Studies of policing go to the heart of debates over public authority, violence, and order. Across the globe, the state cannot be assumed to be at the center of policing practices or their authorization. Across Africa, a diverse mix of individuals, groups, and corporations are involved in policing people’s everyday lives and the spaces in which they live them. Categorizing the different groups and individuals in this varied landscape is no simple task. Even drawing lines between “state” and “non-state” policing is not as easy as it may first appear. In reality, any constructed boundary is likely to be more porous and fluid than imagined. In some cases, this is because the service providers become entangled with the state. State officials, for example, may moonlight for other policing organizations. Conversely, state institutions might collaborate with, or outsource work to, civilian and corporate actors. In other cases, groups who identify as non-state actors may still mimic the symbols, materials and practices of the state in an attempt to bolster their own claims to public authority.
Faced with the difficulty of sustaining any simple divide between categories such as “state” or “non-state” policing scholars have taken a variety of analytical routes: refining their definitions; developing “ideal types” against which messy empirical realities can be juxtaposed, or moving away from bounded typologies in an attempt to understand group and individuals on their own terms. Taking the latter course, this article highlights the variety of putatively non-state policing organizations and formations across the continent. In doing so, it highlights that the presence of private security corporations, rebel groups, neighbourhood watches, or so-called mobs are no simple indicator of the absence or weakness of state institutions and imaginaries. Understanding everyday negotiations over statehood and sovereignty requires a more nuanced approach. When this path is taken, and policing landscapes are studied in all their complexity, we gain crucial insights into the ways in which being and belonging, law and order, power and legitimacy, privilege and oppression function in any given context.