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Beyond programmatic versus patrimonial politics: contested conceptions of legitimate distribution in Nigeria

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 November 2019

Portia Roelofs*
London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK


This article argues against the long-standing instinct to read African politics in terms of programmatic versus patrimonial politics. Unlike the assumptions of much of the current quantitative literature, there are substantive political struggles that go beyond ‘public goods good, private goods bad’. Scholarly framings serve to obscure the essentially contested nature of what counts as legitimate distribution. This article uses the recent political history of the Lagos Model in south-west Nigeria to show that the idea of patrimonial versus programmatic politics does not stand outside of politics but is in itself a politically constructed distinction. In adopting it a priori as scholars we commit ourselves to seeing the world through the eyes of a specific, often elite, constituency that makes up only part of the rich landscape of normative political contestation in Nigeria. Finally, the example of a large-scale empowerment scheme in Oyo State shows the complexity of politicians’ attempts to render distribution legitimate to different audiences at once.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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I am grateful to the ESRC for funding the doctoral fieldwork on which this paper is based. Thanks must go to Joseph Ayodokun and Olubukola Olayiwola for astute research assistance. I'm grateful to James Putzel, Benjamin Chemouni, Pritish Behuria and Elizabeth Storer for comments on earlier iterations of this paper. Conversations with Kate Meagher, Sa'eed Husaini and David Ehrhardt were instrumental in refining the ideas for the paper. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for suggestions that allowed me to make my arguments more precise.



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