Frederick Cooper’s concept of the gatekeeper state is a useful model for thinking about colonial and post-colonial continuities in African statehood. Yet the concept has a number of weaknesses or pitfalls: including treating states as singular, homogenous entities, a tendency to economic reductionism, and reinforcing a pathological view of African politics. In this article I make the conceptual case for focusing on gatekeeping practices which, although they may produce certain ‘state effects’, have more flexibility and malleability than is sometimes imagined. A Foucauldian approach to the state, with attention to modes of biopower and governmentality, enables researchers to examine capillary forms of state action which sometimes play out very differently than neo-patrimonial approaches suggest. This is illustrated through the case of the Niger Delta: despite appearing a ‘best case’ example of a Nigerian gatekeeper state, it is possible to observe the governance and resistance of territories, subjectivities and economies in much more diverse ways. Ultimately, this enables a form of politically engaged, closely historical, theoretically nuanced style of analysis, which is quite close to Cooper’s broader approach to African politics and imperial/colonial history.