Best Article Award from the Comparative Democratization section of the American Political Science Association (2019)
Strategies of repression vary widely between extrajudicial and judicial extremes, from unrestrained acts of violence to highly routinized legal procedures. While the former have received a great deal of scholarly attention, judicial methods remain relatively understudied. When and why do rulers repress their rivals in court? The author argues that autocrats use a judicial strategy of repression when confronting challengers from within the ruling elite. Unlike regime outsiders, who pose a common, external threat to mobilize against, insiders present a more divisive target. When autocrats confront the latter, a judicial strategy legitimizes punishment, deters future rivals, and generates shared beliefs regarding incumbent strength and challenger weakness. Using original data on political prisoners in postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa, the author finds that autocrats were significantly more likely to use a judicial strategy against insiders and an extrajudicial strategy against outsiders. A case study of Kenya traces the logic of the theory, showing how intraregime conflict made courts a valuable instrument of state repression. The findings demonstrate how courts can play a central role in autocratic survival.
Book Project: Political Justice and Autocratic Survival in Africa
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.
"Authoritarian Legacies in Post-Authoritarian Courts: Evaluating Judicial Performance in Developing Contexts" Courts in developing countries often fail to live up to democratic ideals. This is not merely a problem of limited resources, financing, or mismanagement. Rather, in many cases these institutions were specifically designed to entrench authoritarian power and have continued to operate according to their original purpose. But if rule of law was never the intended goal in these contexts, how should judicial performance be evaluated? What alternatives to democratic criteria can be used to evaluate authoritarian courts? Existing concepts emphasize democratic notions of law and justice and are typically measured by formal provisions (e.g. constitutions or laws) or opinion data (elite and household surveys). In this paper, I propose focusing on dimensions of judicial performance that are rooted in the authoritarian experience: specifically the scope of judicial authority. Scope refers to a court’s sphere of action, both its jurisdiction in law and its workload in practice. I argue that by focusing on matters of scope, we gain greater insight into how courts actually spend their time and their role in regulating political affairs. I consider different approaches for measuring this dimension of judicial authority, including constitutional provisions and the media.
“Combating Corruption in African Countries: Foreign Creditors and Domestic Institutions”with Leonardo Arriola (UC, Berkeley) Although many governments have adopted measures to investigate and prosecute malfeasance by public officials, there remains considerable cross-national variation in institutional responses to high-level corruption. Under what conditions have governments established anti-corruption agencies? What impact have such agencies had on the prevalence of corruption? In addressing such questions, we argue that the origin of anti-corruption agencies ultimately undermined their purpose in African countries. Because governments established agencies to address the concerns of foreign creditors, principally multilateral institutions and Western donors, these agencies have been largely detached from domestic constituencies that might have otherwise demanded results. Moreover, since anti-corruption agencies are tangential to the primary interests of multilateral institutions, they have had little incentive to consistently ensure that agencies fulfill their mandates in practice. We assess these claims by analyzing original cross-national time-series data. Our findings show that anti-corruption agencies were established more rapidly in countries with greater debt service obligations, regardless of domestic political or economic conditions. We further show that anti-corruption agencies have had a negative effect on corruption: perceived levels have grown faster in countries that established agencies early on to satisfy foreign creditors.
"Regional Responses to Human Rights Violations" with Leonardo Arriola (UC, Berkeley) and David Dow (Duke) Do regional human rights frameworks make African states more or less responsive to human rights violations in member countries? In partnership with Amnesty International, we examined the extent to which African regional institutions, anchored by the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), have responded to human rights violations in conflict-afflicted countries across the continent. Using natural language processing techniques on a web-scraped corpus of official documents issued by the PSC and ACHPR describing the output of their meetings and summarizing their main platforms and agendas, we analyzed whether the PSC and ACHPR have fulfilled their institutional mandates to actively protect and intervene on behalf of human rights, or have instead espousing empty rhetoric. Our preliminary findings were included in the 2017 Amnesty International Report, "Africa: Counting Gains, Filling Gaps: Strengthening African Union’s Response to Human Rights Violations Committed in Conflict Situations."
Selected Works in Progress
"Ethnic Bias in Criminal Sentencing: Evidence from Kenya" with Danny Choi (UPenn) and Andy Harris (NYU-AD)
"The Political Logic of Judicial Appointments in Sub-Saharan Africa" with Danny Choi (UPenn)
"Politics of Courts Under Colonialism: Evidence from Colonial Korea 1910-1945" with ShinHye Choi (UC, Berkeley)
"Autocratic Constitutionalism in sub-Saharan Africa" with Siri Gloppen (University of Bergen)