In sub-Saharan Africa the police sector is often an underperforming institution, typically because of low resources or politicized leadership. The resulting insecurity harms government legitimacy and frustrates entrepreneurship and economic growth. African security partners can better counter this dynamic by drawing lessons from police sector reform in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan. These cases show that locally trusted, sustainable programs outperform broad institutional change efforts.
Weak states and postconflict transitions typically feature high levels of official corruption and transnational organized crime. In post-apartheid South Africa, an elite police unit called “the Scorpions” was created to confront such challenges and quickly achieved a conviction rate of 90 percent. Crucial to its success were its small size, focused mission, advanced investigative techniques, and, most importantly, its autonomy from political interference. The unit was disbanded after investigating one too many politicians, but clearly demonstrated the value of investigative units and apolitical police forces. Français | Português
Many African police forces operate amid low-levels of oversight and accountability, leading to draconian tactics and brutality, whether during the dispersal of lawful protests or even when handling minor crimes. In many countries, armed vigilante groups have resulted, with many citizens seeking unlawful means of policing and justice. This comparative assessment of policing across Africa details the generally insufficient patchwork of auditors, police service commissions, national human rights bodies, and other means of police oversight that need to be strengthened to build more effective police forces.
Rising crime rates in Africa are often attributed to a lack of development and poverty, but the high crime rates in relatively rich South Africa upend the idea that development is a cure-all for crime. In fact, police-to-population ratios, urbanization rates, and the use of repressive or paramilitary tactics are generally better determinants of crime prevalence in southern and eastern Africa. Controlling crime in Africa requires committed efforts to professionalize police forces, community-police collaborations, and concerted engagement through regional policy communities.
Security Topics: Police Sector Reform