Managing Democracy through Institutionalised Uncertainty
In 2016, thirty years after he violently seized power, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was reelected to his fifth term in office. Museveni first took power in Uganda in 1986, after waging a five-year insurgency against the oppressive Obote regime. At that time, Uganda remained economically and socially devastated from years of autocratic rule, notably by the infamous dictator Idi Amin. Subsequent power struggles had further hollowed out the country’s governing institutions.
Democracy is not just the right to vote; it is the right to live in dignity.As president, Museveni made some early reforms. His implementation of decentralisation and structural adjustment policies attracted western support for a young regime. Uganda was swiftly labelled a “donor darling” on its way to democratic transition. However, in recent years, assessments of the regime have shifted. It is now seen as a hegemonic party-state that relies increasingly on patronage and violent coercion. Scholars have catalogued how decentralisation policies have actually recentralised state power and fragmented subnational power bases. The regime has used protracted civil conflict, including insurgencies across the country, to justify uneven development and a militarised state. Today, Uganda resembles other seemingly fragile African states with long-lasting regimes like Angola, Eritrea and Zimbabwe.
Such cases present a paradox. How can state fragility, a system of electoral governance, and autocratic rule coexist sustainably? An examination of how citizens experience Uganda’s illiberal regime is revealing. Unsurprisingly, the regime restricts civil liberties and maintains distributive systems that offer overwhelming structural advantage for the ruling regime. However, it also governs by instrumentalising uncertainty. This is achieved via arbitrary government use of authority, which is backed by a meaningful threat of violence. Government authorities retain discretion regarding whether they will respond to citizens’ claims, and if so, what rules they will apply. As a result, uncertainty infuses citizens’ perceptions of the state – particularly with respect to actions by state security actors but also those of politicians and state officials.
Crime preventers as electoral tools
Take the experience of Uganda’s “Crime Preventers”. So-called crime preventers are mainly underemployed young men, recruited en masse before the 2016 elections with promises of access to government loan schemes and employment in the police force. The mandate of these crime preventers was vaguely defined. Politicians on both sides of the aisle stoked fears that crime preventers would use violence to intimidate opposition voters and candidates, spy on opposition rallies and facilitate vote manipulation. However, the reality appears more mundane. At times, crime preventers were tasked with assisting the police in making arrests and detaining civilians. At other times, the police and centrally appointed officials asserted that these young men were ordinary community members, powerless except to report crime like any other citizen. Constant vacillations between promises made and broken, authority claimed and denied, contributed to a high level of uncertainty in interactions between citizens and crime preventers, and also between crime preventers and state authorities.
The government’s ability to continually redefine the role of crime preventers was made possible by a widely held perception that the ruling regime retained access to overwhelming and potentially violent force. As one municipal-level representative explained, “This government can liquidate you”. This perception is reinforced through citizens’ memories of state-sponsored violence. The ruling regime and its military have fought civil insurgencies since taking power, often sacrificing civilian life in the process. Sporadic and unpredictable state violence in everyday life further buttresses this perception. For example, the police often use teargas and live or rubber bullets to disperse rallies. More mundane instances of state coercion include security sweeps rife with intimidation and extortion.
The perception that the state could intervene anytime and deploy overwhelming force produces a particular type of subject, namely, one that is comparatively subdued and risk averse. Ordinary citizens self-police, giving wide berth to issues they imagine are sensitive.The perception that the state could intervene anytime and deploy overwhelming force to produce a subject that is comparatively subdued and risk averse. Pervasive uncertainty also erodes trust between constituents and authorities. Citizens are cognisant of the fact that politicians also face harsh sanctions for challenging the regime’s interests. Politicians who survive this system are thus assumed to be complicit in the regime, making citizens suspicious of those who claim to act in good faith. Unsubstantiated rumours further fuel this scepticism: tales of state-organised assassinations circulate when public figures die unexpectedly; allegations of bribery proliferate when politicians support the ruling party. However, producing suspicion without evidence allows politicians to maintain the possibility –however slight – that they could act in their constituents’ interests. In turn, this keeps many citizens marginally engaged with the democratic process.
I have termed this strategy of rule “institutionalised arbitrariness”. Institutionalised arbitrariness helps explain how states maintain “hybridity” or “illiberal democracy” as the status quo. The arbitrary use of harsh discipline means that the state can permit occasional expressions of liberal politics such as democratic elections, universal suffrage, civil society, free association and a free press. It is thus difficult for citizens and international observers to decisively categorise the regime as oppressive and autocratic.
The functioning of a democracy is premised on the ability of citizens and their representatives to develop meaningful and reliable expectations of each other. Aspects of arbitrary governance – driven by rumours, fear and scepticism – have been observed in other countries. For example, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira describes state-making in the Angolan periphery, including attempts to foster the perception that the state could intervene to defend its interests anytime and anyplace, “crush[ing] its enemies” to produce “subjects rather than citizens”. David Bozzini describes how in Eritrea, harsh and uneven implementation of state laws against desertion from military service caused citizens to self-police in favour of the regime. Joost Fontein depicts Zimbabwean citizens self-policing in response to unpredictable state destruction of “illegal [housing] structures”.
The functioning of a democracy is premised on the ability of citizens and their representatives to develop meaningful and reliable expectations of each other. However, in environments marked by high uncertainty, arbitrary assertions and denials of state authority disrupt feedback loops and fragment citizen organisation. Under such circumstances, citizens in Uganda, Angola, or Eritrea cannot develop meaningful expectations, nor can they demand regime accountability. Thus, “illiberal democracies” can produce uncertainty and contingency to manipulate formally liberal governance for the pursuit of illiberal ends.