While democratic decentralisation is viewed as an important vehicle for development in sub-Saharan Africa, its viability in practice is often doubted. Lack of resources, expertise, marginalised populations and the inexperience of local electors are all barriers to successful decentralisation. However, often overlooked are the diverse ways in which local people use the opportunities provided by democratic decentralisation to engage local authorities and demand accountability. Using examples from Uganda and South Africa,1 this article demonstrates how local people use democratic openings to meet the challenges of marginalisation and demand accountability. While the data is from the mid to late 1990s, the evidence presented here is relevant to the continuing debate over democratic decentralisation for it reveals something that is not always recognised: lack of resources is not necessarily the problem; developing political capacity for demanding accountability for existing resources is what is important. The implication is that for decentralisation to be effective, practitioners must develop a better understanding of local political engagement so that their efforts may strengthen rather than thwart emerging political relations of accountability. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.