States at Work

Public Services and Civil Servants in West Africa: Education and Justice in Benin, Ghana, Mali and Niger

If the institutionalization of power, the local anchoring of central government and the self-limitation of the ruling classes through the codification of law constitute the central characteristics of the modern, Western-type state, then state-formation in Africa is still underway. In this perspective, African states appear like permanent, and never finishing building sites. However, there is a striking absence of empirically grounded studies of the day-to-day functioning of African bureaucracies, public services and the professional practices of African civil servants. There is in fact very little empirical knowledge of the banal, habitual, routinized functioning of what might be called the ‘real’ state ‘at work’.

The project analyses these ‘real’ workings of states and public services, at both the central and local levels, with a focus on two key sectors, education and justice, in four West African countries (Benin, Ghana, Mali, Niger). It combines institutional and actor approaches, complemented by a historical perspective.

Our research has highlighted that the often low productivity of African public services is not the expression of a single and uniform logic, but the result of numerous cumulated micro-differences. Like all social phenomena, African statehood is path-dependent. The sedimentation of colonial and post-colonial experiences (in particular, the projection of a despotic model of state under colonial rule, the fragmentation caused by the post-colonial development regimes and its spiral of incomplete and contradictory reforms, as well as the political mise en dependence of administrations by politicians) have resulted in highly disintegrated bureaucracies which resemble never-finishing “building sites”. Two organizational responses are the production of a large range of informal rules within these bureaucracies themselves, and the co-production of public services by public and private actors. For the public servants, these bureaucracies are highly complex, and to a large extent opaque moral orders, which are shot through by hypocrisy and numerous double-binds.


Publications in the context of the “States at Work” project

For a preliminary synthesis of research results, see Number 113 of the Working Papers of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. The Working Papers No. 82, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 103, 106, 109, 111 present findings from "States at Work" subprojects or deal with related topics.

113 Thomas Bierschenk, 2010
States at Work in West Africa: Sedimentation, Fragmentation and Normative Double-Binds
111 Azizou Chabi Imorou, 2010
L’action politico-syndicale des enseignants au Bénin (1945-2008). Approche socio-historique
109 Aurelia Wa Kabwe-Segatti, Colin Hoag & Darshan Vigneswaran, 2009
The Turnaround Strategy from below: public sector reform among South African Home Affairs migration officials in Johannesburg
106 Chris Willott, 2009
‘Get to the bridge and I will help you to cross’: Merit, personal connections, and money as routes to success in Nigerian higher education (co-published with the Centre for Development Studies, University of Bath)
103 Mirco Göpfert, 2009
Security in nocturnal Niamey – Preliminary reflections and conceptual outlook
(This working paper has now been published in a revised version in: Journal of Modern African Studies, 50(1): 53-74. ©Cambridge University Press)
97 Gifty Amo Antwi, Jan Beek et al., 2009
„They are not enlightened“ Wie Staatsbedienstete in Nordghana Differenz zwischen sich und ihren Klienten konstruieren
96 Oumarou Hamani, 2008
L'administration des carrières des magistrats au Niger. Une ethnographie du conseil de la magistrature. publication conjointe avec le LASDEL Niamey
95 Sarah Fichtner, 2009
A playground for educational reform or a battlefield of donor intervention? Local debates on primary education and the New Study Programmes in Benin (revised version)
94 Carola Lentz, 2008
Travelling emblems of power: the Ghanaian ‘Seat of State’
(This working paper has been published in a revised version in Critical Interventions 2011 (7), 45 - 64)
93 Jan Beek, 2008
Friend of the Police. Polizei in Nord-Ghana (Upper West Region)
(Dieses Arbeitspapier ist nun in einer kürzeren Version veröffentlicht / Now published in a condensed version: Jan Beek. 2011: „Every car has an offence on it“: Register polizeilichen Handelns bei Verkehrskontrollen in Nordghana. Sociologus 61 (2): 197–222.)

Nora Brandecker, 2007
Der Wandel der bildungspolitischen Ansichten der Weltbank


Participants and Sub-Projects


Since the 1950s, education has not only been of strategic importance for state and nation building and for the social promotion of post-colonial elite in Africa. It is also seen as essential to efforts towards meeting the development challenge and figures prominently in current policies of poverty reduction. In terms of its share in the national budget and in the number of employees, it is by far the most important sector (40 %) in African civil services. Educators are the civil servants which African populations are most likely to encounter, even in outlying rural areas, and they are considered as the archetypical change agents.

A physical educationu lesson at the
school Banikanni, Parakou I
(Benin) © S. Fichtner

National Forum on Education,
Cotonou (Benin) © S. Fichtner

  • Abdulai Abubakari: Non-governmental organisations and the provision of primary education in northern Ghana
  • Mahamane Tahirou Ali Bako: Primary school teachers in Niger: Professional ethics and practical norms
  • Prof. Dr. Thomas Bierschenk: Doing the state, en attendant. Ethnographic explorations among primary school teachers in the Republic of Benin
  • Azizou Chabi Imorou: Teacher’s trade unionism: pluralist claims and the construction of the State in Benin
  • Sarah Fichtner: International non-governmental organisations and norm entrepreneurs in the public primary education sector in Benin
  • Dr. Yaouga Félix Koné: Community schools in Mali: actors’ strategies and the fortunes of education
  • Prof. Dr. Carola Lentz: Local commitments, national aspirations: the history of an African elite
  • Prof. Dr. Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan
  • Clarisse Tama (associated project): Primary school teachers in Benin - between official norms and day to day practices
  • Dr. Steve Tonah: The State, non-governmental organizations and local communities in the provision of basic education in West Mamprusi, Ghana


Contrary to the education sector, the judiciary is small in terms of personnel employed as well as in terms of its share of national budgets. While the education sector could be considered paradigmatic for African development administration, the judiciary is an essential part of what might be called ‘sovereignty administration’. Its proper functioning is an essential part of all attempts to institutionalise democracy and the rule of law in African countries. Contrary to education, it has only recently become a priority of state reform and donor intervention.

Balance of Justice, Supreme Court of Ghana, Accra © C. Lentz

  • Alhassan Sulemana Anamzoya: The Judicial Processes in the Houses of Chiefs in Ghana
  • Agnès Badou (associated project): Public security providers in Benin: Identity and professional socialisation among the police and gendarmerie
  • Dr. Nassirou Bako-Arifari: The structuring effects of political scandals on the justice system in Benin
  • Jan Beek (associated project): Rules of service - Policing in Ghana
  • Jan Budniok: The politics of integrity: becoming and being a judge in Ghana
  • Dr. Moussa Djiré: Justices of the peace (justices de paix) and courts of first instance (tribunaux de première instance) between immobilism and reform
  • Mamadou Fomba: The profession of magistrate in Mali
  • Mirco Göpfert(associated project): Police and gendarmerie in Niger
  • Oumarou Hamani: Functioning and regulation of the judiciary in Niger
  • Dr. Abou-Bakari Imorou: Magistrates in Benin: Socialisation and everyday life of a profession
  • Saï Sotima Tchantipo: Justice functioning in northern Benin. A case study of the first instance court of Natitingou
  • Dr. habil. Mahaman Tidjani Alou: The social history of a legal profession: magistrates and judges in Niger