Individual Submission Summary

Direct link:

Executive Power & Militias in Illiberal Regimes: Uganda’s 2016 Elections

Fri, September 1, 10:00 to 11:30am, Westin St. Francis, Elizabethan A


Before Uganda’s 2016 elections, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime initiated a massive recruitment of “Crime Preventers”. Formally a community policing program designated to help “keep the peace” during the elections, domestic and international observers alike warned that crime preventers would be used “as tools” to rig the elections, intimidate voters, and vote en masse to return the 30-year incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, to power. This fear was founded in Uganda’s well-earned reputation as a militarized autocracy. In contrast, this paper—based on eight months of qualitative field research and over 300 interviews—shows that Uganda’s Crime Preventer program was never intended to use overt violence to suppress political opposition. Instead, the program was designed to be ambiguous and indeterminate, allowing political authorities and citizens to understand the purpose of crime preventers alternately as dangerous tools of the regime (a “political logic”), family men in search of work (an “economic logic”, and patriotic citizens of Uganda (a “social logic”). The resultant uncertainty about the role of crime preventers prevented large-scale organization to oppose the program.

This paper provides an in-depth examination of how illiberal regimes produce a veneer of legitimacy even as they fragment and suppress political opposition. The paper has broad implications for the study of the production and maintenance of executive power, election related violence, and democratic transitions in illiberal regimes, showing that in addition to isolating logics of conflict (e.g. greed versus grievance), it is necessary to examine them concurrently. The coexistence of multiple logics creates unpredictability, which in turn limits citizens’ ability to organize around shared interests. This creates a structural environment that favors those who control the narrative. Moreover, the paper reveals the role of unpredictability or uncertainty in determining skeptical acquiescence to non-violent transition in illiberal regimes.

Prevailing explanations for the emergence of militias focus on a “political logic” in which violence is organized to seize control of political institutions. A political logic applied to crime preventers would suggest that the Ugandan government initiated the program to mobilize violence if it appeared that the President would not win re-election by a comfortable margin. The available evidence suggests this is only part of the story. I propose two additional logics for how militias shape executive power in illiberal regimes. First, an “economic logic” suggests that people participate in militias as a livelihood strategy or to pursue economic ends. An economic logic draws attention to the militarization and securitization of the economy, which produces an environment in which the security sector presents the most viable opportunities for employment. Access to such livelihoods are contingent on supporting the regime. Second, a “social logic” suggests that people participate in militias out of a sense of social responsibility, social hierarchy, or personal preference for militaristic activities. A social logic draws attention to military symbols and rhetoric, which signify power in Uganda’s militarized society.

In contrast to a political logic, economic and social logics reveal that militias can emerge in contexts of low to moderate electoral competition or when a militarized state needs new pathways to distribute resources and/or bolster popularity. Thus, a state may create militarized organizations as a strategy to strengthen control of the population through economic or social avenues. In addition, militarization teaches discipline and obedience, which can be leveraged as support for the ruling regime. Considering these logics, I argue that Uganda’s crime preventers were never intended primarily to intimidate voters through violence. Rather, from the outset, the program was a means to extend patronage to marginalized and disenfranchised youth who might otherwise support the opposition, as well as to develop a sense of admiration for the militarized NRM state through trainings and initiation ceremonies for the masses.

In part, the regime successfully deployed these logics based on a history of civilian militias, militarization, and political indoctrination under the NRM’s semi-authoritarian militarized regime, and as a logical extension of Uganda’s militarized neo-patrimonial system. The paper presents a view of Ugandan democracy that diverges from orthodox notions of development and good governance. It illustrates that the NRM regime owes much of its success to its ability to organize support while fragmenting resistance, achieved through a system of rewards and punishments in a context of uncertainty.