The Two Faces of State Capacity

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Maria Nagawa, covers the new article by Milli Lake, London School of Economics, “Policing Insecurity”.

Building state capacity has historically been portrayed as the means through which nations are consolidated and peace is enforced. To that end, resourcing and training security forces can deter violence and ensure predictable, rule-governed behavior. This line of literature has ignored the violence and brutality that can come with the enforcement of rules by security apparatuses, with pronounced consequences in countries where the links between state and citizen remain tenuous and conflict is rife. Milli Lake investigates the implications of capacitating the enforcement arm of the state, specifically the police, in a region that has suffered prolonged conflict – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She finds that citizens live in a state of perpetual insecurity, even during periods when conflict is inactive. State actors are principal architects of this insecurity.

Across political contexts, the state projects the image of security for its citizens, and can also heighten insecurity for certain populations. Security forces often engage in predatory practices or policies, which generate revenue and contribute to local economies through acts like stop and frisk, asset forfeitures, and physical brutality. These impositions are racialized, gendered, and classed, exacerbating the marginalization and criminalization of a state’s most vulnerable citizens. Rather than viewing these practices as aberrations, many scholars suggest that consolidation of violence is foundational to state development.

But because state legitimacy is sustained through citizens’ willingness to comply with its laws, the abuse or misuse of state power can also undermine citizens’ trust in the state and question its legitimacy. These dynamics prove particularly pertinent in areas with recurrent conflict, where trust and confidence are most needed. It is precisely here that the author seeks to uncover the logics underpinning such behavior, and how these actions affect citizens’ experiences of conflict and violence, and their trust and confidence in the state.

The author uses a multiyear ethnographic approach in the conflict-prone Eastern DRC, focusing on the interactions between police forces and citizens. Her observations are built on 43 work history interviews of police officers, and approximately 200 background interviews conducted for various projects in the Kivus between 2008 and 2018. North Kivu is compelling as an empirical site, having undergone years of recurrent conflict and been a prominent target for international efforts at peacebuilding and state capacity enhancement through policing and counterterrorism training. Police presence in this area is therefore more visible than anywhere else in the country. Despite the presence of such extensive capacity building efforts in this conflict zone, little work has been done on the nexus between policing, peacebuilding, and state making in the DRC. Additionally, conflict has typically been studied as a discontinuous event, and yet it manifests more protractedly and fluidly.

The author finds that conflict is experienced routinely as a “war of the everyday” and state actors, specifically the ones responsible for ensuring law and order, are central to producing it. Asked about how they have been affected by the war, citizens proximate to and far from active conflict zones speak not of armed struggle, but of the daily struggle to cope with threats to their security and wellbeing. They describe war as “death, poverty, disease, and famine… instability,” or “…massacring people without using bullets,” and “…wars are still in progress because kidnapping, harassment, and uncertainty are the phenomena that destabilize our lives.” When asked to pinpoint the actors most responsible for perpetuating the war, citizens lay blame largely on state actors. Respondents describe policing as “… When we see uniforms, all we see is prison, torture, and fines.” For women, harassment can escalate to sexual assault – “I told him, ‘I’m ill, I’m ill.’ He said, “I don’t care about your diseases…. They started raping me”.

“Actions that are important for building trust and complicity from citizens but that can also be corrosive, especially in conflict prone regions.” Although citizens report pernicious interactions with police forces, police officers have developed a logic of behavior rooted in their own sense of victimhood and in institutional norms. Many officers perceive their behavior to constitute the normal work of policing, including its appropriate remuneration. Ad hoc fines and bribes not only support police officers and their families, but also entire units, particularly because they are far from administrative centers and experience sporadic financial transfers. As one officer describes “I do not even receive the wages I am owed by the state. After eight years of service, my superior still tells me that my serial number came out empty… Many others are in the same situation.” Bribes then form a part of an officer’s motivation. “The amende is not ours but it is for our commanders. We only eat with prison money…” When pressed on the appropriateness of their behavior, officers resort to a logic of victimhood. Along with citizens, they are often victims of the conflict, living precariously and in poverty: “… we are not going to behave as one who is motivated [paid]. While I am worrying about my family who spend each night [hungry], how am I able to defend the population? That [changes] me.” At the same time, police work provides protection and status, which is why many join. “I have a position of authority and honor in the community … and when I go to some office or bureau to ask for a service, I get it quickly.”, and “It was to protect myself against certain realities in the community such as paying taxes, forced labor, and being neglected.”

The author lays out a novel framework—state building is not only about the enforcement of rules, but also about the conditions with which policies interact to produce state actions. Actions that are important for building trust and complicity from citizens but that can also be corrosive, especially in conflict prone regions. The author makes the following suggestions for future state capacity building efforts: accompanying organizational reforms with normative shifts about the work of policing through dialogue and community-centered accountability, encouraging state actors and citizens to see themselves as part of a shared fate, and shifting resources towards robust social services that can stave off the vulnerabilities that even those who join the police force face.


  • Maria Nagawa is a joint Ph.D. candidate in the Public Policy and Political Science departments. Her research focuses on governance and development. Previously, Maria has worked as a Lecturer at Makerere University and conducted research on trade, labor, state capacity and development assistance with Ugandan, Brazilian, Canadian and French organizations.
  • Article details: LAKE, MILLI. 2022. “Policing Insecurity”.  American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–17
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.

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