Undue Process: Persecution and Punishment in Autocratic Courts
Based on my dissertation Autocratic Courts in Africa, which received an honorable mention for the Lynne Rienner Best Dissertation Award (2019) from the African Politics Conference Group
The questions animating this book focus directly on the judicial dimensions of repression in autocratic regimes: why do autocrats use judicial procedures to repress in some cases but not others? What are the goals of political prosecutions and by what mechanisms are they achieved? Do autocrats face risks by going to court, and if so, how do they ensure that judicial strategies achieve their objectives? The judicial dimensions of autocratic survival remain underappreciated despite the far-reaching implications of using law and courts to facilitate repressive outcomes, particularly in the Global South. Unpacking these issues not only reveals how courts operate where power reigns supreme, but also provides insight into the judicial battles that often arise in weakly institutionalized democracies.
The theoretical framework of the book rests upon a simple logic: different types of threat generate different challenges of repression. This is because whether the threat comes from within or outside of the regime can influence the ability of the regime to coordinate a repressive response. Whereas threats from without are collective, explicit, and overt, threats from within are selective, ambiguous, and covert. The former presents a more straightforward target for the regime to coordinate against and repress; the latter presents a more insidious target that often requires a more targeted response. I argue that when confronting such complex threats, courts serve as forums to generate common knowledge regarding the scope of the conspiracy. The objective of such a proceeding is to construct the idea of a shared threat, one that all insiders should turn against. Propounding this idea over the course of a judicial ritual, or trial, generates shared expectations that conflict has been tidily resolved, even if the reality is much murkier. In these ways, courts help overcome the challenges of insider repression by ensuring that members of the regime rally against one of their own.
Focusing on Africa, my findings are based on extensive archival research, in-depth interviews, and new sources of digital data from the African continent. My analysis leverages both qualitative and quantitative approaches and different data science applications. These findings contribute to research that examines how seemingly democratic institutions can be manipulated for autocratic ends. While existing research has focused on the legislative, bureaucratic, and coercive tools autocrats use to establish power, judicial institutions remain comparatively understudied. Courts are rarely seen as instruments of state violence and are more often portrayed as institutional safeguards against dictatorship. But a growing body of work on autocratic courts has shown that judicial institutions can address key pathologies of arbitrary rule. My book attempts to bridge this gap by examining when and why autocrats use courts to repress threats to power. By focusing on a court's repressive functions, my focus is not the failure of courts to hold power accountable, but their success in upholding arbitrary rule. I thus challenge the dominant narrative that courts should create pathways for democratization. This reframing helps clarify the repressive logic of judicial procedures and shows how patterns of punishment become institutionalized over time.