Boundary work: Police in West Africa

Corruption, support of violent political regimes and protection of neoliberal economic interests: West Africa’s police are usually regarded as a dysfunctional state institution, both in popular and scholarly discourses. Representing the state´s monopoly on the legitimate use of force and thus expected to be politically neutral, the police are often criticized as institutionally not autonomous. Solid empirical research on the police in this part of the world, however, is scarce. The research project analyses the autonomy of police institutions at the level of everyday police practices. West African police work in an environment of low legitimacy is faced with competing non-state policing organizations and depends on superordinate or coordinate state institutions. Police practices have adapted to these conditions and therefore have come to terms with permanent informal interference by non-police actors, in some cases using the situation to their advantage by outsourcing certain police tasks. Despite these adaptations, policemen still aim to partially preserve the autonomy of their institution.

The project analyses this ambivalent boundary work in which police and civil actors constantly adjust, redraw or preserve the boundary distinguishing them in everyday interactions. A comparison of policemen’s boundary work in two quite different countries, such as Ghana (Anglophone, stable democracy since 1992) and Niger (Francophone, presently authoritarian), permits researchers to analyze how historical and political contexts shape police practices. The comparative approach also allows to elaborate on collectively shared practices specific to the police profession and to contribute to empirical and theoretical research on the state in Africa.

In the final period (2013 till March 2014), the project will study processes of transnational transfer of police models to West Africa, their local appropriation, but also how West African police work produces innovations that may generate transfer processes in the reverse direction.


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Image: Gendarme in Niger visiting workers on a communal field. Photo: Mirco Göpfert©.