Following in the footsteps of new institutionalists, the research works from a conceptualisation of public authority that examines how violent actors seek to extend their control over the use of force – as well as over people and space – in a bid to extract resources. The author observed this phenomena in the everyday activities of vigilantes in northern Uganda, who sought to carve out a space for themselves in their communities.
Some vigilantes in this space made printed and laminated identification cards with their vigilante titles: ‘president’, ‘corporal’, ‘secretary’, and, memorably, ‘whip master’; others helped enforce community by-laws. Many vigilante groups implemented a local household tax, and made internal group rules for their activities, including timetables, reporting hierarchies and rules of comportment. However, even while these vigilante groups sought to regularise and extend their authority, nominally to provide security as a service to their community, they were largely unsuccessful. Instead, their authority remained fragmented and peripheral. Why? And what does this tell us about public authority as a concept more generally?
The research reveals that even as vigilante groups sought to extend their claims to authority, these claims were weakened and destabilised when more powerful actors alternately and unpredictably pushed further responsibility onto vigilantes or determined that the vigilantes had overstepped their bounds. In doing so, these more powerful actors, who ranged from the police and government appointed officials to village leaders, undermined their claims to legitimate authority.
These dynamics applied beyond vigilantes. Locally elected authorities, police officers and even government appointed officials experienced similar turbulence – sometimes of their own making, when they claimed or denied their own jurisdictional authority, and sometimes by others who did the same. Ongoing contests to define jurisdiction made everyone’s claims to authority fragile, fostering numerous low-level, competing and overlapping actors, who all lacked sufficient jurisdictional stability to be held accountable or deliver on their commitments.
Further findings from the research can be found here:
Rebecca Tapscott, “Local Security and the (Un)Making of Public Authority in Gulu, Northern Uganda,” African Affairs 116, no. 462 (2017): 39–59.
Rebecca Tapscott, “The Government Has Long Hands: Institutionalized Arbitrariness and Local Security Initiatives in Northern Uganda,” Development and Change 48, no. 2 (2017): 263–285.