This article reflects on how scholars have engaged with the past and with notions of authority in the African Great Lakes. A dominant ‘presentist’ perspective on the region mobilizes historical knowledge in an uncritical fashion, reducing authority to a set of historical clichés and building on a familiar focus on crises and the state. Bridging history and political science, we propose two concepts to analyse histories of political authority to unsettle presentist biases: trajectories and transactions. To illustrate the contribution these alternative lenses make, we present two historical vignettes. First, we revisit the 1973 coup in Rwanda as an ambiguous trajectory of authority-making and unmaking. Then, we consider languages of praise and petitioning in Burundi in the 1960s, to show how authority is lived, manifested and challenged through local transactional relations.