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Picture of Fiona Feiang Shen-Bayh

Judicial Strategies of Repression in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from Post-Colonial Africa

Colloquium: CAS event | October 24 | 12:30-2 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall


Fiona Shen-Bayh, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, UC Berkeley

Center for African Studies


What role do judiciaries play in democratic backsliding? While courts are often assumed to provide institutional checks against arbitrary power, in a variety of weakly established democracies, they have also been used to persecute political challengers, helping leaders eliminate adversaries and consolidate autocratic control. This paper introduces a new theory to explain strategies of judicial repression based on the experience of post-colonial, one-party regimes in sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, judicial strategies become instrumental when dictators cannot trust conventional agents of repression to execute central orders, which is especially likely when rivals to power emerge from within the ruling circle. Using original cross-national data on 3,447 incidents of repression between 1957-1994, I find that African dictators were more likely to formally prosecute challengers from the ruling party and military, and less likely to use such methods against members of the organized opposition. Case studies from Kenya and Malawi flesh out the causal mechanisms behind these trends. The findings from this study suggest that when courts are politicized as sites of political repression, they can play an important role in the erosion of democracy and the onset of authoritarianism.

Fiona Shen-Bayh is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. She earned an M.A. in Political Science from Berkeley (2012) and a B.A. in Economics with honors from Vassar College (2011). Her research focuses on legal institutions in authoritarian regimes. She has conducted archival research in London, United Kingdom and fieldwork in Malawi.


asc@berkeley.edu, 510-642-8338