African Studies Police and Policing
Tim Stapleton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0024


During the precolonial period, the many and diverse states and societies of sub-Saharan Africa generally did not have professional full-time law enforcement organizations. In some instances centralized rulers maintained a small group of armed men to enforce societal norms and judicial decisions. In most cases laws and rules, which were remembered and communicated orally given the lack of a written script, were enforced by community pressure and councils of elders. With the conquest of almost all of Africa by European colonial powers in the late 19th century, written laws were imposed and dedicated police forces were created to enforce them. The early colonial police forces were mostly paramilitary occupation armies, which violently enforced new requirements involving forced labor and taxation that thrust Africans into a new colonial capitalist economy. Gradually, as the colonial society and economy took shape during the 1920s and 1930s, and the system of indirect rule placed the maintenance of daily law and order in the hands of supposedly traditional African rulers, colonial police forces shed some of their paramilitary ethos and transformed into professional law enforcement organizations. This transition involved a more consensual approach, better-educated members, and an expanded crime prevention mission involving new scientific methods such fingerprinting and forensics. However, many of these police forces were incapable of fully changing in this manner, as they remained the supervisors of an oppressive and exploitative system that lacked essential legitimacy. As with colonial militaries, colonial police forces reflected the racial hierarchy of the time, with a few white Europeans in charge and black Africans forming the subordinate rank and file. Police conditions of service such as pay, food, accommodation and uniforms also reflected this racial stratification. Furthermore, African police were usually recruited from specific marginalized communities that European officials imagined as traditionally martial tribes. In the Decolonization era of the 1950s some colonial police forces in Africa returned to their paramilitary roots to suppress African nationalist protest and periodic insurgencies. Upon the relatively rapid decolonization of the late 1950s and 1960s, the former colonial police forces were transformed into the national police forces of newly independent states. Although many European officers stayed on for a time to ease the transition, the command structure of these forces was quickly Africanized and efforts were made to widen recruitment beyond certain ethnicities. However, as much of the colonial legal systems were inherited by the independent states, African police forces often continued their authoritarian and somewhat paramilitary approach to law enforcement. The rise of different types of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes meant that postcolonial African police forces became politicized and often continued their role of violently suppressing political opposition to the state. The post–Cold War democratization and liberalization of the 1990s inspired new but ultimately disappointed hopes that African police forces would become depoliticized and respect human rights. At the same time, the breakdown of some states and the increase in civil war prompted a need to recreate police forces in postconflict societies.


Although there are no specific journals devoted to police and policing in Africa, relevant articles have appeared in various journals related to African studies and other fields. African Affairs was first published by the Royal Africa Society in 1901 and continues to represent a venue for academic communication on the continent. The Journal of African History, the Canadian Journal of African Studies, and the International Journal of African Historical Studies were launched in the 1960s as African history and studies became a professional academic field. The Journal of Modern African Studies was also launched in the 1960s and remains an important publication related to policy and society in contemporary Africa. The Review of African Political Economy offers a radical perspective on African issues, and Third World Quarterly looks at development issues of global concern.

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