Hybrid Security

by Niagalé Bagayoko, Eboe Hutchful and Robin Luckham · June 20, 2016.

Prevailing approaches to SSR - and the associated policy literature - have tended to stress Westphalian notions of the state characterized by legal-rational norms and institutions and have more often than not concentrated on the formal arrangements of its security and justice institutions. This may well account for many of the limitations of efforts to reform the security sector and its governance systems. Actually such approaches are fundamentally at variance with the underlying realities of the African context, where many political and social transactions (not least in the security sector) take place in the context of informal systems, and where a wide array of institutions operate alongside or within nominally formal political institutions. Although understanding and controlling the state dimension remains essential, the complexity of Africa as well as the recent crises that have occurred on the continent involving the security apparatus call inseparably for a deep understanding of societal realities, often informal, within which the security governance in Africa is rooted. In Mali for instance, ignorance or misunderstanding of secular rules tacitly governing the relations between and within Northern communities such as Tuaregs, Songhai, Fulani or Arabs, explain, to a large extent, the difficulties in implementing the 2015 Alger Agreement, in particular the SSR-related provisions. Ignorance of the non-state actors, non-codified norms and non-formal networks active in the security realm – as well indeed as of the extent to which state policies in Africa are themselves impregnated by informal norms and practices — leads inexorably to a core element in explaining the failure of orthodox, state-centric security-related policies. Yet, socio-cultural realities do matter in understanding African security environments and tailoring solutions suited to them. African states themselves are very aware of this dimension and international partners also need to wise up to those practices, not least to better grasp the plurality of the regulation and governance systems negotiated and mobilized by different kinds of actors, within and beyond the domain of the state.

Increasingly, references to the informal security and justice sector have crept into the SSR toolkits, although so far based upon insufficient empirical knowledge of how this sector actually functions in the security marketplace, or of the complex interplay between formal and informal institutions, which determine how policies play out on the ground and impact (or don’t impact) the lives of citizens and communities. As growingly underscored by a new body of literature, security provisioning in Africa tends to be predominantly bottom-up, not top-down, delivered by an array of traditional, customary and informal actors, such as chiefs and other traditional authorities, clan elders in segmentary lineage systems; magistrates courts and dispute resolution bodies; community and local policing actors, for instance the ethnic and community ‘mutualities’ which stand in for traditional chiefs in the Eastern DRC by providing security, mediation and judgements; hunters and similar associations including Kamajors or Dozos in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire; vigilantes, local militias or community protection groups like Sungusungu in Eastern Africa or the ‘Bakassi boys’ in Nigeria. Yet, informal norms and informal networks are definitely as important as informal actors and still have not been investigated in a satisfactory way. The ways in which the large and heterogeneous informal sector is playing in concert or in competition with the state also has to be better captured in current security analysis and in security governance structures or strategies.

This complex amalgam of formal and informal networks, actors and norms which, alongside legally established structures, influence decision-making as well as policy implementation in the security sector together constitute what can be seen as “hybrid security orders”. The concept of “hybridity” can provide a powerful analytical tool to unravel governance in Africa. By relying on the perspectives offered by sociology and anthropology in the daily functioning of security provision (both at the central and local levels), the analysis of hybrid security governance hopes to provide new and refreshing insights on networks and alliances as well as on competition, tensions, and conflicts within African defence and security services which may help to explain some difficulties in implementing SSR processes. The hybridity approach also seeks to show how formal and informal systems tend to overlap, interrelate and interpenetrate at complex levels, states and informal networks not being seen as mutually exclusive but rather considered as embedded in each other. For instance, African states rely formally on national armed and security forces. Yet, to ensure security on the ground, state agents (the police, the military) are often led to install simultaneously indirect strategies in building alliances with elites at the local level, taking into account traditional standards and authorities as well as customary justice, or by striking tacit agreements with security groups, including militias installed by rural or urban communities. Some African countries, such as Niger, have also tried to cope with “informalisation” dynamics by officially and legally recognizing the role played by customary institutions. Another telling example stems from measures aiming to encourage the inclusion of the gender dimension in security sector reform processes which should take more into account the influence of secret societies such as the Poro or the Sande in Liberia and Sierra leone, solely controlled by women, but that could contribute, based on the very conservative principles they promote, to undermine the foundation of the principle of men-women equality.    

Nevertheless, some element of caution is required in handling the concept of hybridity, including distinguishing between hybridity as an analytical tool and hybridity as a tool for policy. It is in particular crucial to avoid the cynical instrumentalization of local communities, actors and networks reminiscent of the era of colonial indirect rule, or more contemporary invocations of “composite forces” by the American military as a counter-insurgency tool deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, with little regard for the character of the ‘non-state’ actors and networks (usually warlords) involved in such transactions. There is also a dire need to discard any notion that ‘tradition’ and ‘customs’ are frozen in the past and stagnant: to the contrary, the hybridity approach underscores that traditions are constantly evolving and are reinterpreted in a variety of discursive strategies by both state and non-state actors. In fact, the key is to determine whether the concept of “hybridity” can provide an opening for bottom-up and locally-owned initiatives seeking to address governance deficits in existing SSR strategies, in the process tapping into practices with genuine resonance among ordinary citizens as well as vulnerable populations. The hybridity approach can thus serve to explain how hybrid security systems are experienced at the grass roots by supposed beneficiaries, and in particular how they impact the lives of vulnerable groups and shape citizen expectations of security and security entitlements. The benchmark in assessing hybrid norms, actors, networks and practices should be the safety of ordinary individuals and communities as well as respect shown for human rights and dignity: from this standpoint, hybridity can also be envisioned as a participatory tool.

Hence there is a need to develop a more subtle empirical knowledge of hybrid security orders on the ground in order to identify those which can provide a foundation for more effective and durable SSR/G programming:

- The challenge will first lie in a detailed mapping of informal norms, actors and networks –shifting through these case by case– in order to clearly distinguish those likely to make a positive contribution to or on the contrary undermine citizens’ safety and democratic security governance.

- Furthermore, some deep-seated traditions and informal practices may well constitute a rich repository of values to inform and sustain normative dimensions of SSR/G, for instance ancient norms which have been orally transmitted in West Africa through the Korugan Fuga Charter.

- Finally, by putting an emphasis on parameters very rarely taken into account, such an investigation of “hybrid security orders” might also suggest new approaches to SSR assessment and monitoring and evaluation (M and E), focused on trends that profoundly shape African societies.

Thus, in addition to contributing to strengthening the research and evidence base of SSR, the hybridity approach might carry important policy implications for how security governance is approached in Africa.


This blog entry has been issued in the framework of the programme "Hybrid Security Governance in Africa: Implications for State-building" funded by the International Development Research Centre/Centre de recherche pour le développement international (IDRC/CRDI) of Canada. 


Tanya Hernandez
Jul 19, 2016 11:38:52 AM

Dear Niagalé, dear Eboe, dear Robin,

Thank you for bringing up this highly relevant issue about the importance of hybridity in the programming and implementation of SSR initiatives in the African context. It is crucial to fully grasp the functioning ways of the informal actors, but more importantly for SSR programming, how they interact with each other, the state, external actors, and the local populations. This is especially true given that the way these actors interact will heavily influence the way in which policies (formal or unstated) are carried out. The specific security needs of the population should be the main driving force and the framework that shapes SSR programmes and this is inextricably connected to the informal structures of security provision given their deep entrenchment in society (whether it be by force or because of their personal ties with the members of the communities they serve).

Gathering this information in a comprehensive manner would require a meaningful empirically-based broad consultation of the population strengthened by the inclusion of a concrete anthropological perspective throughout SSR processes. With this kind of approach, it would be easier to mitigate the dangers of hybridity that often times tend to reinforce the status quo due to a lack of understanding of the context and consultation of the communities, for example the strong patronage networks that perpetuate corruption and impunity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Therefore, instead of dictating what the governance fabric should be, it would be more productive to see what is actually in place, officially and unofficially, and work in a flexible and adaptable manner with those structures to find a more effective way to improve the security and uphold international human right standards for the populations in question.

Therefore, I would also add to your three key points, a meaningful consultation of the local communities.


Tanya Hernandez