22 February 2018

Policing Men: Militarised Masculinity and Governance in Uganda


In a recent paper based on qualitative research conducted in northern Uganda between 2014 and 2017, Rebecca Tapscott uses a gender analysis of youths participating in informal security arrangements to examine strategies of state rule. More from the author.

Your paper discusses a link between “militarised masculinities” and the state. What do you mean by this?

“Militarised masculinities” refers to an ideal version of masculinity that is shaped by military culture and values – for example, military masculinities may emphasise hierarchy, discipline, a particular form of violence linked to military symbols and practices such as uniforms and marching, and so on. It is widely accepted in academia that masculinities are multiple and competing – so militarised masculinities could be one of many ideal types. In the paper, I juxtapose militarised masculinity with “civilian masculinity”, which in this case is based more on traditional values and culture – like a man’s relationship to his wife and children, his ability to provide materially, and so on.

The paper tries to contribute to understanding how gender is an important component of state governance strategies. Scholarship in this area looks at the gendered implications of state laws and policies, for example how they shape men’s and women’s, boys’ and girls’, participation in the workforce, their interpersonal power dynamics, and even their relationship to property. These laws and policies of course exist against the backdrop of social norms around gender – both those held by society, and those promulgated by the state. So this paper attempts to grapple with the gap between these competing gender ideals, and understand if and how the gap shapes citizens’ relationship to the state and the ruling regime in the case of Uganda.

The paper focuses specifically on young men in the informal security sector. This reflects my area of expertise, and is also a useful place to examine governance under Uganda’s militarised state. So, while many of these findings may resonate with other sectors in Uganda, the claims are limited to males participating in the security sector – particularly the informal security sector. This is no small constituency: the Ugandan state claimed to have recruited one million “crime preventers” in 2015, in a country of approximately 40 million people. This is in addition to a host of other auxiliary and informal forces including veterans, local vigilantes, and other militias recruited in different areas of the country since 1986 to defend against nearly 30 different insurgencies that sprung up in different areas of the country. The men in these informal auxiliary forces are particularly prone to the dynamic of marginalisation and subjugation described in the paper.

What are the main findings of your paper?

The paper finds that in northern Uganda, this gap between civilian and militarised masculine ideal types plays an important governance role. Specifically, young men engage in informal security work in pursuit of resources that would help them achieve masculine ideal types. Many hope to be integrated into the formal state security structure, where they could get material and symbolic resources that confer (masculine) authority – like salaries, access to firearms, ID cards, uniforms, and so on. The state sustains this hope by integrating a lucky few, and also offering select incentives. For example, a selection of crime preventers received motorcycles for their work shortly before the 2016 presidential election. This is paired with a narrative of meritocracy – that those who work hardest will be rewarded – creating competition and mistrust amongst those working in informal security. However, full integration into the state security forces rarely happens. Instead, the vast majority of these young men remain in informal security work, where they are regularly promised and denied access to the resources necessary to achieve masculine ideal types, whether civilian or militarised. This produces young men as subjects of the ruling regime, only further motivating them to get into the government system. This helps explain why young men endure unpaid and at times humiliating work in the hope of eventual success, as well as how the state manages a large population of under-employed and dissatisfied youth.

Why did you decide to study informal security organisations – and with what objective in mind?

When I started my PhD, I planned to study gender and security, in part stemming from earlier work I had done on social norms and girl adolescents in West Africa. The focus on informal security organisations fits broadly with these interests, but, to be honest, was somewhat incidental. I had an opportunity to work with a DFID-funded research consortium in Uganda—the Justice and Security Research Programme run by the London School of Economics. When I first arrived in northern Uganda, there had recently been an act of mob violence. A notorious thief had been lynched in the neighbourhood I was staying in. It turned out that those responsible were mainly the members of a recently established “security group” formed with the purpose of reducing theft and other petty crimes in the area. The group’s strategy to stem crime was really violent, and they were eventually arrested on counts of malicious damage and grievous harm, for beating and fining community members they found out at night or even in their own homes. When I started to investigate, I found that these informal security groups are extremely common in Uganda; they are a fundamental component of security provision and local policing. These groups offer numerous contradictions – the creation of insecurity as a pathway to security, the devolving of use of violence from the state to citizens to bolster law and order – that provide a window into the grey space between law and lawlessness, order and disorder, public and private. These questions illustrate how such dichotomies are often false, and can actually limit understandings of processes of governance.

The objective of this research was developed inductively from these early findings, but quickly became a focus on governance in seemingly “fragile” states. Particularly in a state that is as militarised as Uganda, in which patrimonial resource distribution relies on military and security structures, studying security organs quickly raises questions of governance that touch on control, resource extraction, and a state monopoly on violence. And what also becomes very immediately apparent is that ordinary citizens who participate in these informal groups do not perceive the state as in any way fragile or weak. Instead, they see a militarised (and masculinised) regime with overwhelming access to violence and informants everywhere. The state might not deliver services – not even the most basic security services – but it has successfully developed the perception amongst its population that it has a meaningful preponderance over the use of force. This helps explain enduring puzzles of political science, like how we can have such long-lasting regimes in states that fail to provide basic services and allow the devolvement of policing to the civilian population, and why some states seemingly remain “undeveloped”, neither sliding into chaos nor becoming gradually more institutionalised bureaucratic states.

One thing I became increasingly interested in as I was conducting research is the how of this process. How does sporadic and episodic state intervention get translated into a pervasive perception of state presence that can govern citizens’ daily lives? How do citizens come to internalise the possibility of state intervention to such an extent that they actually self-police?

What I explore in this paper is what gender, and particularly masculinity, can tell us about this how. I find that frustrated civilian masculinity is extremely important – amongst the male civilian population, the constant and daily reminder that they are unable to protect and provide for their families leaves them feeling inadequate, vulnerable and desperate. It governs them. But like so many other aspects of governance, it is also essential that citizens retain some hope. This is necessary to keep people engaged in the system; otherwise, they might exit en masse, whether by developing an alternative authority structure to the state, or by fully disengaging, or they might challenge the state through politics or violence. In the Ugandan case, the hope that the state sustains in young men is of achieving a masculine ideal type, which is grounded squarely in the state – in this instance, a highly militarised state. So I find that it is this juxtaposition of disempowered civilian ideals of masculinity with venerated, idolised ideals of the state’s military masculinity that makes many civilian men subservient to the regime. For many young men who I interviewed, they believe that the only viable pathway to achieving a masculine ideal type is to be integrated into the state’s militarised, masculinised structure.

How did you manage to study these organisations?

Actually, studying informal security groups in Uganda has been very straightforward. First, security occurs in the public sphere and is of interest and concern to most people, particularly in recently post-conflict northern Uganda. Second, the people who participate in these organisations are generally young men who are under- or unemployed, and struggling to get audience. They are often keen to share their experiences and perspectives. Third, these groups are generally so informal and local that their opinions aren’t a high priority for the government. Finally, Uganda relies on a system of human intelligence. I think this creates a culture in which people know that information can be valuable. I actually found that at times, my respondents would be contacting me to update me on various bits of information they thought might be relevant to my study.

What do you plan to do next?

This paper is part of a larger book project I am working on at the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy. The book looks at regime longevity in seemingly fragile states, specifically examining the role that unpredictable and arbitrary state intervention plays in governing the civilian population. I argue that the Ugandan state has intentionally structured a system of fragmented and competing authorities, in an environment of pervasive coercion and perceived surveillance, to make itself ever present in citizens’ imaginations though it is in practice often absent. This results in paradoxical situations where citizens at times interpret the state’s inactions and inefficiencies as evidence of state presence and even power. I use a detailed study of the security sector in Uganda to build this theory, testing it in four urban centres in different regions of Uganda, and then applying the theory to several country cases in sub-Saharan Africa.



Rebecca Tapscott is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, researching the relationship between violence and governance in illiberal democratic regimes. She has extensive field experience, having worked since 2010 on projects in Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Niger and Nepal for several development NGOs and research projects. Her latest article, “Policing Men: Militarised Masculinity, Youth Livelihoods, and Security in Conflict-Affected Northern Uganda”', has come out in Disasters (42, no. S1, January 2018: S119−S139, doi:10.1111/disa.12274).

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.
Front picture: President Museveni addressing crime preventers dressed in yellow, the colour of his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.