much of the world.

Still in other dimensions we think that he actually undersells his ideas. For instance in the Art of Not Being Governed he states that the analysis is of historical importance mostly and not relevant to the recent past.

Scott rules out the applicability of his ideas to modern times because he does not consider the possibility that people can sometimes politically control the state and its functionaries —a possibility which we will discuss extensively in the next few posts. His main argument is that people mostly resist the state and flee from it because they see it as tyrannical. But what happens if society could control the state? If it could, maybe they could tolerate it, and even under some conditions they would be happy to see it expand. Therefore the governance — the politics — of the state is critical.

This perspective then suggests that we should try to link resistance to the expansion of the state to the inability of the people to control it. This is exactly the lesson one can draw from the Lebanese case.

In Lebanon there is a state but it is very ineffective. The parliament has not voted on a budget for eight years, letting the Cabinet write its own. The country’s lawmakers and politicians took nearly a year to agree on a new government after the prime minister resigned in March 2013. Since the current parliament of 128 lawmakers was elected in June 2009, the lawmakers have met 21 times — an average of 4 times a year. In 2013, lawmakers met only twice and passed two laws. One of them was to extend their mandate for 18 months, pushing back elections. The last time Lebanese parliament ratified the budget set by the government was in 2005. Lawmakers have never met to discuss government policies to deal with the refugee influx from the Syrian civil war that has strained social services including education, health and electricity to their limit.

So the Lebanese legislature and executive is pretty inactive to say the least. But there are deeper problems with the Lebanese state, to get an idea of this have a look at the following picture.

From the picture, it looks like Lebanon at least has a serious army with well-dressed and armed soldiers. But look closer, that flag doesn’t seem to have the cedars of Lebanon on it. What is it? In fact it is the flag of Hezbollah and these soldiers are not the Lebanese national army, they are the army of Hezbollah. So the Lebanese state does not have the most basic characteristic of a state — the monopoly of violence (and perhaps even the monopoly of legitimate violence, since Hezbollah is viewed as legitimate by a significant fraction of the Lebanese population.

Lebanese society is divided into 18 recognized communities, mostly along religious lines, of which the largest are the Sunnis, the Shias, the Druze, the Maronites and the Orthodox Christians. An agreement reached after Lebanon’s independence in 1943 ensures that the president is a Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim. This agreement and the underlying distribution of power in the electoral system is so brittle that Lebanon has not conducted a census since 1932 since learning that the distribution of population between the different communities has changed could destabilize the whole equilibrium. So there is a huge lack of “legibility” in Lebanon because of the politics of state formation.)

The state does not have a monopoly of violence and most communities used to have armed militias, though they are demobilized now except for Hezbollah. Each community taxes its members, but Lebanon itself has no income tax system. There is no national health care plan and no nationwide electricity grid, because each community provides health care and electricity to its members. The nature and politics of all of this is analyzed in the new book by Melani Cammett Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon.

The main point we are emphasizing is that in Lebanon society is well organized and the society does not seem to demand a strong state because it is worried about not being able to control it once this state is in operation. And if in fact people cannot control the state, then it will be constructed and used in ways that are inimical to their interests, just as Scott envisaged it.

At the root of this is the fact that the different Lebanese communities have never been able to agree on an institutional architecture that generates enough consensus to implement a program of state building. Despite the parallels with Scott’s emphasis, politics, largely ignored by Scott, is also key: the demand for a state and the services that it provides is conditional on the governance structures that will be in place. 


The Will to Make Legible

The University of the Andes in Bogotá where James Robinson teaches every summer wants to expand at the moment. In particular just to the north of the campus in downtown Bogotá, about 10 minutes walk for the Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace, is a neighborhood called Triángulo de Fenicia.

The deal that the university proposed is that they would buy up all the properties and then re-house the people living there in new apartment buildings they would construct as part of the campus extension (you can read about the project here.) Looks like a great deal; nearly all of the houses in the Triángulo are poorly constructed.

But then a problem arose. Nobody in the Triángulo actually has a title to their property. The area is an “invasion” — the term commonly used in Colombia for illegal land occupation. This invasion did not happen recentl, but decades ago, but the government, just close by, never managed to get around to sorting titles or property rights out. The Triángulo is not very legible.

Now something else states are supposed to do is to make citizens legible with regular censuses. What could be more basic? The United States has had a census every 10 years since 1790. Britain has had one every 10 years since 1801. Colombia does not have a census in the usual sense of the word because it does not attempt to collect information on all its citizens with a census instrument administered to every household. It does have a substitute for it, which it calls a census and collects every now and then, for example in 1918 after which it took a 20-year break to 1938 (OK there was a census in 1928 but the data were never released…). Then it took a 13-year break and did a “census” in 1951, followed by 1964, then an 11-year break to 1973, a 12-year break to 1985, then an 8-year break to 1993 after which it went back to 12 years (2005 census). If you can spot the pattern, we can’t.

As a final example of the lack of legibility of Colombia, let’s return to our post on Why Nations Fail hitting Quibdó, the capital of the Colombian department of El Chocó on the Pacific Littoral. Scott in the Art of Not Being Governed is careful to point out

“since 1945, and in some cases before then, the power of the state to deploy distance-demolishing technologies – railroads, all-weather roads, telephone, telegraph, airpower, helicopters, and now information technology – so changed the strategic balance of power between self-governing peoples and nation states, so diminished the friction of terrain, that my analysis largely ceases to be useful” (p. xii).

But in 2014 there is no all-weather road between Quibdó and the rest of Colombia. Sort of like not having a road between Burlington Vermont and Boston.

These examples and many many like them illustrate a big problem in Scott’s analysis. He simply takes it for granted the states have the “will to make legible,” making them inexorably expand and crush everything in their path unless the friction of terrain allows some plucky groups to stay independent and hold back the flood of state power.

But as we have pointed out in Why Nations Fail, state centralization — and the will of the state to expand — can sometimes be halted because of the specific political equilibrium society (and the elites) are in.

The Colombian case illustrates this. The Colombian state has scarcely been propelled by the will to expand to all areas. Using Scott’s terminology, the Colombian state does not think like this. It has never been interested in controlling the Chocó or making it legible. The same thing goes for many other parts of the country.

If you want some suggestive evidence on this it came from the conference that James Robinson attended in Quibdó in 2013. At the conference two economists from the Colombian Ministry of Planning gave talks about why El Chocó was the poorest department in Colombia. Unfortunately, their presentations showed that they had absolutely no knowledge of the history of the poverty of the Chocó. Indeed, they erroneously blamed the poverty of the Chocó on a particular law, Law 70 on 1993 which as we will discuss in future blogs, rather than creating poverty in El Chocó was in fact a brilliant piece of political entrepreneurship by its citizens to force the state to provide them with some basic services which they had long been denied.

The problems with their analysis of El Chocó are detailed in this presentation here.

For those who want to watch the videos of the debate at the conference they can see them with English subtitles: First the two gentlemen from the ministry of planning, and then the reaction from the people in the floor of the conference, vigorously contradicting their interpretation of the situation.

It is a bit unfair to single out these two gentlemen, both well trained and serious and trying to engage in a genuine discussion of the development problems of Colombia’s poorest department. The point is not about them but about the state they work for. El Chocó is not at all legible, but this is not because it is mountainous (it is actually quite flat with large mangrove swamps), or because its people have fled into a territory to take advantage of the friction of terrain. The current population of El Chocó to a large extent descends from its historic population, both indigenous or Afro-Colombian. Rather than people fleeing to El Chocó, the more typical situation is out migration. The reason El Chocó is illegible to the Colombian state is because it has never had the slightest interest in making it legible.

But why, isn’t this paradoxical? In fact no, and this leads to the real problem with the analysis of Seeing Like a State and the Art of Not Being Governed. Neither book discusses the politics of state formation, yet this politics is critical to understand why El Chocó is not legible to the Colombian state and more generally is essential to understand if one wants to develop a theory of the incidence of state capacity and capacities. The will to legibility cannot be taken as given and that is where the politics comes in.

We picked on Colombia in this post, but we could have picked on many other countries where the will to make legible is completely absent — and we are doing research in quite a few of them including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Pakistan and Sierra Leone.


Hard Times for Geographical Determinism

When we began our research with Simon Johnson in 1998 that provided a lot of the insights around which we built Why Nations Fail, we were partly reacting against the ascendancy of what we saw as a highly misleading explanation form, comparative economic development based on geography — both in academia and in policy discussions. In Chapter 2 of our book “Theories that Don’t Work” we explain in detail some of the evidence that is inconsistent with such geographical views.

Thankfully, one rarely hears nowadays at an economics conference that Africa is poor because it is cursed with adverse geography. Yet such views linger on elsewhere in social science, particularly in the literature on state formation.

Scott’s book, for all of its creative flair, is a rather depressing example of this. In Chapter 2 where he talks about “State Space,” the ideal setting to build a state he focuses on flat country suitable for growing rice. The mountains, places where the “friction of terrain” kicks in are not favorable for building states and instead become the refuge of those who flee from the state. This geographical determinism that fills the book is enough to warm the heart of Jeffrey Sachs.

These ideas have of course been applied everywhere. The seminal empirical work on the incidence of civil wars by James Fearon and David Laitin “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War, emphasized that importance of “rough terrain” for allowing civil wars (presumably the opposite of state formation – state collapse) to happen. The problems of creating a state in Afghanistan, for instance, can hardly be mentioned before the nature of the topography is introduced as the prime reason why it is impossible to build a modern state in the presence of such territorial frictions.

As we write, while the state in Afghanistan has problems, it is actually in a little bit better shape than the one in Iraq. Here’s the thing about Iraq, it is very flat. The collapse of the Iraqi state has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with the politics of state building, or its failure.

What about the Incas on the Andean rough terrain? Perhaps it’s just fortunate for modern archaeologists and tourists that the Incas never realized that they were not supposed to be able to build a state in the mountains, otherwise they might have given up before constructing those 40,000km of roads.


An Application of the Art of Not Being Governed

Scott’s theory can actually help to understand some facts about economic development. In their paper Geography and Economic Development, John Gallup, Jeffrey Sachs, and Andrew Mellinger elaborate several versions of what we called the geography hypothesis in Why Nations Fail. They point out that there is a correlation between the distribution of population in a country and poverty, with countries in Asia and Africa often having populations far from the coast and navigable rivers — a fact which they interpret as a geographical source of underdevelopment.

But they do not explain why African countries have populations that are far from the coast. Why could this be?

Scott’s book suggests that this could well have nothing much to do with geography (well to the extent you can’t grow rice in Africa…) and everything to do with the historical processes of state formation. He notes

“A final state-thwarting strategy is distance from state centers or, in our terms, friction-of-terrain-remoteness” (p. 279)

and argues that a “distance-making-strategy” was an important part of stopping being incorporated into the state.

There are other ideas that could help explain such a distribution of population. One is the slave trade. The historian John Thornton, in his seminal history of the Kingdom of the Kongo in West Central Africa (The Kingdom of Kongo: Civil War and Transition, 1641-1718), pointed out that when the Kingdom started to get seriously into slave raiding, people started to move away from roads and anywhere which might give access to slave traders. Rivers would be an obvious such source of access.

A related idea was investigated in detail by Nathan Nunn and Diego Puga in their paper Ruggedness: The Blessing of Bad Geography in Africa. They argued that in the period of the slave trade in Africa places which were rugged and hilly were very attractive to hide from slave traders. In their empirical work they showed that ruggedness actually reduced the negative impact of slavery on the economic development of African countries.

So the fact that in Africa or Asia population may be distributed in “paradoxical ways” seems to have little to do with geography (a puzzling interpretation in the first place) and everything to do with politics and the historical evolution of institutions, including states, in different parts of the world. Another instance of geographic determinism getting the picture all wrong…