Vigilantism and public authority

CPAID comics series


I’ve always been interested in diverse forms of disseminating knowledge … illustrating this narrative allowed me to show the ambiguity about how best to tackle local insecurity.

Dr Rebecca Tapscott


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As part of a series of six comics on public authority in different countries across Africa, Kenyan cartoonist and comic artist Victor Ndula has illustrated some of CPAID's cutting-edge research on issues of public authority, vigilantism, policing and public justice in Uganda. Based on real events, the comic asks: what happens when a town tries to fight crime using vigilantes?

Research on vigilantism and public authority

What is public authority, how is it produced, and what does this mean for ordinary people? New research from CPAID Research Fellow Dr Rebecca Tapscott approached these questions by studying vigilantes in northern Uganda, and their interactions with other public authorities like police and local councillors. Mirroring studies of vigilantism worldwide, findings suggest Uganda’s vigilantes have been empowered to fight crime, but their unregulated use of violence means that other actors often intervene to rein them in. 

Observing this ongoing tension, between giving vigilantes authority and taking it away again, offers an unexpected insight about public authority. Unlike scholarship that assumes ‘public’ constitutes a given space, this research shows that any given ‘public’ is actually highly contested and frequently redefined. For instance, at one moment, vigilantes are given authority to police their community; at the next, the police claim that the village is under the sole jurisdiction of the police. This makes it difficult for would-be public authorities, like vigilantes, to consolidate authority. The implications are that many actors have tentative or fragile claims to public authority, fostering a complex, turbulent and unpredictable governing environment.

Presenting research as a cartoon can help disseminate knowledge outside the academy. Illustrating experiences of vigilantism, in this form, depicts the ambiguity about how to best tackle local insecurity, as well as the underlying and highly fragmented network of public authority that underpins everyday local interactions.

We hope you enjoy engaging with the artwork below.

Learn more about the research

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.


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This comic was created by Cartoon Movement, a publishing platform for high quality editorial cartoons and comics journalism from all over the globe.