Public authority does not always fall within the exclusive realm of government institutions; in some contexts, institutional competition is intense and a range of ostensibly a-political situations become actively politicized. Africa has no shortage of institutions which attempt to exercise public authority: not only are multiple layers and branches of government institutions present and active to various degrees, but so-called traditional institutions bolstered by government recognition also vie for public authority, and new emerging institutions and organizations also enter the field. The practices of these institutions make concepts such as public authority, legitimacy, belonging, citizenship and territory highly relevant. This article proposes an analytical strategy for the understanding of public authority in such contexts. It draws on research from anthropologists, geographers, political scientists and social scientists working on Africa, in an attempt to explore a set of questions related to a variety of political practices and their institutional ramifications.