Why don’t we see more mobilization against police corruption in Africa?

Across most of Africa, police corruption is rampant. The police often serve as predatory bandits rather than providers of security. Across the continent, police will often set up unauthorized road blocks and pull vehicles over for ‘violations’ ranging from inadequate tire pressure to improper license tags. Regardless of whether violations exist – indeed, we all likely violate some statute or rule with our driving – the primary purpose of these stops is to extract bribes from citizens. Police officers will stop a car, identify a “problem,” and then begin to describe how they would be well served by a ‘cool drink’ on such a warm day. Citizens that pay are free to go. Citizens that don’t find themselves on the wrong end of the law.

Recent scholarship on this can be found in the excellent volume from Oxford University Press. Police in Africa, edited by Jan Beek, Mirco Göpfert, Olly Owen, and Johnny Steinberg, was my first real introduction into policing at the street-level in Africa. I have worked and conducted field research in multiple African countries, but never been stopped myself, and have not had personal experience with it.

But in my most recent trip to South Africa, I began to wonder – why do we see such substantial contentious mobilization against presidential corruption and not against police corruption? After all, citizens are more directly affected by paying bribes to police officers than by the kleptocracy operating in the capital city. Looking at the Afrobarometer data, it seems like we should see more mobilization against the police. After all, when polled, Africans generally believe the police are more corrupt than the executive. Consider the figure below, which maps out concerns over police corruption (in red) and concerns over elite corruption (in blue). In most regions, citizens report higher perceptions of police corruption than elite corruption, save for Zambia.

Corruption Concerns - Gradiant - by Region

This seems to hold steady over time. Aggregating perceptions of corruption to a subnational level across time, I find that perceptions of police corruption always outstrip perceptions of elite corruption. In the figure below, each point represents a subnational first-administrative district in an African country. As more countries are introduced into the Afrobarometer data, the density of points increases. While we do observe that perceptions of elite corruption begins to rise toward the level of perceptions of police corruption, it never comes particularly close.

Corruption Over Time

So – what’s going on? Why on earth don’t we see more As I think about it, several things come to mind.

  • Concerns over safety. The biggest elephant in the room is, of course, personal safety. The costs of mobilizing against police in a region where the police are known to be corrupt entails obvious concerns over detainment, violence, and possible death.
  • Salience of the issue. Against which police precinct should one protest? We all may have paid bribes to the police, but figuring out a focal point can be difficult. There is only one president, but there are thousands of police officers. Finding a way to focus mobilization is a challenge.
  • Cross-class mobilization. In African countries, the poor overwhelmingly pay bribes. The wealthy are generally not stopped, and therefore do not internalize the costs of paying bribes. Poor people are often the least able to mobilize – they do not have the time or resources to effectively bring about an anti-police campaign, and if they cannot co-opt upper classes or the business class to join, the likelihood of success is low.