Acholi Anarchy

I’ve been researching the Acholi people of Uganda and South Sudan for a year, specifically their marital norms, to explain polygamous behavior. The paper is nearing completion, but I’ve been finding some other interesting implications for private governance amongst the Acholi. My paper explains polygamy as a solution to commitment issues in low-trust (underdeveloped) markets; that is, polygamy sorts out “bad” transactors before transactions even occur. For more on that, just read my paper, soon to be out.

What’s further interesting about the Acholi is that their massive population (over one million people) is left completely ungoverned. Many African states unfortunately devolve into feuding rivalries of ethnicities; this is true for both South Sudan and Uganda. The Acholi have, since the eighties, been victims of government-sponsored or government-endorsed genocide and violence, because they cannot alone forge a majority voting bloc. To the Acholi, government is nothing more than a band of murderers. As such, they don’t rely on government courts for dispute resolution; they don’t rely on governments for anything at all. In fact, over 90% of Acholi live in rural areas that are legally considered “communal property”. Don’t confuse this with some utopian ideal; it means only that the government neglects to enforce property rights, hence all the land is “legally” communal.

Despite no government oversight of property, the Acholi community has well-established property rights. Large clans establish their own regions of territory, which all members help secure. Inside these clans, there are dozens of individual families wherein the amount of land they farm depends on how many men (fathers, brothers, sons) they have to protect said land. It would seem as if they use familial kinship to mitigate the transaction costs of forming mutual-defense pacts, but that is just some quick spit balling.

When there are conflicts amongst clan members, they are resolved quickly and definitively; they have reconciliation rituals that are designed to force feuding parties to talk until disputes are mediated or given up, and they banish family members that have acted heinously (this very rarely happens). More interesting is how they mitigate disputes between clans. The Acholi are described as practicing “traditional justice”, which means they rely on cultural norms to end feuds between clans. Though I can’t prove it, I think their practices are considered “traditional” because contemporary sociologists/anthropologists view them as irrational and backwards. I don’t think we should assume that. Since there is no higher authority than a clan, when two clans enter a dispute, both parties submit proposals for blood-money; or rather, money that the clan seeks in recompense for the harm brought to them. The dispute ends when both parties are satisfied with the money paid. At first glance, many view this as backwards because it treats crimes (especially heinous ones) as merely a monetary issue; however, I think it ironic to judge a culture on barbarity by how many people they don’t kill. If anything, this system is unbelievably civilized and rational; demanding blood-money discourages crime, and still brings some form of recompense for a wounded party.

Another issue I’ve seen in literature is that people don’t understand how this could be efficient; wouldn’t both parties just cease negotiations? I could murder a guy, and get off scot-free by simply refusing to pay blood money; right? Well, yes. But, that fails to consider the cost of losing an entire clan’s transactors. Feuding clans do not interact; they don’t trade, they don’t intermarry. The cost of losing access to the other clan’s “market," so to speak, is incentive to resolve the feud. That’s why the payment system works so well in resolving disputes; I have not found an example of it failing.

There is so much more to investigate here, both physically and mentally. I don’t claim to have a definitive view or explanation of Acholi dispute resolution. However, I think it is incredible that there is a living population of over a million people that functionally cooperate without a government. Definitely worth somebody looking into it further.