Why we need to rethink how we look at policing in Africa

  • Jan Beek
  • Mirco Göpfert
  • Jonny Steinberg
21 July, 2017

Until recently, scholarly works on formal policing institutions in Africa were few and far between, despite the fact that in countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and others, there are very large public police bureaucracies with long histories.

Africanist scholars have on the whole written instead about informal processes and organs that fill the vacuum in which a professional, public policing bureaucracy ought to have stood; state police forces have stood as a silent ‘offstage’ other, assumed to be either barely present or not relevant. If scholars mentioned the police, they reproduced powerful and unambiguous imaginaries of corrupt, politically influenced, brutal and dysfunctional organisations treating citizens as their captives rather than their wards. The police, considered from this aspect, were not a symbol of security but of the insecurities that dictated the lives of Africans.

A renewed focus on the everyday

In a new book, Police in Africa: The Street Level View, published this month by Hurst, we gather together some of the work that we like to think constitutes the beginning of a renaissance in the study of policing in Africa. Most of the scholars are ethnographers. All have spent considerable time on the ground with African police personnel. This everydayness is new: it has been a long time since scholarship in Africa has paid any serious attention to the rhythms and mentalities of what one author refers to as ‘bureaucrats in uniform’.

Globally, the state is the expected final arbiter of security and resolver of security challenges. Police are central to that, ordinarily delegated the monopoly of legitimate violence at the core of statehood itself. This remains a constant in the way we imagine security, even in a world where some states have partially re-oriented away from directly providing it.

In Africa, as that capacity, legitimacy and monopoly was stretched to – and in some cases, past – breaking point in the 1990s, non-state actors supplanted many of those functions. In the subsequent decade of regrowth, a number of African states have moved to re-occupy this space, or to link with and control those who now do. This re-occupation is not a uniform trend and varies immensely from region to region, as developments in Northern Mali or Nigeria show. Still, Ethiopia or Rwanda have shown that African states operate within a new set of possibilities, including the expansion of state control and authority.

Study of the African state has unsurprisingly been the domain of political scientists, who have largely engaged in systemic analyses, based on assumptions about the state as a total formation. Yet this ignores that the state is an abstract, a system of institutions, people, buildings, uniforms, documents and above all, practices and the imaginaries they produce, bound together by ideology, constitution and/or simple mass collusion. So perhaps we are overdue a closer look at states in terms of those institutions, people, and practices.

This is an emergent field, and the works here form part of a wider movement. The collaborative European-African States at Work project was influential in bringing many scholars with such interests together. Other researchers have come to the same subject via other paths, through studies of change processes, histories and anthropologies of security and control, awareness of the deficiencies of existing paradigms, and of the simple salience of the issues around state policing in lived experience, all of which have led to the same fundamental enquiry: What are state police forces, and what do they really do?

Policing practices inform public expectations, shape responses and spawn imitators in their own image: equally, informal institutions and their practices are influenced by the state – vigilance groups and others speak ‘languages of state-ness’ as part of their claims to legitimacy and status.  Beyond this, policing practices and procedures structure public life in the sense of creating meaning in the lived experience of their citizens. What we see here is not an externally imposed state teetering on top of traditional African society, two spheres always doomed to collision and contention, but instead, state institutions, the people who staff them, and the people who interact with them engaged in practices which continually fuse and reshape.

Furthermore, many of these studies should point us back to the state institution as part of society. The human presence of police officers on the social and political landscape remains generally less visible than other organised sectors of state employees such as teachers, civil servants and others. Police remain an exotic object even within the realm of studying the state, and this volume is a contribution towards rendering them more visible.

What does ethnography bring to the study of police work in Africa? First, it opens a window onto the banality of everyday police work in Africa. As surprising – or as obvious – as this statement may seem, police work in Africa is as workaday as it is anywhere, a fact often overlooked by the customary debates about violence and corruption. Observing from close range the social practice of police officers’ daily work – sometimes even participating in it –  reveals that police officers in DR Congo, Ghana, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Togo control traffic, patrol streets, maintain public order, investigate petty crimes and produce bureaucratic documents, just like police anywhere. And so, ethnography shifts focus and allows us to change the subject to the everyday.

Second, ethnographic research makes accessible the police officers’ point of view, situates it among other local views on what the police do or should do, and thus enables us to question problematic blanket terms such as ‘corruption’ and ‘police violence’. Third, and perhaps most importantly, ethnography allows for close comparison. The fieldwork we drew upon was conducted in different police organizations in various African countries, ranging from the Gendarmerie in Niger to the South African Police Service. Despite obvious differences, many of the practices and interactions depicted in this volume are similar enough to withstand fruitful comparison.

A dialogue with research beyond Africa

The chapters also implicitly make global comparisons, for all of them are in dialogue with police research from non-African countries. We are convinced that such ideas can successfully travel, as long as the journey is conducted with scholarly care. The contributors to the book share the fundamental assumption that African and non-African police organisations are comparable. Comparative research in that sense means sharing questions, not conclusions. It also allows for a fruitful dialogue between African and other police scholars, opening up possibilities for scholarship in general to move in new directions.

What this book can offer is an anti-exoticist view on state policing in Africa, bringing it into dialogue with other forms of policing worldwide. Key issues that can be explored in research of the police in Africa – fragile legitimacy, competing violence specialists and transnational influences – are central to the understanding of the police and the state everywhere, but in African countries can be developed more explicitly. Thus social scientists in Africa are in a position to contribute to police research at large, as well as to broader debates on social order in contemporary societies. This is what Jean and John Comaroff hope to achieve when they insist that the ‘Global South’ ought to be a source rather than an object for theory.

The book brings together young researchers and established scholars from social anthropology, political science, peace and conflict studies, and history; from both within and outside the continent, to explore ethnographically the everyday dimensions of police work in Africa. Despite the wide range of case studies and issues, we of course cannot offer a complete picture. Notably, we acknowledge that the book is mostly composed of non-African perspectives (only four of the contributors hold positions at African universities, and only one has served as a police officer). This is partly due to the relative unpopularity of ethnography in postcolonial African universities, but more due to the forms in which research funding is available on the continent, being often driven by the demands of development programmes.

There is in fact a fair amount of work on African policing conducted by African scholars, mainly individual consultants or civil society organisations, which is not published or classified under the (sometimes unfairly named) category of “grey” literature. This work is however often conducted outside of universities and does not find its way into academic journals, in part because of more policy-oriented research aims. We hope that these limitations allow readers to map possible new fields of research and spark new approaches to policing in Africa, and inspire them to ask new questions.

The book can be ordered online at http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/police-in-africa/ and ODID staff and students can access a 25% online pre-order discount with the code PIA717.

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About the author(s)
Oliver Owen
ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow
Jan Beek
Mirco Göpfert
Jonny Steinberg