Designing Constitutional Arrangements for Democratic Governance in Africa: Challenges and Possibilities


A Working Conference

March 30-31 2006




The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and the African Studies Program of Indiana University, with the support of the Office of International Programs, are pleased to organize this Working Conference under the theme “Designing Constitutional Arrangements for Democratic Governance in Africa: Challenges and Possibilities.” This prospectus provides a brief discussion of the research orientation and research works from which the conference draws its inspiration, and the issues and themes that need to be explored to make for clearer understanding of the institutional choices available in the development of systems of democratic governance in Africa.




Since the end of the Cold War, scholars and policy analysts have taken greater interest in studying the nature and quality of governance in Africa. This renewed interest is due partly to concerns about the failure of overcentralized and predatory governments and the tragic consequences which this failure has wrought in countries such as the DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia, and partly due to appreciation of the modest but steady gains being made in democratization and socio-economic development in countries such as Ghana, Senegal, and Botswana. Establishing and sustaining systems of democratic governance is perceived by scholars and practitioners as one of Africa’s most critical current challenges. In attempting to meet this challenge in post-conflict situations, governance reconstruction projects typically seek to establish systems of governance largely by holding elections and reestablishing or strengthening the central state. In countries said to be making democratic and socio-economic gains, the challenge as seen by development specialists is to achieve what is called “democratic consolidation” (i.e., holding successive elections and ensuring alternation of political parties to the leadership of the central government) and to develop responsive state capabilities. For most international development specialists, the creation of what is called the “capable state” is the ultimate goal of African governance initiatives.


Though dominant, state-centered approaches to the constitution of governing orders in Africa have not been able by themselves to yield governance arrangements that offer institutional opportunities for the participation of local people in decision making, nor have they been sufficiently rooted in society to be considered wholly legitimate by local people. Instead, such top-down governments in Africa have often tended to be fragile, predatory, and repressive when resisted by local people. Even where they have developed substantial distributive capacity, they continue to be confronted with an enduring crisis of legitimacy and an inability to sufficiently draw upon the self-organizing capabilities of society that could make these governments resilient and sustainable. Thus, the critical challenge of governance in Africa is not to establish and sustain capable states, but to constitute systems of democratic self-governance. This point has been convincingly made in Workshop research on Africa and in works of several other researchers.


Recent Workshop Research on African Governance


Research on African governance challenges by Workshop scholars, like all other Workshop research, uses the conceptual frame and analytical tools of institutional analysis associated with the Workshop. This mode of analysis helps us understand collective action by unpacking the processes that make up collective undertakings. It helps us reach deeper understandings of the contexts, casts of actors, rules, and incentives that pattern interactions among actors at multiple levels and multiple scales.


Using institutional analysis, Sujai Shivakumar makes a compelling case for a conception of development that departs from state-centered formulations. He argues that development denotes self-generated and self-sustained human progress; therefore, what he calls the constitution of development involves the use of local knowledge and adaptation of knowledge from elsewhere through processes of self-organization and choice. Shivakumar rejects the notion that development can be “brought” from outside and “delivered” to a society or can be sustained simply by the infusion of resources from external actors. Development, he argues, is a product of constitutional orders of self-governance that unlock the potential of ordinary people.


Sheldon Gellar has analyzed processes of governance in Senegal that go beyond an understanding of state-centered institutions. He provides insights into the nature of self-organization among various communities of Senegalese and examines the role of language, religion, and the physical and social features of society in shaping institutions of governance. Gellar provides valuable insights into the possibilities for strengthening self-organizing capabilities, minimizing prospects of destructive conflict and developing and sustaining systems of democratic self-governance in Senegal.


Mike McGinnis’ book on the Horn of Africa analyzes the interwoven patterns of conflicts that range from local to regional scales. Using lucid prose and game theoretic models, he shows the unfolding of what he calls “the sequential compounding of dilemmas of collective action” and the tragic consequences these impose on the ordinary people of the region. He probes the incentives of actors and the logic that drives their actions and leads to cycles of violent conflicts. McGinnis also analyzes the patterns of international responses showing how failure of external actors, including mediators and conflict resolution specialists, to understand the true nature of the underlying problems, the rationality of actors, and the movement of local people toward an emergent more peaceful equilibrium detracts from the attainment of sustainable peaceful outcomes. The contribution of McGinnis’ work also lies in the suggestions that flow from his analysis for revising global strategies for conflict transformation: He proposes as the best way forward, a polycentric, multi-leveled approach involving a coordinated network of local, national, regional and international actors each addressing appropriate aspects of the challenge of conflict transformation.


Clark Gibson’s work has focused on natural resource governance and on international development partnerships in Africa. He has dug under the surface of perverse wildlife policies in Africa and examined how incentives have repeatedly led to outcomes other than those professed by politicians and public officials. Recently he has examined donor-recipient relationships to show how projects ostensibly “owned” by recipients rarely actually attain significant levels of recipient ownership. His study of the energy section in Zambia illustrates how donor driven projects dominate the portfolio of even the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, one of the more responsible and responsive IDAs in the contemporary world.


Amos Sawyer sought to apply the conceptual framework and analytic tools of institutional analysis to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of state failure in Liberia and the resulting plunder and violence that brought misery and tragedy to ordinary people in that country. His research led him to propose a polycentric approach to the reconstitution of governance arrangements in order to achieve durable peace. He argues that attainment of durable peace requires 1) the constitution of political order upon a theory of shared sovereignty and 2) institutional arrangements characterized by polycentricity. These findings depart from the model of the centralized state, which is underpinned by a theory of unitary sovereignty.


Other Workshop colleagues and partners in the Consortium for Self-Governance in Africa ( are doing research in a similar perspective. For example, Cheibane Coulibaly is doing a study of subsidiarity and local governance in Mali, Alex Gboyega is advancing his work on self-organization and neighborhood security in Ibadan, Nigeria; Shittu Akinola is studying collective action of local communities for the provision of local public goods. Kunle Oyerinde is completing a dissertation that examines divergent constitutional orders among Yoruba communities in southwestern Nigeria. Although these examples do not exhaust the body of studies that can be called Workshop-related research on Africa, they help to identify critical challenges and suggest ways of addressing them.


Examples of Related Research on Africa by Other Distinguished Scholars


There are a growing number of studies by distinguished Africanists that seek to go beyond top-down approaches to the constitution of political order in Africa and instead explore a range of institutional choices and strategies of constituting political order in that region of the world. Workshop scholars find it very useful to strengthen the discourse with these distinguished scholars who are exploring questions similar to those we are struggling with at the Workshop. Crawford Young, Maxwell Owusu and Goran Hyden are among scholars who very early on doubted the character and sustainability of the post-colonial African state even as others extolled its potential to promote democratic governance and become the engine of African development. There are others whose work cannot be mentioned given time and space constraints.


Young’s rigorous analysis of the colonial foundations of the post-colonial state in Africa is a seminal work. He has done some of the most insightful analyses of the changing dynamics of African polities: the erosion of authority and capacity of the post-colonial state in the face of changing external circumstances and internal challenges, the retreat of local communities from the state and the challenge posed by the array of traditional institutions, the place (or lack thereof) of religion, the emergence of civil society, and the increase of internal wars. According to Young, these developments signify the passing of the post-colonial state. Young argues that current initiatives intended to rebuild the African state by establishing liberal democratic institutions and market economic systems are meeting countervailing pressures from external forces such as globalization and internal factors such as the competing self-organizing tendencies extant in African society. He concludes that although processes of state-rebuilding in Africa are influenced by norms of constitutionalism and capitalism, they are not likely to yield liberal democratic political orders. What then is the way forward? Young argues that the way forward must take into account the local and indigenous patterns of governance and the external environments within which African societies are nested. He continues to struggle with ideas that press the frontiers in the exploration of alternatives to current processes of state-rebuilding in Africa.


Maxwell Owusu has long argued that failure to “domesticate” democracy in Africa is at the core of the crisis of governance in Africa. Owusu uses the concept of domestication as a horticulturist would: “a process of cultivation, replanting or transplanting—of gradual but steady growth…a concern for appropriate local knowledge and conditions…” He draws a distinction between the core values of democracy and the institutions that give them expression. The former, he argues, are universal and the latter are context-specific. He stresses that the challenge of establishing systems of democratic governance in Africa requires first identifying and nurturing African political traditions and institutions that are underpinned by democratic principles and, where possible, infusing appropriate values in other African institutions so that they too can be adapted in a system of democratic governance. He stresses that democratic governance in Africa will logically involve what he calls “mixed governments” that are constitutive of traditional chieftaincies and of western-style governmental institutions appropriately adapted to African contexts. The development of democratic governance in Ghana through incremental processes of constitution reform and institutional design are the focus of much of Owusu’s work.


Goran Hyden’s research of over four decades has generally focused on the interface between politics and development in his efforts to address the challenge of building more participatory political orders in Africa and other developing societies. His research agenda has evolved from a structural-functionalist approach to the study of political development through organization theory-inspired studies of both rural cooperatives and public administration, to studies of the political economy of the peasantry in Africa and to broader questions of governance, democratization and development. More than two decades ago, Hyden’s analysis of state-building and development in Africa showed the significance of what he called the “economy of affection,” a network of clan-based and other associational patterns that existed outside the realm of the state and the inability of state-based institutions to control them; thus demonstrating the limitation of the capacities of the African state to effectively drive processes of development. He has since argued the need for changing power relations between state and society so that the dynamic processes of civil society and associational life can be brought into the governance mix, making for a more participatory and rejuvenated governance arrangement. To achieve this, he emphasizes the need for a sense of greater efficacy and capacity for articulation on the part of social institutions, formation and use of social capital in bottom-up collective action situations, and the creation of multiple levels of governance institutions, especially institutions of local governance based on units small enough to promote genuine community involvement.


Catherine Boone is among the younger scholars who have brought a fresh perspective to the challenge of designing governing arrangements in Africa. Boone has argued that the nature and strength of centralized authority’s hold over local jurisdictions in Africa depend not only upon the prerogatives emanating from the center but also upon the nature of authority relationships at subnational levels. In other words, traditional chiefs and other indigenous and local institutions are not simply willing tools or agents of centralized authority. There are diverse patterns of authority relations at subnational levels and understanding them is critical to understanding the institutional choices constitutive of governance arrangements in Africa, she argues.


In addition to academic scholars, there are several scholars/practitioners who are engaged in exploring alternative ways of reconstituting political order in specific post-conflict situations in Africa. Among these is Ali Galaydh who works on Somalia. Galaydh argues that instead of seeing clan organizations and jurisdictions as obstacles to the reconstitution of a modern political order in Somalia, they should be seen as the building blocks of a kind of order that is different from the post-colonial central state.


Challenges Emerging from Current Research


Many of these studies by Workshoppers and others that explore institutional choices in the reconstitution of political order in Africa have identified a common set of challenges that need to be explored in depth. Among these challenges are the following:


1. The need to understand more deeply the local and indigenous governing patterns that are resilient in African society and to explore the possibilities of their adaptation in systems of democratic governance. These patterns include ethnic, religious, regional-based institutions for resolving disputes and conducting community affairs in African society.


2. The challenge to foster the development of constitutional designs that do not seek to achieve homogeneity as is typical of state-centered arrangements, which have frequently failed and broken down. For Workshop scholars this is a challenge to promote an understanding and appreciation of polycentric constitutional designs that consist of institutions of multiple scales, overlapping jurisdictions (including cross-border jurisdictions) and special districts as appropriate for the provision of public goods. Of particular importance is understanding how to craft governance institutions for the equitable use of natural resources.


3. The challenge to deepen understanding of the importance of civic education and public entrepreneurship to democratic governance and of how ordinary people can become empowered for enlightened participation in processes of constitutional choice.


Themes and Questions to Be Explored


Several questions for potential research can be raised from the challenges outlined above. Among them are the following:


A. What is the place of indigenous governance institutions and patterns of associational life in building systems of democratic governance in Africa?


(i) The place of indigenous chieftaincy orders in systems of self-governance in Africa


Modernization theory typically sees indigenous chieftaincy orders in Africa as obstacles to modernity. Forty years ago, Daniel Lerner and others predicted their passing. Although they have not gone away, despite such predictions, they have been impacted by processes of state building and subsequent patterns of state failure or breakdown. How do we understand the changing role of chieftaincies in African governance orders? How do we successfully harmonize customary laws with western-based statutes to ensure fairness, equity and jurisprudential integrity? Can African chieftaincy orders promote patterns of democratic self-governance in Africa; if so, under what conditions or in what circumstances? What examples can we identify?


(ii) Association life and democratic local governance


In some African countries, the gap between local government and local self-organized groups grows wider—even in the face of decentralization programs. Local governments are typically created by and accountable to the central state and are often preoccupied with imposing state control over local populations. Locally organized groups such as hometown and community development organizations and diaspora communities are frequently more visible providers of what limited public services local people have. Democratic local elections have not by themselves been sufficient to ensure that local governments draw on and are sustained by the self-organizing capabilities of local communities. How can local associations of market women, artisans, and others be brought in as decision makers in local government processes rather than remaining as subjects and petitioners of local governments that are dominated by central state or local bosses? When are hometown and community development associations appropriate instruments of democratic self-government? What examples do we have?


B. What is the role of religion in the establishment of democratic governance in Africa?


Crawford Young has argued that, unlike in Asia, African religions seem to have lacked the ability to anchor African cultural and political patterns sufficiently enough to ensure their resilience in the face of colonial intrusion. Stephen Ellis has alluded to the upsurge of native spiritualism as a driving force in African conflicts. Can we understand the salience of African religions in governance processes in Africa? How does religion-based social capital impact the provision of public goods and the construction of individual and group identities, and with what consequences? Is there a dynamic interplay among African religions, Christianity and Islam that impacts African governance orders; if so, in what ways and with what consequences and outcomes?


C. Challenges and strategies for establishing scales or levels of governance


The challenge in establishing scales of governance involves knowing when and what principles of aggregation to apply in establishing specific jurisdictions defined by specific social and ecological conditions. In addition to understanding when and what principles of aggregation to apply, meeting this challenge requires that communities establish processes of constitutional choice among themselves. We need a deeper understanding of how and under what conditions local communities with heterogeneous characteristics (especially ethnic and religious) aggregate to attain economies of scale where necessary. What experiences do we have of self-organized processes of aggregation among local communities in the crafting of governance regimes, including special districts, that yield larger-scale systems of democratic governance? How do such patterns relate to the central state and how are they sustained in cross-border communities, especially where questions of state sovereignty exist?


D. Citizenship, public entrepreneurship and the open public realm


It takes capable citizens to establish and sustain systems of democratic self-governance. The importance of civic education to the nurturing of citizens cannot be overstated. Civic education involves nurturing in what Owusu calls the values of democratic governance, namely, values of tolerance, appreciation of and respect for diversity, among others; it also involves the development of a sense of co-ownership of governance processes and of the knowledge and entrepreneurial skills to function as governors. Thanks to FM radio and cell phones, a vigorous open public realm is developing in many African countries.


(i) Educational systems and the mass media as molders of citizens as public entrepreneurs


To what extent are the discourses that are taking place in Africa’s open public realm grounded in local knowledge and enhancing the empowerment of local people for participation as governors? How do schools and universities contribute to the generation of knowledge relevant for effective citizenship? How does the mass media participate in the dissemination of information relevant for effective civic participation?


(ii) Language, citizenship and public entrepreneurship


What is the place of language in the nurturing of citizens? To what extent are there institutions of governance through which ordinary people contribute to the making of decisions? Are there examples of processes of constitutional choice and institutional design that seek to strengthen citizens’ participation in the affairs of local government?


D. Resource use and democratic governance


Ensuring equitable use of land and land-based resources (including forests and mineral resources), water, and other natural resources poses a huge challenge in designing governance institutions. The tendency has been to establish decentralized regimes that partially transfer property rights from the central state to local communities, and then to have central government take back those rights over time. Claims of establishing systems of democratic governance cannot be considered genuine until appropriate institutions are established to ensure shared sovereignty over resources, especially natural resources. What are the major challenges in establishing appropriate multi-level regimes that ensure shared ownership and use of natural resources by local communities?


Although not exhaustive, these are some of the pertinent research questions brought out in current research which we would like to address through a number of working conferences and other activities over the next several months. We hope ultimately to contribute a volume of quality articles that address some of these challenges and questions, thereby deepening the discourse on constitutional designs for democratic governance in Africa.


This Working Conference


This working conference will draw its focus from the challenges and questions raised above. It will strive to address several research interests under the umbrella theme of exploring the challenges and possibilities of designing constitutional arrangements for democratic governance in Africa. The presentations will be of three categories: some will be finished papers, others work in progress and still others will be ideas that are being crystallized for future work. The last category will include dissertation proposals and draft chapters of dissertations by our doctoral students. We expect that subsequent working conferences will reflect a more narrow focus than this initial undertaking.


We hope to encourage participants to refine the presentations made at this conference for possible publication in a future issue of Africa Today.


All sessions of the working conference will take place in the Seminar Room of Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, 513 North Park Avenue, Bloomington.




Boone, Catherine. 2003. Political Topographies of the African State: Territorial Authority and Institutional Choice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Gellar, Sheldon. 2005. Democracy in Senegal: Tocquevillian Analytics in Africa. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Gibson, Clark C., Krister Andersson, Elinor Ostrom, and Sujai Shivakumar. 2005. The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Hyden, Goran. 2006. African Politics in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.


_________. 1983. No Shortcuts to Progress: African Development Management in Perspective. London: Heinemann.


McGinnis, Michael, D. forthcoming. Dilemmas of Global Response to Conflict: Lessons from the Horn of Africa. Indiana University, Bloomington: Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.


Owusu, Maxwell. 1997. “Domesticating Democracy: Culture, Civil Society, and Constitutionalism in Africa.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 39(1): 120-52.


_________. 1992. “Democracy and AfricaA View from the Village.” Journal of Modern African Studies 30(3): 369-96.


Sawyer, Amos. 2005. Beyond Plunder: Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.


Shivakumar, Sujai J. 2005. The Constitution of Development: Crafting Capabilities for Self-Governance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Young, Crawford. 1994. The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press.




February 27, 2006