A simplified framework to understand Dictators’ strategies: lessons from Greitens S. C. (2016). Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.324


Increasingly, there is substantial mentioning and complaints on social media and in the streets of Tanzania, wondering whether we are walking towards a dictatorial regime or not. There has been analysis that Tanzania has always been under such type of rule- albeit in a subtler way in previous regimes. Such arguments are often linked with the stronghold ruling party, that has often been described beyond its official identity of a political party. CCM has been explained as a political movement and/or political system.

As a political scientist, I feel obliged to contribute into such discussions (i.e. of dictatorial tendencies in the country) from a theoretical perspective. Out of scholarly discipline, there is a need to study events in a systematic way before we can make conclusions.  Although some would argue that we need more time before studying the same,  I think time is already ripe since we have already experienced almost 2 years of the current regime out of 5 years’ term. So the systematic analysis can start now. Even if it won’t provide all answers it can form a basis through which events can continuously be recorded and analyzed in an objective way.

Now, my aim in this brief entry is to provide one theoretical framework, which can at least help us to view actions and statements from the high office in a more balanced way. For this, I will share a reflection of the book by Greitens, which analyses dictators’ strategies. Readers and all Tanzanians interested can use this framework to view what’s happening and make their own conclusion. It is a tool to help us understand what is transpiring.


Framework for understanding Dictators’ Strategies:

Greitens brings about in the literature a provoking and strong analytical framework for analyzing dictators’ strategies.  As much as the title of the book may, with a quick look, categorize the book as focused on violence- for me, the book is mostly on the dictators’ strategies and how they organize their systems to suit their controlling and ruling agenda based on perceived threat. Of course, as we know, the main goal of any dictator is often accumulation of personal power before any other things. Often, dictatorship is a sign of fear/insecurity on the part of the ruler as opposed to strength that he tries to portray.

In a very simple way: Greitens shows that the strategies that a dictator formulates is determined by his perception of threat.  It is important to note that Greitens framework is a proven strong analytical framework. She tested it in various countries that were ruled by dictators. She analyzed  adequate historical data including diaries of dictators and events documented in archived sources. It is a well detailed book. Thus, am trying to simplify as much as possible for a wider audience.

Of course, there are arguments that I don’t agree with Greitens, such as her rejection of the influence of path-dependence on dictators’ actions- but I won’t discuss this here since the reflection is not for academic purpose but for the wider public.


Perception of threat:

According to Greitens, a dictator may perceive either of the two threats to his powers/rule:

  1. Threat/fear of internal coup– i.e. being removed by people from the internal circle in the ruling/governing system
  2. Threat/fear of popular uprising – i.e. being removed by citizens through a popular protest by the masses (people).

Based on those threats, the dictator will formulate either of the following strategies:




Fragmented Exclusive Strategy


If he perceives his threat to be no. 1 (internal coup/revolt), he would deploy a fragmented exclusive strategy. In this he would create security institutions that are fragmented with overlapping yet uncoordinated information.


“internal security is commonly assigned to multiple organizations that have overlapping or competing responsibilities and limited lines of inter-organizational communication and coordination” (p.25)


Furthermore, because of insecurity of his own system, the dictator would appoint close people- in terms of ethnic or faith- to the key positions.


“security forces composed of the same social or ethnic group as the dictator are considered more reliable because they share regime interests defined by common identity and stake in a particular societal distribution of power.” (p.27)


So in determining the above, Greitens advises us to ask the following question


“are the country’s major social groups all included in the organs of intelligence and coercion? if participation in the coercive apparatus is restricted to narrow group that shares an ethnic, tribal, regional, or familial tie with the autocrat, while those who lack such a tie are barred from participation, then the apparatus is exclusive…” (p.27)


In such


“institutional transformation occurs almost as frequently as simple personnel replacement”




“Broad-based party membership does not create an inclusive apparatus…” (p. 27)


Unitary Socially Inclusive Strategy


If a dictator perceives his threat to be no. 2 (popular protest), he would deploy coercive apparatus that are unitary and inclusive from different social groups in the society. The apparatus will be unitary in the sense that the information from different organs will be shared and analyzed jointly by all security institutions for unified action to deter popular uprisings.

In unitary socially inclusive strategy, dictators may  use what is known as “relational repression”  


that is to:

 “deliberately seek out people with social ties to protestors who can convince them to stand down without fighting” (p.53)


Greitens illustrates how unitary socially inclusive strategy is:


 “more likely to produce good intelligence on popular threats, so an autocrat who have this kind of coercive apparatus should be able to rule with violence that is lower in both scope and intensity and more discriminate.” (p.42).


This is because:

“good intelligence enables precise, selective, lower-intensity violence, against the right people and only when necessary”. (p.43)



To conclude, I would like to urge interested Tanzanians to use the above framework to analyze what is happening in order to have a clear and balanced understanding of the events.

Important to note, is that the interested analysts may decide to use the framework to analyze the action of the ruler (as one person) or with consideration to the country’s context – to analyze CCM (as “legal person”) and its actions over the years in maintaining its power.

(As I was reading the book, my fear was – what if a smart potential dictator decides to read the book and get smart in implementing the strategies; what if a foolish non-strategic dictator wakes up and decide to read the book…??)

Well, over to you my dearest reader….

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9 Responses

  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous at | | Reply

    nitaisoma vizur nikipata muda

  2. Fadhy Mtanga
    Fadhy Mtanga at | | Reply

    Thank you Aikande.

  3. Elizabeth Nkya
    Elizabeth Nkya at | | Reply

    Duuuh… That’s true what if or secretly dictators decided to read this book….
    By the way thanks for sharing this with us @Aikande kwayu

  4. Candid Scope
    Candid Scope at | | Reply

    Notwithstanding its scientufic approach, it may overstate the literacy status and possibly docile nature of the local citizenry!

  5. Candid Scope
    Candid Scope at | | Reply

    In sequel to the above and assuming the real purpose is enancipation of a people what is the authors advise in situations where the strongman/group has put in place restrictions over freedom of speech and assemby? Tricky part huh?

  6. Candid Scope
    Candid Scope at | | Reply

    In sequel to the above and assuming the real purpose is enancipation of a people what is the authors advise in situations where the strongman/group has put in place restrictions over freedom of speech and assembly? Tricky part huh?

  7. Kikunte
    Kikunte at | | Reply

    In sequel to the above and assuming the real purpose is enancipation of a people what is the authors advise in situations where the strongman/group has put in place restrictions over freedom of speech and assembly? Tricky part huh?

  8. Kikunte
    Kikunte at | | Reply

    “Leadership is a reflection of the people”- How true is this in relation to the subject matter?

  9. Barakael Laseko
    Barakael Laseko at | | Reply

    I find the Frameworks very useful, in analyzing the Tanzanian context. The individual called the “Dictator” is rightly exposed as either a Natural Person or a Political party! I couldn’t agree more!!

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