Working Paper
The Tangled Web of Associational Life

Urban Governance and the Politics of Popular Livelihoods in Nigeria

This paper examines how decentralization and informalization are reshaping urban governance in contemporary Africa. By exploring the interface between urban institutional failures and popular organizational solutions, the paper considers how informal governance processes feed into wider structural and political outcomes. Attention paid to issues of institutional process and power relations reveals how the limited access of the poor to resources and decision-making structures may distort rather than enhance their agency within decentralized urban governance systems. Drawing on case studies of informal enterprise associations in Christian and Muslim parts of Nigeria, this paper explores the differing ways in which networks of ethnicity, class and religion are used to forge links between dynamic informal organizational systems and formal institutions of government. The varied outcomes of these efforts raise uncomfortable questions about whether the proliferation of popular networks and associations amid weak formal institutions is tipping African cities onto trajectories of popular empowerment and pro-poor growth, or instigating a downward slide into violence and urban decay.