Indirect rule and association were the first colonial-period decentralisations. Colonial powers across Africa decentralised further after the Second World War. At independence most African nations consolidated their rule through re-centralisation, but later began to decentralise again within the first two decades of independence. The current wave of decentralisation, which began in the late 1980s and spread across Africa after 1995, is very different from these earlier movements. It is couched in the inspiring language of local representation and democratisation. Earlier reforms were described as means of better managing rural populations from the centre by mobilising local authorities and involving local people.
They too used language of justice and equity—as with the French and British arguments for indirect rule and association—but they rarely pretended to aim toward democratisation. In the current wave of decentralisation reforms, governments across Africa have successfully etched ‘democracy’ into their decentralisation laws—calling them democratic decentralisations. These governments are still in the first stages of translating these laws into practice. The cases in this special issue highlight the frontiers of this Africa-wide reform movement as it is unfolding in its first decade of intensive experimentation.
The articles in this volume help to map out the progress and limits of implementation in practice, raising the important questions that will have to be asked if the enfranchising discourse of democratic decentralisation is to better the lives of rural Africans. The articles interrogate the implementation of democratic decentralisation writ large through the optic of the natural resource sector. The natural resource lens is particularly