Based on my dissertation which received an honorable mention for the Lynne Rienner Best Dissertation Award (2019) from the African Politics Conference Group
Political scientists have long associated authoritarian rule with acts of extrajudicial repression. Yet, while dictators have routinely used courts to manage political conflict and silence democratic dissent the judiciary is an oft-overlooked institution of autocratic survival. Focusing on these themes in the context of Africa, I investigate when and why autocrats use courts to repress political rivals. My starting point of analysis is that the type of threat affects the strategy 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. In particular, when power is contested from within the regime, there tends to be greater uncertainty regarding who is aligned with whom. Uncertain allegiances can compromise insider coordination and thus result in ineffective repression. I argue that under these circumstances, judicial procedures can be used to coordinate regime insiders behind the incumbent and against the challenger. This coordination process happens over the course of a criminal trial, a legal ritual designed to portray the incumbent as strong and the challenger as weak. Such ceremonies can create perceptions of stability amidst instability, enabling autocrats to withstand challenges to power. My research draws on archival work in the United Kingdom and Malawi, cross-national data on political prisoners in postcolonial Africa, interviews with supreme court justices and legal experts, a comparative analysis of Kenya and Malawi, and a digital corpus of web-scraped media.
These findings contribute to research that examines how seemingly democratic institutions can be manipulated for autocratic ends. While existing research in comparative politics has focused on the legislative, bureaucratic, and coercive tools used to consolidate arbitrary power, judicial institutions remain comparatively understudied. In fact, courts are rarely characterized as explicit instruments of state violence and are more often portrayed as institutional safeguards against dictatorship. By contrast, a growing scholarship on authoritarian judiciaries has shown that courts can address key pathologies of arbitrary rule, but these findings remain largely disconnected from the broader literature on authoritarian institutions. My book bridges this gap by examining when and why autocrats use courts to repress threats to power. By focusing on a court's repressive functions, especially in developing contexts, 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 these institutions, when properly safeguarded, create pathways for democratization. This reframing helps clarify the repressive logic of judicial procedures and shows how patterns of punishment become institutionalized over time. These are the judicial dimensions of autocratic survival, which are not unique to the African experience.