In spite of the great enthusiasm and arguments supporting decentralization in Africa, its performance has frequently fallen well below expectations. However, a number of self-initiated, local governance efforts have been quite successful. The article finds that all governance initiatives face a number of collective action problems that they must overcome to succeed. These include issues of collective choice, free riding, principal–agency, and constitutional design. The article explores two cases of locally initiated self-governance initiatives where smaller population size, the ability to focus on only a few services, and the ability flexibly to redesign their institutions were important in their success in overcoming these governance challenges. In one case, challenge by and negotiation with formal governance institutions furthered their success. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.