Personal profile

Personal profile

I teach politics and international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Most of my work is on the contemporary politics of Central Africa, particularly Rwanda, how diasporas mobilise against authoritarian regimes, and authoritarianism and state-building more broadly.

I have just finished a three-year project entitled The Nation Outside the State: Transnational Exile in the African State System, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which has cultimated in a forthcoming book co-authored with Alexander Betts. During that period, I was Junior Research Fellow in the Social Sciences at Balliol College. Our book is being published by Cambridge University Press, and can be bought here.

I am also the co-founder of an organisation, Refugees' Say, dedicated to reforming refugee resettlement to empower both refugees and the communities that host them. You can find out more here.

I currently teach two undergraduate papers, Introduction to International Relations (PR1500) and Refugees and Migration in World Politics (PR3880).

Research interests

I am currently thinking about four things:

1. The role of refugees in positive political change
Refugees are overwhelmingly studied as the objects of politics, rather than political agents in their own right. Where their politics is studied, it is invariably only to uncritically valorise ‘authentic grassroots organisation’. In so doing, it neglects to ask serious critical questions about how refugees and other forced migrants may come to have real impact as political actors. Exile politics intended to contend with authoritarian regimes only emerges some of the time, in a plethora of different forms, and with dramatic variation in whether or not it has any effect at all. For example, during the period of Zimbabwe’s ‘crisis’, a diverse coalition of Zimbabwean refugees and South African Trade Unionists, lawyers and Church leaders mounted a successful campaign across the cone of Africa in 2009 to prevent a Chinese arms shipment destined for Harare from disembarking in Durban. Ultimately, ZANU(PF) was driven to the negotiating table to form a government of national unity with the opposition later that year. In contemporary Rwanda, opposition parties in post-genocidal elections have recruited from and secured funding from a panoply of groups across East Africa, Western Europe, and North America, but as yet with no success in destabilising Paul Kagame’s regime. These movements, like all movements of the powerless and marginalised, usually fail, but they do not fail always. This proposed research seeks to understand why.

At the broadest level, my research engages with three questions: what are the methods of contention available to putative counter-elites in exile under such circumstances, under what conditions does such contention emerge, and what are the conditions under which such contention has impact?
More specifically, I look at the following key variables: (a) what, in social-psychological terms, makes people willing to participate in forms of collective action with high risks and low probabilities of success (classically articulated in Ted Gurr’s account of ‘relative deprivation’), understood not just in rational choice terms, but also identity, framing, and ‘repertoires of contention’, (b) what resources (e.g. capital, labour, time) need to be available and successfully mobilised by the movement, (c) what organisational forms and strategies enable such mobilisation, and (d) what needs to be true of the ‘political opportunity structure’ such movements find themselves in in order to achieve success?

This final variable, understood broadly as ‘consistent – but not necessarily formal or permanent – dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for people to engage in collective action’,[1] is the most unusual with respect to contemporary transnational politics in Africa. Whilst much of the answers to (a), (b), and (c) can be found in the classic literature on social movements, (d) requires reformulation to overcome the methodological statism and euro-centrism of much of that earlier work. In particular, I consider (i) variation in the political and legal structures of both hosting and origin states, (ii) factors concerning the dispersion and structure of ‘the’ diaspora (including who is excluded from such official conceptions of diasporas), and (iii) the nature of linkages between hosting states, origin states, and the diaspora themselves. For example, legal limits on political activity in South Africa are much looser than they are in Botswana, but in both cases diasporic Zimbabweans are formally ‘provinces’ of the overseas MDC. The possibilities available to dissident Rwandans in Uganda is determined not only by their numbers and the resources at their command, but also by the rhythm of Kampala-Kigali relations, and the ebb and flow of conflict in Eastern Congo. These examples point to the need for a more joined-up understanding of the political opportunity structure faced by African exiles, in order to have a workable account of the circu under which such mobilisation will take place, in what form, and with what prospect of success.
 2. The Contemporary Politics of Rwanda
This was the core topic of my doctorate, which I am currently revising into a manuscript for publication. In that work, I attempted to reconcile the ‘two Rwandas’ which dominate contemporary scholarship, and seem on first glance utterly incommensurable: the inspirational developmental donor darling, and the brutal police state ruled by a shadowy ethnic clique. I argue that both sides capture something, but fail to give a fair assessment of the mercurial system of political order constructed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) following the Genocide of 1994. This system is a durably strong state with exceptionally high levels of societal penetration capable of delivering order and other public goods, with a ruling party in a hegemonic position with a degree of medium-term stability, despite (and because of) its illiberal repressive character.

Such a system is only possible because of the extremely unusual sociology of the RPF itself, forged in the refugee camps of Uganda and the Ugandan Bush War, and the structural constraints on rule within Rwanda. With these resources, the RPF has successfully made the transition from guerrilla movement to hegemonic civilian political party, created bureaucratic institutions of government which penetrate to the lowest level, and hugely profitable ‘party-statals’ which co-exist alongside functioning competitive markets. Such successes are not disconnected from the violence, repression, and extra-judicial coercion which remain crucial to the regime. Analyses which think the positive aspects of Rwanda’s current ‘miracle’ can be mimicked without the accompanying domination and autocracy are engaging in wishful thinking. Crucially, given how distinctive the enabling conditions for Rwanda’s current political dispensation are, the extent to which Rwanda can be a policy exemplar or ‘best-practice’ for other African states to follow is in any case seriously overstated

3. State-Building and Africa’s ‘New Authoritarians’
Since the early 1990s, three paradigms on the trajectory of the African state have competed for academic and policy pre-eminence: the liberal convergence paradigm which portrays African states marching inexorably towards a bright future; the ‘failed state’ paradigm which understands African states not in terms of what they are, but what they fail to be; and a third ‘neo-patrimonial’ paradigm which highlights the neo-patrimonial management strategies of elites and the attempted stabilisation of the polity through temporary alliances, ethnic coalition-building and the cynical manipulation of electoral systems and federalism. I argued, with Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, and Harry Verhoeven, in a working paper published by the Refugee Studies Centre, that between the liberal convergence paradigm, the failed state narrative and neopatrimonial seamanship, important experiences that fit none of these remain unexamined. Yet the existence of alternative agendas appearing out of the ashes of war in places like Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Angola is part of a major emerging mode of illiberal state-building.

More recently, there has been a surge of interest by scholars of Africa in the 'Political Settlements' approach of Mushtaq Khan, in particular the elaboration of that theory with reference to industrial policy developed by Lindsay Whitfield, Hazel Gray, Lars Buur, and others. In a recent conference paper, I use Rwanda as a potential case for theory confirmation and disconfirmation. In particular, if the account as presented works, certain key variables (notably the distribution of political power, the composition of the ruling coalition, the relationship between political power and domestic capitalists, and the survival strategy of the ruling elite) should predict, or at least account for, Rwanda's post-genocidal industrial policy. In so doing, it should also enable us to disentangle what is real from what is fantasy from the hubristic, polemical, and over-wrought writing on Rwanda's 'development miracle'. Rwanda is still exalted in some circles as a triumphant exemplar of the African Renaissance, particularly in terms of its growth and economic record. A more robust framework (i.e. political settlements) is the beginning of a more sober assessment of the long-term prospects of the RPF's agenda for transforming Rwanda.

4. Diaspora Mobilisation and the Political Agency of Refugees
This is the subject of my recent book, co-authored with Alexander Betts (CUP, forthcoming 2016). We examine how diasporas form to contest authoritarian states in Africa. How do they emerge and adapt? What determines the agendas they adopt and the institutional forms they assume? Under what conditions are they successful in having impact on the politics of the homeland? It focuses on African examples, with two in-depth case studies: Zimbabwe and Rwanda, both of which are authoritarian states with two of the putatively most active contemporary African diasporas.
Based on extensive multi-sited fieldwork carried out over two years in South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, the UK, Belgium, and France with funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the book traces the recent historical evolution of these transnational communities. It shows how, far from being static or permanent, diasporas are inherently political entities that have dynamic “lifecycles”; they are born, they live, they die, and they even have afterlives. Their existence and the forms they take are historically and politically contingent. Crucially, these lifecycles, and the durability of the diaapora, are determined not by the inherent qualities of the diaspora but by the role of elite “animators”, who make resources available to the diaspora. 
Overall, the book challenges how we normally think about diasporas, recognising that they are dynamic rather than static, and that they are frequently mobilized by external actors for particular political ends. On an empirical level, the book contributes two untold and important transnational politically histories: of the Rwandan (2003-2013) and Zimbabwean (2001-2013) diasporas. On a theoretical level, it offers insights into how political science and international relations can better conceptualise transnational politics in the early Twenty-First Century.

[1] Tarrow, Sidney. 1998. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 2nd ed. CUP, p. 85.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Education/Academic qualification

Politics, DPhil, Murder and Create: State Reconstruction in Post-Genocidal Rwanda 1994 – 2014 , University of Oxford

Award Date: 1 May 2014

Politics: Comparative Government, MPhil, University of Oxford

Award Date: 31 Jul 2009

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, BA (Hons), University of Oxford

Award Date: 31 Jul 2007

External positions

Research Associate, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

Aug 2016 → …

Co-Founder, Refugees' Say

1 Jun 2016 → …


  • Politics
  • Africa
  • Rwanda
  • Zimbabwe
  • Refugees
  • Forced Migration
  • Diasporas
  • Authoritarianism
  • Resettlement
  • Mobilisation
  • State Formation
  • Violence
  • International relations
  • Refugees
  • Migration
  • Resettlement
  • Forced Migration
  • Aslyum