In This Review

Arbitrary States: Social Control and Modern Authoritarianism in Museveni’s Uganda
Arbitrary States: Social Control and Modern Authoritarianism in Museveni’s Uganda
By Rebecca Tapscott
Oxford University Press, 2021, 256 pp.

Recent studies of authoritarian states have emphasized the increasingly hybrid nature of such governments, which more and more eschew violence in favor of subtler forms of legal and institutional manipulation. Tapscott’s fine examination of the regime of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni insists, nonetheless, that most authoritarian regimes remain reliant on the threat of violence. In her careful analysis of the country’s security sector, which encompasses the army, the police, and more or less sanctioned private local militias and vigilante groups, she notes that the regime has put in place a system of “institutionalized arbitrariness,” in which the inconsistent interventions of the state encourage citizens to seek out their own solutions to insecurity—only for the state to then intervene in a powerful but bludgeoning manner that often punishes the citizens. For instance, state officials encouraged a town to set up a local vigilante group to tamp down rising crime and violence, but then the police shot members of the group while on patrol. When the group complained, the state blamed it for growing insecurity. The resulting uncertainty over the state’s actual security policies makes it harder for citizens to organize against the state. Tapscott’s analysis strikingly underlines the truism that, in authoritarian states, the army and the police serve the regime, not the public.