Skip to main content

Informal Economies and Urban Governance in Nigeria: Popular Empowerment or Political Exclusion?

  • Kate Meagher

This article examines how popular organizational strategies and coping mechanisms affect broader trajectories of urban governance in contemporary Africa. Does the proliferation of informal livelihood networks and associations foster economic empowerment and popular political participation, or do these informal processes breed poverty and organizational chaos? This article explores the link between popular organizational strategies and structural outcomes, focusing on how institutional process and power relations shape the access of the poor to resources and decision-making structures in decentralizing urban environments. Case studies from Nigeria trace how liberalization has fragmented informal organizational strategies into networks of accumulation and survival that tend to marginalize the interests of the poor within informal enterprise associations. Distinctive political strategies of informal enterprise associations are analyzed to show why dynamic informal organization is unable to break through the barriers of social and legal marginalization that trap the urban poor in cliental forms of political incorporation. This suggests that “social capital” within the informal economy may fail to improve popular political representation and governance outcomes even in contexts of decentralization.


Cet article examine la manière dont les stratégies populaires organisationelles et les mécanismes de gestion des problèmes impactent les trajectoires plus larges de la gouvernance urbaine en Afrique contemporaine. Est-ce que la prolifération de réseaux informels d'échanges et d'organisations dans les milieux urbains pauvres incitent à une prise de pouvoir économique et à une participation populaire ou bien est-ce qu'elles perturbent le dévelopement institutionnel et aménent la pauvreté, le conflit social et le chaos? Au delà des analyses circulaires reliant les stratégies populaires et la gouvernance urbaine, cet article explore le lien entre les stratégies populaires et les résultats structurels, se concentrant sur la manière dont le processus institutionnel et les relations de pouvoir façonnent l'accès des populations défavorisées aux ressources et aux structures décisionnelles dans les environnements urbains de l'Afrique. Les études de cas au Niger retracent le processus selon lequel la libéralisation a fragmenté les stratégies organisationnelles informelles en réseaux d'accumulation et de survie qui tendent à marginaliser les intérêts des pauvres à l'intérieur d'entreprises associatives informelles. Les stratégies politiques distinctes des associations parimoniales et modernistes sont analysées pour montrer comment le capital social des acteurs économiques informels est incapable de traverser les barrières de la marginalisation sociale et économique qui les enferment dans des formes clientèles politisées. Ainsi les niveaux élevés d'organisation informelle et de “capital social” pourraient etre la cause du manque de représentation politique et d'une gouvernance ineffective.

Hide All
Adebiyi, M. A., and Babatope-Obasa, B.. 2004. “Institutional Framework, Interest Rate Policy and the Financing of the Nigerian Manufacturing Sub-Sector.” In African Development and Poverty Reduction: A Macro-Micro Linkage Forum. South Africa: Somerset West.
Bayart, J.-F., Ellis, S., and Hibou, B., eds. 1999. The Criminalization of the State in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Beall, J. 2001. “From Social Networks to Public Action in Urban Governance: Where Does Benefit Accrue?Journal of International Development 13: 1015–21.
Benton, L. A. 1992. “The Emergence of Industrial Districts in Spain: Industrial Restructuring and Diverging Regional Responses.” In Industrial Districts and Local Economic Regeneration, edited by Sengenberger, W. and Pyke, F., 4886. Geneva: International Institute for Labour Studies.
Berry, S. 1993. “Coping with Confusion: African Farmers' Responses to Economic Instability in the 1970s and 1980s.” In Hemmed In: Responses to Africa's Economic Decline, edited by Callaghy, T. M. and Ravenhill, J., 248–78. New York: Columbia University Press.
Castells, M., 1998. End of Millennium. Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell.
Central Bank of Nigeria. 1999. Annual Report and Statement of Accounts. Lagos: Central Bank of Nigeria.
Chabal, P., and Daloz, J.-P.. 1999. Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Davis, M., 2006. Planet of Slums. New York: Verso Books.
Devas, N. 2001. “Does City Governance Matter for the Urban Poor?International Planning Studies 6 (4): 393408.
Evans, P. B. 1996. “Government Action, Social Capital and Development: Reviewing the Evidence on Synergy.” World Development 24 (6): 1119–32.
Forrest, T. 1994. The Advance of African Capital: The Growth of Nigerian Private Enterprise. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Fukuyama, F. 1995. Social Capital and the Global Economy. Foreign Affairs 74 (5): 89103.
Granovetter, M. 1983. “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited.” Sociological Theory 1: 201–33.
Haan, H. C. 1999. “MSE Association and Enterprise Promotion in Africa.” In Enterprise, in Africa: Between Poverty and Growth, edited by King, K. and McGrath, S., 156–68. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.
Hansen, K. T., and Vaa, M., eds. 2004. Reconsidering Informality: Perspectives from Urban Africa. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.
Horn, P. 2003. “Voice Regulation in the Informal Economy and New Forms of Work.” Geneva: Global Labour Institute,
Watch, Human Rights. 2002. Nigeria: Government Must Disband Vigilante Groups. Lagos: Human Rights Watch,
International Labour Organization (ILO). 2002. “Decent Work and the Informal Economy.” Geneva: International Labour Organization.
International Monetary Fund (IMF). 2000. International Financial Statistics.
Isichei, E. A. 1976. A History of the Igbo People. London: Macmillan.
Knorringa, P. 1999. “Agra: An Old Cluster Facing New Competition.” World Development 27 (9): 1587–604.
Larson, A. M., and Soto, F.. 2008. “Decentralization of Natural Resource Governance Regimes.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 33: 213–39.
Lindell, I., ed. 2010. Africa's Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Urban Africa. London: Zed Books.
Lourenço-Lindell, I. 2001. “Social Networks and Urban Vulnerability to Hunger.” In Associalional Life in African Cities: Popular Responses to the Urban Crisis, edited by Tostensen, Arne, Tvedten, Inge, and Vaa, Mariken, 3045. Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute.
Lourenço-Lindell, I.. 2002. Walking the Tightrope: Informal Livelihoods and Social Networks in a West African City. Stockholm Studies in Human Geography 9. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International.
MacGaffey, J. 1994. “Civil Society in Zaire: Hidden Resistance and the Use of Personal Ties in Class Struggle.” In Civil Society and the State in Africa, edited by Harbeson, J. W., Rothchild, D., and Chazan, N., 169–89. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Reinner.
Martin, S. M. 1988. Palm Oil and Protest: An Economic History of the Ngwa Region, South-Eastern Nigeria, 1800–1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meagher, K. 2005. “Social Capital or Analytical Liability? Social Networks and African Informal Economies.” Global Networks 5 (3): 217–38.
Meagher, K. 2006. “Social Capital, Social Liabilities, and Political Capital: Social Networks and Informal Manufacturing in Nigeria.” African Affairs 105 (421): 553–82.
Meagher, K.. 2007a. “Hijacking Civil Society: The Inside Story of the Bakassi Boys Vigilante Group of South-Eastern Nigeria.” Journal of Modern African Studies 45 (1): 89115.
Meagher, K.. 2007b. “Manufacturing Disorder: Liberalization, Informal Enterprise and Economic ‘Ungovernance’ in African Small Firm Clusters.” Development and Change 38 (3): 473503.
Meagher, K.. 2010. Identity Economics: Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Africa. Oxford: James Currey.
Meagher, K.. 2010. Identity Economics: Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Nigeria. Oxford: James Currey.
Medina, M. 1997. “Informal Recycling and Collection of Solid Wastes in Developing Countries: Issues and Opportunities.” Institute of Advanced Studies Working Paper no. 24. Tokyo: United Nations University.
Mitlin, D. 2001. “The Formal and Informal Worlds of State and Civil Society: What Do They Offer to the Urban Poor?International Planning Studies 6 (4): 377–92.
Moser, C. 1996. “The Asset Vulnerability Framework: Reassessing Urban Poverty Reduction Strategies.” World Development 26 (1): 119.
North, D. C. 1990. Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Northrup, D. 1978. Trade Without Rulers: Pre-Colonial Economic Development in South-Eastern Nigeria. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
O'Hear, A. 1987. “Craft Industries in Ilorin: Dependency or Independence?African Affairs 86 (345): 505–21.
Pieterse, E. 2005. “At the Limits of Possibility: Working Notes on a Relational Model of Urban Politics. In Urban Africa: Changing Contours of Survival in the City, edited by Simone, A. and Abouhani, A., 138–68. Dakar: CODESRIA.
Prag, E. 2010. Women Leaders and the Sense of Power: Clientelism and Citizenship at the Dantokpa Market in Cotonou, Benin. In Africa's Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Africa, edited by Lindell, I., 6583. London: Zed Books.
Putnam, R. D. 1993a. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern, Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Putnam, R. D.. 1993b. “The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life.” The American Prospect 13: 3542.
Rakodi, C. 2001. “Urban Governance and Poverty—Addressing Needs, Asserting Claims: An Editorial Introduction.” International Planning Studies 6 (4): 343–56.
Renders, M. 2008. “Appropriate ‘Governance-Technology? Somali Clan Elders and Institutions in the Making of the Republic of Somaliland. Afrika Spectrum 42 (3): 439–59.
Ribot, J., 2007. “Representation, Citizenship and the Public Domain in Democratic Decentralization.” Development and Change 50: 4349.
Schneider, F., and Enste, D. H.. 2002. The Shadow Economy: An International Survey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverstein, S. 1983. “Sociocultural Organization and Locational Strategies of Transportation Entrepreneurs: An Ethnoeconomic History of the Nnewi Igbo of Nigeria.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University.
Simone, A., 2004a. For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Simone, A.. 2004b. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16 (3): 407–29.
Tati, G. 2001. “Responses to the Urban Crisis in Cameroon and Congo: Patterns of Local Participation in Urban Management.” In Associational Life in African Cities: Popular Responses to Urban Crisis, edited by Tostensen, A., Tvedten, I., and Vaa, M., 182–97. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.
Tendler, J. 2002. “Small Firms, the Informal Sector and the Devil's Deal.” IDS Bulletin 33 (3): 98104.
Thulare, P. 2004. “Trading Democracy? Johannesburg Informal Traders and Citizenship.” Centre for Policy Studies 17 (1).
Tostensen, A., Tvedten, I., and Vaa, M.. 2001. Associational Life in African Cities: Popular Responses to the Urban Crisis. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.
Ukiwo, U. 2002. “Deus ex Machina or Frankenstein Monster? The Changing Roles of Bakassi Boys in Eastern Nigeria.” Democracy and Development 3 (1): 3951.
Villalon, L. 1995. Islamic Society and Stale Power in Senegal: Disciples and Citizens in Fatick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wunsch, J. S., and Olowu, D.. 1997. “Regime Transformation from Below: Decentralization, Local Governance, and Democratic Reform in Nigeria.” Studies in Comparative International Development 31 (4): 6682.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

African Studies Review
  • ISSN: 0002-0206
  • EISSN: 1555-2462
  • URL: /core/journals/african-studies-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 199 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 511 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.