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Key findings
  • On average across 18 countries, the police are perceived to be the most corrupt among eight government and societal institutions. Almost half (48%) of respondents say “most” or “all” police officials in their country are corrupt.
  • Though generally high, perceived corruption among the police varies widely across countries, from just one-fifth (22%) of Cabo Verdeans and Tunisians to more than twothirds (68%) of Gabonese, Ugandans, and Kenyans who see “most” or “all” police officials as corrupt.
  • Fewer than half (45%) of respondents say they trust the police “somewhat” or “a lot.”
  • About one in seven citizens (15%) sought assistance from the police in the previous year. Far more (38%) 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.
  • Among those who encountered the police, 52% found it difficult to get the assistance they needed, and one in three had to pay a bribe to get help (35%) or avoid problems (33%). The poor are especially likely to be victimized by poor service and demands for bribes.

With echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, massive demonstrations against police brutality have recently rocked Nigeria (Busari, 2020; Obaji, 2020). Protests that initially focused on the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have broadened to demands for systemic police reform (Amnesty International, 2020; Adegoke, 2020).

Although the #EndSARS protests have drawn the greatest international attention, they are only the latest and most visible protests against police abuses in Africa, where protesters have expressed their frustration in countries as diverse as Ghana (BBC, 2020), Kenya (Odula, 2020), and South Africa (Harrisberg, 2020). Long-simmering tensions over the issue have been exacerbated in some countries – Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa among them – by harsh state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The protests in Nigeria and elsewhere have erupted – and continue – against a background of widespread public perceptions and experiences of the police as corrupt, untrustworthy, and unhelpful. These negative views are particularly strong in Nigeria, but importantly, they are common in other African countries as well.

Based on face-to-face interviews in 18 African countries in 2019/2020, Afrobarometer can identify patterns of distrust and high levels of perceived police corruption in many countries. These perceptions are shaped by 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. In Botswana, Namibia, and Cabo Verde, for example, payment of bribes is far less common, and getting assistance from the police is less difficult. While these countries still have room for improvement, their police forces may serve as models for poorly performing countries to examine and emulate.

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny

Josephine is Afrobarometer's acting director of communications.