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Opportunity Seizure: Part I

Sometimes, states adopt repressive policies just because they can.

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Scholars of government repression generally think of repressive policies as arising from two basic impulses: The desire to crush active dissent, and the desire to prevent future dissent from arising. Basically, in this framework, all repression is about ensuring regime survival by using the power of the state to quash opposition. In a new article in the journal International Security, however, political scientists Donald Grasse, Melissa Pavlik, Hilary Matfess, and Travis Curtice posit that there are forms of oppression that this framework doesn’t capture. By their argument, sometimes states adopt repressive policies just because they can.

Grasse et al. draw from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in African countries. Pandemic response is a rich source of data on repressive policies because policies aimed at political repression often dovetail well with policies aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. If an opposition group’s protest gets broken up by the police, is it because it was an opposition group protest or because the protest violated social distancing guidelines? Who can say?

Pandemic response is a rich source of data on repressive policies because policies aimed at political repression often dovetail well with policies aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

That ambiguity is a source of strength to authoritarian governments, the researchers argue. Regimes can use the excuse of a global crisis to impose repressive policies in both responsive (deployed against active opposition) and preventive (deployed against potential future opposition) modes. It can also simply expand its repressive apparatus independent of those goals because the ambiguity created by the crisis allows it the legitimacy to do so. In an ostensible democracy, the violent breakup of an opposition protest before the pandemic might have turned public opinion against the government. During the pandemic, the same standard of repression might be applied to any protest with much less of a public cost. Grasse et al. call that expansion of repression in response to a perceived increase in the public’s willingness to accept such an expansion “opportunistic repression.”

The researchers test for the existence of opportunistic repression by looking at data on repressive actions in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their theoretical approach is simple: Since COVID-19 did not make opposition groups any more able to overthrow governments, then, by the logic of preventive and responsive repression, it also shouldn’t have increased repression against those groups. Even if public health policies put in place to combat the virus appeared repressive, under the preventive and responsive theory those policies should have been applied evenly across the country, rather than used to target some groups over others.

As it turns out, that’s not what happened. Across the continent, COVID-19 shutdowns resulted in about two extra repression events per month following the shutdown order. This wasn’t in response to extra demonstrations. In fact, the overall level of demonstrations dropped slightly after COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. The overall data, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. The researchers looked more closely at the situation in Uganda, where the government spent the period leading up to the pandemic locked in a struggle between repressing opposition groups and attempting to maintain its perceived legitimacy.

In Uganda, the government used COVID-19 as an excuse for all kinds of repressive acts. When opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi (better known as Bobi Wine) tried to enter a radio station to give an interview, police blocked him, saying it was a COVID-19 protocol violation. When the government banned having multiple riders on a motorcycle, police shot and killed two men for sharing a motorcycle taxi. What the researchers really wanted to know, however, was if that repression was uniform across the country or if it targeted opposition figures disproportionately. By plotting repressive acts against opposition vote share in the last election, they found that each standard deviation increase in opposition voting share led to a 6.6% increase in the chance of state violence against civilians in the month after COVID-19 protocols were put in place. In other words, the state was using the protocols as an excuse to target opposition areas in particular.

By seizing this opportunity to expand repressive policies, the Ugandan government (and others) move the bar on what forms and levels of state power are acceptable. Yet, as substantial literature on mass movements and resistance to the state has shown, people are no less opportunistic than the state. The concept of the state is constantly contested, and new repressive policies can be met with new forms of resistance to repression. In the near term, however, states are on the front foot and the opportunities to expand state power abound.

Sam Ratner


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @samratner.


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