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Key findings
  • On experience of crime and insecurity: Many citizens don’t feel secure in their neighbourhoods (47%) or even inside their homes (39%). The public’s sense of security has declined significantly since the last survey cycle in 2016/2018.
  • On assessments of government performance: On average across 34 countries, just 40% of Africans give their governments positive marks for efforts to reduce crime. For the first time in more than two decades’ worth of Afrobarometer surveys, a majority say their governments are performing badly on this issue.
  • On police presence: Countries vary widely in their levels of police presence in communities as observed via police stations, roadblocks, and related evidence. Afrobarometer field teams recorded the presence of police stations in more than two-thirds of enumeration areas (EAs) in Cameroon (68%) but fewer than one in five in Niger (19%).
  • On corruption and (dis)trust: On average across 34 countries, the police are perceived to be the most corrupt among nine key government and societal institutions. Almost half (47%) of respondents say “most” or “all” police officials in their country are corrupt.
  • On encounters with the police: About one in seven citizens (15%) sought assistance from the police in the previous year. Far more (39%) say they encountered the police in other circumstances, such as checkpoints, identity checks, or during investigations. Young, urban, male, and more educated respondents are most likely to have contact with the police.
  • On the effects of bribery: There is a strong negative correlation at the country level between the proportion of the population that has paid a bribe to police and levels of trust in police. Bribery clearly undermines citizens’ confidence in their security forces.

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 (Busari, 2020; Obaji, 2020; Amnesty International, 2020; Adegoke, 2020) but also Ghana (BBC, 2020), Kenya (Odula, 2020), and South Africa (Harrisberg, 2020).

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.

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny

Josephine is the knowledge transfer manager for Afrobarometer.

Carolyn Logan

Carolyn is the director of analysis at Afrobarometer

Luyando Katenda

Luyando Mutale Katenda is a student in the Masters of Public Policy program at Michigan State University.