In Citizen and Subject (1996), Mahmood Mamdani denounced the ‘bifurcated nature’ of the African state which, in his account, imposed ethnic hierarchy and chiefly despotism on rural dwellers while reserving democratic citizenship for the urban minority. Have twenty years of ‘decentralized democracy’ in many countries washed away these distinctions? This article takes up this issue in an analysis of the politics of land allocation and landlord–stranger relations in Western Ghana. An analysis of historical trajectories, and our own field observations and interviews in two Western Region districts, suggest that at the local level, the bifurcated character of political authority that was identified by Mamdani persists in the domain of economic rights. The record also shows that state policies and institutions, rather than working to chip away at ethnic hierarchy and chiefly authority, work at least in part to reproduce these features of the local political economy. In both non-democratic and democratic eras, Ghana's central government has played an important role in shoring up chiefly and ethnic privilege in the land domain. These local hierarchies influence the practical meaning of democracy and economic liberalization for rural citizens, and should be explored more systematically in future studies of democratic and electoral politics in Ghana and elsewhere.