#BookClub: Arbitrary States & Museveni’s Uganda – interview and blog!

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As part of DiA’s popular #BookClub feature, we invited Rebecca Tapscott to discuss her brilliant new book, Arbitrary States, with Gerald Bareebe. Here we share the video of that discussion. You can download the book *free* here (click “open access”). Because we like to spoil you, we also asked Monalee Gibbs to write up the highlights. 

In this insightful discussion, Rebecca Tapscott talks about her latest book Arbitrary States: Social Control and Modern Authoritarianism in Museveni’s Uganda, with Gerald Bareebe, Assistant Professor of Politics at York University, in a discussion chaired by Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. Tapscott is an Ambizione Research Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and has spent much of the last few years researching Uganda and the way in which the country’s long-time President, Yoweri Museveni,  retains power.

The discussion centred around the interplay of power, governance, democratic institutions, and authoritarian regimes. Tapscott’s latest work punches above its weight in exploring the puzzle of authoritarian regimes through the lens of states with comparatively limited capacity, offering insights that travel beyond Uganda to authoritarian regimes around the world.

The book’s theoretical premise engages with mainstream views on the formation of local governance actors, showing how the space between national governance and civil society is in many ways inhospitable to efforts to establish authority. This finding importantly differs from scholarship on violent entrepreneurs that sees this space as “fertile” for the formation of authority outside the state. Instead, in contexts of arbitrary governance, Tapscott finds that state security actors unpredictably intervene—or fail to intervene—in local affairs, thereby producing fragmentation, unpredictability, and confusion.

The conversation emphasized the implications of local level research in advancing an intricate understanding of the nuances at play in authoritarian governance. Tapscott’s research on local governance dynamics in Uganda underscores how this does more than broaden scholarship on authoritarian regimes and their strategies to maintain control. This is illustrated in the book’s introduction, which roots the main theoretical intervention in a micro-level case of local vigilantism gone awry.

Cheeseman noted that the book’s use of sub-national comparative analysis is particularly enriching, allowing for a relevant “break[ing] down of Uganda”. Tapscott seeks to account for historical and political complexities that mediate arbitrary governance, for instance Uganda’s uneven history of conflict/post-conflict, and political relationship between localities and the ruling regime. In further research, Tapscott notes she will explore the implications of longer historical trajectories on the Ugandan state-building and how this may have shaped the regime, creating a governance structure that is fundamentally structured to foster contradiction, allowing the regime to maintain authority while limiting responsibility.

Exploring the wider utility of the framework of arbitrary governance, Bareebe asked “What of comparisons across the continent?”. Tapscott recognizes that her juxtaposition of other “so called liberation regimes”—Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia—which arguably face similar governance challenges, is exploratory and is an area “ripe for further research”. At the comparative level, the book highlights “different levels of regime reliance on jurisdictional fluidity, violence surveillance and institutional fragmentation”. Rulers’ strategies are therefore not only a function of “low capacity” institutions, that may force rulers to “work within pre-existing set of institutions and power holders”—they are also learning from one another in a sort of “note sharing”. Historical contingencies additionally make arbitrary regimes uniquely different. Unpredictability and arbitrariness therefore become indispensable tools. It is here that the book “hits the nail on the head” in locating the importance of arbitrariness and unpredictability in governance and is the culmination of Tapscott’s “pushing of the theoretical boundary” on how local level actors consolidate influence between state and civil society.

And what is a ‘latest book discussion’ without a sneak peek into the author’s upcoming works? Tapscott’s ongoing project on militarized masculinity looks at the role masculinity plays in holding up this system of arbitrary governance and its projection to the grassroots. She is also pursuing deeper analysis on arbitrary state theory where she scrutinizes legal authoritarianism and implications for international relations.

Africa is indeed a site ripe for contribution with range and depth of scholarship. I look forward to what is to come.

Monalee Gibbs wrote this blog, and is a MA candidate in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, and has a keen interest in Government and Comparative Politics. Currently on sabbatical, she is a Jamaican Foreign Service Officer and has undertaken diplomatic postings to Cuba and Venezuela. 

Rebecca Tapscott (@rtapscott) wrote Arbitrary States and is an Ambizione Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, and a visiting fellow at LSE’s Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa and Edinburgh’s Politics and International Relations department.

Gerald Bareebe (@GeraldBareebe), who discussed Arbitrary States with the author, is assistant professor of politics at York University, and is currently based in Kampala.



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