In Africa, as elsewhere, the path or paths to development and modernity are dependent on historical institutional context, and cannot be imposed from outside. The paper first compares Africa with other five models of how development occurred elsewhere. It is argued that African states are ‘outliers’ in that the legacy of recent colonialism and the dominance of external forces have created a peculiar mixture of ‘informal’ values and behaviours with formal institutions, in which the informal are dominant in power relations but not recognized or understood. Hence development policies lack any real traction. A model of how formal and informal institutions interact is proposed and linked to an analysis of power itself – its basis, reach, exercise, nature and consequences. This shows that conventional models of policy analysis and development planning cannot work in Africa, where the production and distribution of ‘public goods’ are highly politicized and personalized. The challenge for the Africa Power and Politics Programme is to find ‘mixes’ of informal and formal institutions in Africa which have worked to produce positive developmental outcomes, and to explain them through comparative analysis.