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.
Dominant narratives and theories developed at the turn of the 21st century to account for the links between state formation and civil wars in Africa converged around two main ideas. First was the contention that the increase in civil wars across the continent—like that in many parts of the globe, including South Asia and Central Europe—was linked to state failure or decay. Violent conflict thus came to be seen as the expression of the weakness, disintegration, and collapse of political institutions in the postcolonial world. Second, guerrilla movements, once viewed as the ideological armed wings of Cold War contenders, then came to be seen as roving bandits interested in plundering the spoils left by decaying states, and their motives as primarily, if not only, economic or personal, rather than political. However, recent research has challenged the reductionism that underlay such accounts by looking into the day-to-day politics of civil war, thus moving beyond the search for the motives that bring rebels and rebel movements to wage war against the established order. Drawing on this literature, this article argues that violent conflict is part and parcel of historical processes of state formation. Thus, in order to understand how stable political institutions can be built in the aftermath of civil war, it is essential to study the institutions that regulate political life during conflict. This implies a need not only to look at how (and if) state institutions survive once war has broken out, but also to take into account the institutions put in place in areas beyond the control of the state.