From the colonial period onwards, there has been a marked expansion in the range of formal and informal institutions enforcing regimes of law and social order across Africa. At the same time, practices and ideas about law, justice, policing and professionalism have proliferated, drawing on a diverse range of influences. This themed part issue explores the lived realities of law and social order in colonial and postcolonial Africa. Building on a rich and growing literature, the articles examine how diverse actors such as ‘ordinary’ citizens, the police and legal professionals understand, enact and contest ideas about law and social order. The articles that follow adopt different disciplinary perspectives and draw on fieldwork from Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The papers also illustrate how thinking about law and social order can cast a light on important themes for Africanist scholars, such as processes of formal and informal institutionalization on the continent and the public's investment in such institutions.