University of Cambridge > > Centre of Governance and Human Rights Events > Book Launch: "Arbitrary States: Social Control and Modern Authoritarianism in Museveni's Uganda"

Book Launch: "Arbitrary States: Social Control and Modern Authoritarianism in Museveni's Uganda"

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Dr Rebecca Tapscott will speak about her new book in this Zoom event, co-hosted by CGHR and the Centre of African Studies

Rebecca will be joined by Professor Adam Branch (Director, Centre of African Studies) as discussant.

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Abstract: In recent years, scholars have noted the rise of a particular type of authoritarianism worldwide, in which rulers manipulate institutions designed to implement the rule of law so that they instead facilitate the exercise of arbitrary power. Even as scholars puzzle over this seemingly new phenomenon, scholarship on African politics offers helpful answers.

This book places literature on the post-colonial African state in conversation with literature on modern authoritarianism, using this to frame over ten months of qualitative field research on Uganda’s informal security actors – including vigilante groups, local militias, and community police. Based on this research, the book presents an original framework – called ‘institutionalized arbitrariness’ – to explain how modern authoritarian rulers project arbitrary power even in environments of relatively functional state institutions, checks and balances and the rule of law. In regimes characterized by institutionalized arbitrariness, the state’s stochastic assertions and withdrawals of power inject unpredictability into the political relationship between both local authorities and citizens. This arrangement makes it difficult for citizens to predict which authority, if any, will claim jurisdiction in a given scenario, and what rules will apply. This environment of pervasive political unpredictability limits space for collective action and political claim-making, while keeping citizens marginally engaged in the democratic process. The book is grounded in empirical research and literature theorizing the African state, while seeking to inform a broader debate about contemporary forms of authoritarianism, state-building, and state consolidation.


Rebecca Tapscott is an Ambizione Research Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ Centre on Africa. Her research focuses on authoritarianism, violence, and state formation in developing countries. She has over a decade of experience working on development and governance in sub-Saharan Africa. Her internationally-recognized research appears in numerous academic journals including Development and Change, African Affairs, and Disasters.

This talk is part of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights Events series.

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