Study: How Museveni outsources violence to stay in power

Around midnight in June 2014, in a village in northern Uganda, an unarmed 37-year-old man was shot in the back as he fled from a police officer. He died hours before he was found, lying face down in a compound a few hundred metres from his home. That night, he had been guarding his community as part of a local vigilante group. A year previously, the village had experienced a surge in violent crime. The police and district-level authorities did not have the capacity to secure the village; instead, they had called on the community to form a vigilante group for their own protection. The vigilantes patrolled with rudimentary weapons, including machetes, sticks, and ropes to restrain suspects. But their work was controversial: they failed to catch criminals and were accused of drinking on the job as well as beating and extorting community members. The morning after the shooting, community members learned that a resident of the village had falsely reported to the police that the vigilantes were armed with guns and were robbing passers-by. Community members speculated that the resident had lied to prompt the police to arrest the vigilantes, which would lift the curfew and its penalties.

William Odera, the brother of the deceased vigilante, sought justice. He decided to open a police investigation into the murder. But the police replied that the shooting was caused by a miscommunication within the village and so he should resolve his complaint ‘at home’. Odera expressed frustration—it is well known in Uganda that to solve such a problem ‘at home’would require Odera’s family to attack the family of the youth who had made the false report. Instead, Odera took his case higher up, first in Gulu Town and later in Kampala.  But over the better part of a decade, Odera followed a lengthy bureaucratic procedure for internal investigations of police behaviour, holding out hope that it would deliver justice even while his efforts were met repeatedly with obstacles. A mutual friend reflected on Odera’s actions: “They’re just trying to confuse the case . . . So the man (who reported the vigilantes to the police) is a free man now, he doesn’t have anything to answer, and Odera does not have any right to retaliate”.

All names in this case have been changed to protect the identity of respondents. But this case took place under the modern authoritarian regime in Museveni’s Uganda. This authoritarian regime can be categorised as ‘modern’ in the sense that it governs in large part by law, rather than unrestrained violence and executive decrees. For instance, to allow Museveni to remain president for over 35 years, the constitutional provisions for presidential term limits, and later age limit, had to be removed. These changes were made not by fiat, but by acts of parliament that were challenged and upheld in court. On one hand, such an approach has benefits.

In Museveni’s Uganda, it has allowed the ruling regime to frame itself as a fledgling democracy, deserving of foreign aid and investment. On the other hand, it carries risks. Ordinary citizens can use the resultant civic spaces and democratic institutions—however limited—to organise and make claims on the regime. For example, Ugandans seeking to challenge Museveni have done so through civic protest, electoral campaigns, the press, the courts, and Parliament.

According to Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg from the Department of Political Science of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, in more than 30 years after American political scientist and writer, Francis Fukuyama, and others declared liberal democracy’s eternal dominance, a third wave of autocratisation is manifest.

In a paper published in the journal `Democracy’ titled ‘A third wave of autocratization is here: what is new about it?’ they argue that “gradual declines of democratic regime attributes characterise contemporary autocratisation”.

Scholars continue to debate how these regimes govern, given that they weaken their own institutions in pursuit of unchecked executive control.

A new book by Rebecca Tapscott, a Research Fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland identifies a new form of modern authoritarianism—arbitrary governance—that focuses more on weakening competition than on maximising control. The author calls this mode of governance “institutionalised arbitrariness”. It helps to explain how today’s authoritarian rulers can project power even as their pursuit of an unchecked executive threatens their own institutional capacity.

Her central question is: How do authoritarian rulers survive in the context of democratic institutions? The authors say this is a long-standing puzzle that has become more pressing with the rise of authoritarianism in the 21st century.

Rebecca Tapscott explores the puzzle in her book ;`Arbitrary States: Social Control and Modern Authoritarianism in Museveni’s Uganda.”

She finds that such regimes cultivate pervasive political unpredictability to maintain control in the face of democratic institutions and weak state capacity.

In theory, for example, democratic institutions should allow citizens to vote out elected officials who don’t pursue the public interest, or hold them accountable via other measures, like an independent judiciary.

Yet, most of today’s authoritarian regimes hold regular elections, have a formal separation of powers and a relatively independent press. Scholars have called these hybrid or electoral authoritarian regimes.

Rebecca Tapscott set out to research this puzzle of authoritarian rule.  She focused on Uganda because, according to her, it provides a clear case of an electoral authoritarian regime. President Yoweri Museveni has held power since 1986 under the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement. The state is seen as increasingly repressive. However, it holds regular elections and meets some other basic criteria of a democracy. This includes a nominally independent judiciary, inclusive suffrage and a fairly free press.

In studying Uganda, she identified a type of governance that uses unpredictability to combine democratic institutions with authoritarian power. She calls this ‘institutionalised arbitrariness’.

Uganda is unique in many ways, she says. Nevertheless, her research offers some insights for contemporary practices of authoritarianism worldwide. It also offers insights into the workings of post-liberation African states like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.

Key findings

She carried out fieldwork in Uganda, studying local violent actors and held more than 300 interviews with local security actors.  She studied the interactions between state authorities and informal security actors to understand who can use violence and how, and the implications for state authority.  She also studied Uganda’s Crime Preventer programme. Her aim was to understand who joined it, what activities crime preventers were asked to do, and how the programme joined national-level politics to the grassroots.

Uganda has limited capacity to fully monopolise violence in its territory or provide basic services to its citizens. It relies on repression, but its limited capacity means that it cannot silence dissent systematically and reliably.

She says what she found was surprising. First, state actors encouraged the formation of these groups and gave them the job of using violence to police their communities. This was an active outsourcing of violence to non-state actors.

She says she also found that local violent actors tried to consolidate their authority – as might be expected. They imposed bylaws and extracted resources in the form of fees and taxes. They also provided varying degrees of security and justice.

But the groups didn’t consolidate. Instead, they remained fluid and poorly defined. This was in part because their membership often got into trouble with state authorities for using excessive violence, or intervening in matters that were later determined beyond their remit. As a result, they were unable to succeed to a level that would meaningfully threaten state control.

The failure of violent local actors to consolidate was not for lack of trying. Across my cases, vigilantes and other local security actors tried to formalise control over a specific jurisdiction, usually their village.

They also emulated established authorities. For example, they printed ID cards and adopted titles like president, secretary, and even in one case, a ‘whip master’ who was tasked with caning wrongdoers.

But their efforts to consolidate power were largely unsuccessful because state actors continually changed their remit. At times they burdened local actors with tasks they were not equipped to handle. At other times, they reclaimed control without warning.

This enabled the state to outsource much of the day-to-day responsibilities associated with providing security and justice, while remaining authoritative.

So how does this link back to the paradox of electoral authoritarianism?

The link to democracy

According to Rebecca Tapscott, in an essay published by the online journal `The Conversation’ her research shows that the presence of multiple kinds of authorities, each with poorly defined mandates, creates endemic unpredictability. This means that in everyday life, citizens do not know which actor can decisively solve a complaint.

For instance, if seeking accountability for a violent crime, citizens might go to the police. But they could also seek out local authorities, district officials, clan authorities and NGOs, among others. Each of these authorities may help to some extent, while partially deferring to – or overruling – other actors. The result is an environment in which no single actor can reliably claim authority over any area.

The state can allow certain autonomous or semi-autonomous spaces for opposition. This is because the unpredictable political environment makes these spaces so fragmented and fragile that citizens using them cannot gain traction to hold authorities accountable.

This creates an obstacle to the emergence of political accountability – sometimes called the compact between the state and society. The result is an approach to governance that is based more on fragmenting and weakening opposition than on extending unquestioned or unchallenged control.


According to Rebecca Tapscott , the implications for Uganda are wide ranging. The first and most apparent one is that it’s difficult to mobilise political opposition in this context. It isn’t that there are no spaces for political action. Rather, these spaces are fragile and threatened by the possibility of unaccountable state violence.

She says this helps understand why Ugandans use political protests or the legal system to check the executive. Yet, it’s very difficult to translate these activities into sustained and effective political organisation and action.

It also helps explain why citizens take up alternative approaches – such as naked protests – to raise their political voices.

She says her research additionally underscores why it’s not possible to understand Ugandan politics without understanding the role of the security sector and armed forces.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *