The Corps habillés (i.e.: members of 'paramilitary institutions', policemen, provincial guards, forest agents, border guards, custom officers, gendarmes, etc.) constitute an highly influential and yet understudied social actor of contemporary African states. In the discourse on ‘good governance’, civil servants in uniforms are mainly perceived as unprofessional and incompetent, as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Meanwhile, social scientists have barely analysed them, feeling unease studying those agents who are neither truly ‘militaries’ nor fully ‘civilians’.
This panel breaks with normative perspectives and looks at African bureaucrats in uniform as they are and not as they should be. It avoids considering professional categories (such as the distinction military/civil) as given, but rather analyses how professional identities are constructed. These institutions (police, custom administration, forest services, gendarmerie) share common practices and values (paramilitary hierarchy, a strong esprit de corps, functions of control and repression) and therefore constitute a specific professional field. Yet, this social space is also structured by several distinctions: different duties such as security, justice, natural resources, taxation, environmental protections ; different historical trajectories ; different technical skills. This panel will draw both on recent studies on state coercion and on the new anthropology and sociology of state servants, in order to shed a new light on the field of African civil servants in uniform.
The research questions are, among others: What are the genesis and structure of the professional field of men and women in uniforms? What are the circulations, competitions and distinctions between the different institutions involved in the maintenance of order? What are the different professional practices and skills (arrests, interrogatories, investigations, patrols, redaction of charge-sheets, etc.) included in their day-to-day work? How do they perceive themselves and how are they perceived by others? How do they react to the recent modernisation reforms? What discourses do they use to justify their actions? In short: How do Africans engage in state policing, in law enforcement as well as in coercion?