Winner of the Best Article Award (2019) from Democracies and Autocracies, a section of the American Political Science Association
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 intra-regime conflict made courts a valuable instrument of state repression. The findings demonstrate how courts can play a central role in autocratic survival.
"Ethnic Bias in Criminal Sentencing: Evidence from Kenya" with Danny Choi (Pittsburgh) and Andy Harris (NYU-AD)
Winner of the Fiona McGillivray Best Paper Award (2020) from the Political Economy section of the American Political Science Association
Invited to Revise and Resubmit at American Political Science Review
Understanding sources of judicial bias is essential for establishing due process. Yet, theories of judicial decision-making are largely rooted in advanced democracies. To address this gap, this paper examines sources of judicial bias in Kenya, an emerging democracy where ethnicity is understood to play a critical role in shaping sociopolitical outcomes. Using original data from nearly 10,000 criminal appeals from the Kenyan high courts, we exploit the conditional random assignment of judges to estimate the effect of judge-defendant coethnicity on appeal decisions. We find that judges are 3~5% points more likely to grant the appeal of a coethnic defendant compared to a non-coethnic's. To understand mechanisms, we use text-as-data approaches to analyze the sentiment of written judgments. Our analysis reveals that judges use more favorable terms---pertaining to trust---when adjudicating the fate of coethnics, which we interpret as evidence of an in-group favoritism rather than an out-group derogation mechanism.
"The Language of Legitimacy: Framing the International Criminal Court in African News Media" with Risa Kitagawa (Northeastern)
Available upon request
This paper examines the role elites play in framing international organizations such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) as illegitimate, racist, and corrupt. We argue that elite discourse in regional forums such as the African Union (AU) can have ripple effects on broader discussions of international justice, in some cases, changing the literal terms of debate. To test this argument, we use an original corpus of 69,000 Kenyan and Zimbabwean news articles and leverage natural language processing techniques to track how the ICC is discussed in local media. Our findings reveal that the content of ICC news coverage varies over time and in response to a major moment of elite consensus at the AU, wherein efforts to discredit the ICC were subsequently reflected in more negative news coverage. This study underscores the complex, nuanced relationship between elite and popular narratives of international justice and suggest new mechanisms by which elite discourse is filtered down to domestic audiences.
"The Politics of Colonial Responsibility: Evidence from British and French Parliamentary Debates" with Risa Kitagawa (Northeastern)
What does the ex-colonizer owe to the ex-colonized? Whether former colonial powers should apologize to their former colonies has become a recent source of debate. Some European governments have begun offering gestures of remorse falling short of reparations, whereas others appear to be more nostalgic for empire and largely unwilling to repent. To fully appreciate popular discourse on the legacies of imperialism and white supremacy in the contemporary era, in this study, we examine the history of political debates on the colonial project. We specifically compare how colonialism has been depicted by France and Britain over the past 150 years of parliamentary proceedings. Using computational text analysis techniques, we parse an original corpus of substantially verbatim reports from the floors of the French and British parliaments. Dissecting debates from 19th century to present day helps us to uncover how the framing of colonialism has evolved over time and across contexts. By taking the long-run historical view, we seek to understand how the terms of debate on colonial rule have evolved both before and after decolonization, as well as how such language has influenced contemporary debates on apology and accountability.
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.
"Legibility and Legitimacy: Perceptions of Autocratic Justice"
Political trials are often seen as window dressing in autocratic regimes. This is because under the auspices of the court, political persecution can be cast as legal prosecution. But window dressing can be more or less transparent, masking repression in some cases but provoking backlash in others. What explains these varied reactions? In particular, when are political trials more likely to be accepted as legitimate by outside observers? This paper develops a theory to explain the range of different responses to political trials as conducted in autocratic regimes. I argue that a key mechanism explaining perceptions of autocratic justice is the process of punishment separate from the target of prosecution or outcome of a trial. In particular, the customs of a given court can be more or less legible to outside observers, which in turn affects the ability of the audiences of court to critically evaluate whether a trial is free and fair. I evaluate these claims in postcolonial Africa where the process of prosecution varied by context. Drawing on declassified documents from the British National Archives, I show how British agents reacted differently to political trials depending on the conduct of court. This was true even where the outcomes of trials were seen as uniformly repressive. The findings from this study reveal that political prosecutions do not provoke uniform responses even among the same audiences, which has critical implications for understanding the form and function of autocratic window dressing.
Shen-Bayh, F. (2021), Regime threats and state solutions: Bureaucratic loyalty and embeddedness in Kenya, Hassan, Mai, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2020. 308 pp. $99.99 (cloth). Governance. https://doi.org/10.1111/gove.12624
Chapters in Edited Volumes
Shen-Bayh, F, S. Gloppen, V. Wang, and E. Kanyongolo. “Malawi: Democratic Fits and Starts” In Democratic Backsliding in Africa? Autocratization, Resilience, and Contention, eds. L. Arriola, L. Rakner, and N. van de Walle
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.