Police in Africa: The Street Level View. Jan Beek, Mirco Göpfert, Olly Owen, and Johnny Steinberg (eds). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.
We are in a heady age for nonsense about African state institutions. Portland State University political scientist Bruce Gilley launched a firestorm recently with his analytically incoherent article “The Case for Colonialism,” arguing colonial institutions produced better outcomes than post-colonial ones have and most who lived under those institutions think so. In my area of research, Mozambique, the World Bank added its own voice to the chorus of nonsense, announcing that it now considers the country to be in a “fragile situation” for the first time. The newfound fragility came as news to Mozambicans, who have seen their country rocked by both renewed civil conflict and massive financial scandal in the past three years but are now in the midst of a seemingly durable ceasefire and a slow but steady economic recovery. Western misconceptions about how African states actually function are as widespread now as they’ve ever been, even as Western engagement in Africa continues to grow.
An excellent new collection of essays on an understudied category of institutions on the continent, Police in Africa: The Street Level View, edited by Jan Beek, Micro Gopfert, Olly Owen, and Jonny Steinberg, chips away at some of those misconceptions. The authors brought together in this volume make the worthy case that the first step to understanding these institutions is to investigate how they function day-to-day. The essays in Police in Africa deal in particulars, using closely observed ethnographies of police from South Africa to Niger to trace quotidian processes of legitimation, deception, corruption, and public service. By understanding those processes, the editors argue, we can begin to answer the book’s main question: “What is the police in Africa?”
One of the blind spots Police in Africa can help correct is in the security studies literature on young, postcolonial states in Africa. Scholarship on security in these states has long tended to focus on what we might call the well-studied positive space of state capacity for violence: state militaries and formal justice systems. Reforms to that positive space—be they rollbacks of military power by the regime as part of a coup-proofing scheme or military reorganization to incorporate former insurgents as part of a peace deal—also necessarily change its understudied counterpart, the negative space of state violence capacity. The negative space constitutes all the state’s demand for violence and security not met by the military or formal justice systems, from managing small disputes to quelling anti-government protest.
A subtext of Police in Africa is that police forces, though ostensibly part of the formal justice system, often see their roles defined by the shape of that negative space. When military power shifts, police must adapt to maintain what can be an awkward balance between seeking legitimacy from society by serving demand for order and justice and seeking resources from the government by protecting regime interests. By studying policing in postcolonial contexts like the ones described in Police in Africa, strategists can better understand the effect of security sector interventions on the negative space of state violence.
Jonny Steinberg takes on the issue of negative space in his stand-out chapter on changes in South African policing since the end of apartheid. He traces the history of high policing, the protection of the regime from its citizens, in South Africa. In part because the regime did not trust its military in the early years of apartheid, high policing became the driving purpose of the apartheid-era police. The South African Police played the lead role in the regime’s domestic counterinsurgency mission and organized itself around that effort. South African Police officers who were engaged in low policing, the prevention and investigation of crime among citizens, were marginalized.
...the regime did not trust its military in the early years of apartheid, high policing became the driving purpose of the apartheid-era police...
The relationship reversed with the advent of democracy in 1994. The need for the kind of high policing that dominated during apartheid fell away and low policing, serving a newly empowered electorate, rose to the fore. With the national regime surrounded by friendly countries and unconcerned about insurrection from within, the re-named South African Police Service directed its focus toward societal demands for security. As Steinberg writes, the concept that “a protective state might...respond personally to your call during moments of strife” was new to most South Africans. It was a success, for a time, and South Africa’s murder rate fell substantially as the 1990s went on.
Yet in 2000, when divisions began to show in the ruling African National Congress, high policing suddenly came back into vogue. This time the target was dissenting voices within the regime. With the domestic intelligence service ill-equipped to enforce threats against potential defectors from the African National Congress’s coalition, then-president Thabo Mbeki appointed a new South African Police Service commissioner who set immediately to reorienting the force toward regulating dissent. Mbeki has since left office, but the demand for high policing only increased during the presidency of his successor, Jacob Zuma, reaching an infamous peak with the massacre by police of thirty-four striking miners at Marikana in 2012.
The push and pull between regime demands, societal demands, and military capacity remade South African policing, the arm of state violence most relevant in the lives of everyday South Africans, twice in a decade. As Steinberg notes, however, scholars have tended to argue instead that policing has largely remained the same in the pre- and post-apartheid eras. Though continuities certainly exist, Steinberg makes a compelling case that changes in what he calls “the relationship between policing and political order,” and what strategists might think of as the market for state violence, have continually shaped the South African Police Service as an institution.
Helene Maria Kyed’s chapter on dispute resolution procedures practiced by police in Maputo, Mozambique describes a case of policing occupying negative space shaped by criminal justice reform. Kyed, who embedded herself in an urban police station, offers an account contradicting popular perceptions of African police as corrupt or cruel and presents them working diligently for the public they are meant, normatively, to serve.
Kyed describes police acting to fill the vacuum between the services provided by the Mozambican criminal justice system—slow legal fact-finding and state punishment—and those demanded by urban Mozambicans—quick adjudications and direct restitution. When citizens come to the station with property crimes or minor conflicts, they are not directed to a regular courtroom, as the letter of the law would dictate. Instead, they enter an informal judicial process, overseen by the police themselves, in which the disputants work out acceptable compensation for the aggrieved party and a schedule for payment the police agree to enforce. The whole agreement is written on a scrap of paper, stamped with an official stamp, and the case is over.
Kyed explains this phenomenon as being a response to competition for claims to the legitimate use of violence. As community anti-crime groups play an increasing role in the security landscape of Maputo, police must change their practice to best utilize their unique strength as a simultaneously social and a legal entity. The ongoing attempt to bring the community groups under police control constantly fails, so police are forced to seek a leg up in the competition for authority by building their legitimacy through these informal judicial processes. Ironically, this has led to specialization, with police ceding more and more violent enforcement to the very community groups they are trying to compete with.
...police are forced to seek a leg up in the competition for authority by building their legitimacy through these informal judicial processes...
Recent security sector reform in Mozambique has largely taken the form of donor-driven efforts to install Western judicial models in the country. The purpose and value of the police work Kyed describes have remained illegible to international organizations engaged in security sector reform in Mozambique, however, because security sector reform advocates see police failure to turn cases over to the court system as a breakdown in the rule of law. Rather than seeing Mozambican police as an institution struggling to define itself in a time of shifting relations between the public and state institutions, as Kyed argues, these international organizations take an essentialist view by measuring Mozambican police against a static Western ideal.
Though Policing in Africa is an achievement overall, there is one chapter that stands out as below the standard set by the rest of the book. Departing from the book’s focus on the lived experience of police, Erlend Grøner Krogstad’s discussion of British-led police reform in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s and early 2000s relies on a theoretical base ill-supported by the evidence he brings to bear. Krogstad’s argument, that the reproduction of colonial relationships in post-colonial security sector reforms efforts make the reforms more likely to succeed, stumbles into a series of analytical pitfalls.
Empirically, Krogstad’s argument relies on the idea that Sierra Leoneans, and the Sierra Leone Police in particular, would rather return to the time of British colonialism than remain independent. That may be—I am hardly an expert on Sierra Leone—but the evidence Krogstad puts forward for this assertion is unconvincing. Rather than offering survey data or even a broad cultural history to support his argument, he cites interviews with Sierra Leone Police officers and government officials who have reached high ranks in the wake of the British-led security sector reform effort, as well as some of the British interveners themselves. These informants speak glowingly about British leadership and rule, and because there is no discussion of their representativeness or potential biases it seems we are meant to take at face value remarks like this one, offered by a British advisor: “[A]s a white British male, when I worked for the High Commission, we were regarded as the father of the nation.” Claims that bold demand much more rigorous support than Krogstad offers.
...the government [of Sierra Leone] sought external assistance in managing internal threats to its power. Failing to at least discuss that possibility seems like a major oversight...
Theoretically, Krogstad makes a plausible argument for how the Sierra Leonean government manipulated international interveners in the security sector reform effort, but seems remarkably credulous as to why they did so. In Krogstad’s telling, Sierra Leone “drew on popular feelings of filial affection between [Sierra Leone and Britain] in order to pull their former colonizers into the ailing security sector, and to restore their police service.” Other than this contention, that Sierra Leone sought a well-functioning police force by Western standards, we see no hypotheses about the Sierra Leonean government’s goals for its security sector reform program. A quick read of William Reno’s famous work on sovereignty and the security sector in West Africa, which includes case studies specific to Sierra Leone but is inexplicably absent from Krogstad’s citation list, would suggest at least one alternate hypothesis: that the government sought external assistance in managing internal threats to its power. Failing to at least discuss that possibility seems like a major oversight.
Krogstad’s embrace of many aspects of the prominent nonsense about African institutions is both confusing in the context of Police in Africa and disturbing on its own. His chapter shares DNA with Gilley’s article in that they both assert a yearning for a colonial past without much evidence, while assuming that all actors on the world stage share the same, Western-defined goals. Likewise, they both advocate the idea that the main limitation on Western interventions doing “good” in post-colonial countries is respect for sovereignty. These are ideas whose time has come and gone in serious scholarship, a reality much in evidence in the other chapters of Police in Africa.
...to fail at understanding the context in which malleable post-colonial institutions grow is to fail to understand the institutions themselves...
As Police in Africa suggests, to fail at understanding the context in which malleable post-colonial institutions grow is to fail to understand the institutions themselves. Security sector reform advocates, strategists, and all who seek to understand post-colonial institutions would do well to take this book’s message to heart and seek out methods for understanding how police adapt their day-to-day operations in response to shifts in their states’ capacities for violence. Though not uniformly excellent, people interested in this search will find the essays in Police in Africa to be essential reading.
Sam Ratner is a Masters in Public Administration candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, concentrating in international security policy.
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Header image: Police face off with student protesters near the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, on October 20, 2016 | Denvor DeWee/IPS.
 Jonny Steinberg, “Policing During and After Apartheid: A New Perspective on Continuity and Change,” Police in Africa: The Street Level View, Jan Beek, Mirco Göpfert, Olly Owen, and Johnny Steinberg, eds. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 69.
 Ibid, 62.
 Erlend Grøner Krogstad, “The Colonial Subtext of Police Reform in Sierra Leone," Police in Africa: The Street Level View, Jan Beek, Mirco Göpfert, Olly Owen, and Johnny Steinberg, eds. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 43.
 Ibid, 58.