Perceptions are Bad, Reality is Worse: Citizens Report Widespread Predation by African Police

Over the past two years, the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria and widely reported abuses by police enforcing pandemic restrictions have drawn renewed scrutiny to the behaviour of Africa’s security forces. Massive demonstrations against police brutality have rocked not only Nigeria but also Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. The protests in Nigeria and elsewhere erupted against a background of widespread public perceptions and experiences of the police as corrupt, untrustworthy, and unhelpful. The question of whether police should be seen as “protectors or predators” increasingly shapes the debate. Based on interviews in 34 African countries in 2019/2021, Afrobarometer identifies continuing patterns of distrust and high levels of perceived police corruption in many countries. These perceptions are shaped by direct personal experiences that too often involve unwanted encounters with the police, poor service to the public, and frequent demands for bribes. While Nigeria is one of the worst-afflicted countries, it is by no means the only place where these problems are widespread. A few countries offer a brighter picture. Both perceived corruption and actual bribe payments are far less common in Botswana, Cabo Verde, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania, and Tunisia. Ratings of government performance in fighting crime and citizens’ ability to get assistance from the police are well above average in Benin, Tanzania, Botswana, and Eswatini. While these countries still have room for improvement, their police forces may serve as models for poorly performing countries to examine and emulate. But these findings highlight the fact that many police forces across the continent have considerable work to do before they can be regarded as positive, protective promoters of security and social development, rather than a drain on society that preys especially upon the most vulnerable populations.