The institutional responses of Africa’s new producers to the early 21st century commodity boom differed both between and within countries over time. Despite making similarly sized discoveries in the mid-2000s, Ghana and Uganda took different routes, with Ghana oscillating between a neoliberal modality and a soft version of resource nationalism (depending on which party was in power), whilst Uganda adopted a more consistent and robust resource nationalist position. Current explanations for varieties of resource governance tend to focus on either institutions or ideas. We argue for an alternative theoretical perspective that locates the entwined role of both institutions and ideas within a deeper analysis of a country’s ‘political settlement’. This offers a more compelling explanation for varied institutional responses to the commodity boom in sub-Saharan Africa, and suggests that different types of political settlements have had significant implications for how oil governance has progressed in different contexts.