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Most African countries are characterized by parallel institutions, one representing the formal laws of the state and the other representing the traditional institutions that are adhered to more commonly in rural areas. The parallel institutional systems often complement each other in the continent’s contemporary governance. Oftentimes, however, they contradict each other, creating problems associated with institutional incoherence. Why the traditional systems endure, how the institutional dichotomy impacts the process of building democratic governance, and how the problems of institutional incoherence might be mitigated are issues that have not yet received adequate attention in African studies. The evidence suggests that traditional institutions have continued to metamorphose under the postcolonial state, as Africa’s socioeconomic systems continue to evolve. Despite such changes, these institutions are referred to as traditional not because they continue to exist in an unadulterated form as they did in Africa’s precolonial past but because they are largely born of the precolonial political systems and are adhered to principally, although not exclusively, by the population in the traditional (subsistent) sectors of the economy. Subsequent to the colonial experience, traditional institutions may be considered to be informal institutions in the sense that they are often not sanctioned by the state. However, they are not merely customs and norms; rather they are systems of governance, which were formal in precolonial times and continue to exist in a semiformal manner in some countries and in an informal manner in others. Another issue that needs some clarification is the neglect by the literature of the traditional institutions of the political systems without centralized authority structures. In general, decentralized political systems, which are often elder-based with group leadership, have received little attention, even though these systems are widespread and have the institutions of judicial systems and mechanisms of conflict resolution and allocation of resources, like the institutions of the centralized systems. Careful analysis suggests that African traditional institutions lie in a continuum between the highly decentralized to the centralized systems and they all have resource allocation practices, conflict resolution, judicial systems, and decision-making practices, which are distinct from those of the state.

Article

In a liberal conception of democracy, courts play an important role in facilitating the rule of law by controlling the abidance to rules and by holding the political branches of government accountable. The power of constitutional review is a crucial element for exercising horizontal accountability. Courts across Africa are vested with the power of constitutional review, and, generally speaking, their independence has substantially increased since the beginning of the 1990s—although African courts enjoy overall less independence than the global average for courts’ independence. Within the African region, the level of judicial independence varies widely, between contexts that rarely allow judicial independence and contexts where courts have more power to challenge the government. Furthermore, across the continent, African courts experience undue interference—which frequently takes place informally. Informal interference can occur through the biased appointments of judges, verbal and physical threats, violent attacks, the payment of bribes, or the ouster of sitting judges. Informal networks—held together by ties based on shared educational trajectories, common leisure activities, religion, kinship relations, or political affiliations—are the channels through which such pressure can be transmitted. Yet judges also can actively build informal networks: namely, with the legal community, civil society, and international donors, so as to insulate themselves against undue interference and to increase institutional legitimacy. Research has shown that the agency of judges and courts in signaling impartial decision-making, as well as in reaching out to society, is crucial to constructing legitimacy in the African context. In contrast, the explanatory power of electoral competition as an incentive for power holders to support judicial independence is not straightforward in the context of Africa’s political regimes, where the prospect of losing office is associated with financial, and in some cases even physical, insecurity. However, research on judicial politics in Africa is still only preliminary, because the field requires more comparative studies in order to fully reveal the political repercussions on Africa’s judiciaries as well as to delineate the scope conditions of the prominent theories explaining judicial independence.

Article

Intergovernmental relations in Latin America present a varied sample of both institutional determinants and actual dynamics. Constitutional structures regulate whether countries have a federal or a unitary system of territorial distribution of power and stipulate the territorial levels of government. Thus, constitutions structure the number of vertical and horizontal intergovernmental relations. Actual dynamics, however, depend on policy prerogatives that establish subnational authority vis-à-vis the national administration. These prerogatives, usually understood in terms of power, responsibilities, and resources, shape the territorial balance of power within a country. Power, responsibilities, and resources can be combined to apprehend the degree of authority in the hands of regional governments. Such authority is analytically organized into two dimensions: the regional power of self-rule and the power to share rule with national decision makers. This distinction helps to explain that the trend toward increasing regional authority is mostly a product of decentralization and devolution politics that have enhanced self-rule, rather than reforms that advance the shared rule dimension. Nevertheless, neither constitutional structures nor new regional policy prerogatives are the only determinants of the dynamics of intergovernmental relations. Informal institutions, such as subnational coalitions and local political clientelism, are particularly relevant to understanding the actual balance of power between national and subnational governments and among subnational arenas.