December 2010/January 2011


special section - focus on africa


Federal systems not new to Africa

For some fractious countries, it has helped resolve conflict.
Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, king of Buganda, one of Uganda’s four ancient kingdoms, pays a visit to a district near Uganda’s capital, Kampala, in 2009. The historical kingdoms were abolished in 1966, but their leaders were restored in the early 1990s.
REUTERS/James akena
Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, king of Buganda, one of Uganda’s four ancient kingdoms, pays a visit to a district near Uganda’s capital, Kampala, in 2009. The historical kingdoms were abolished in 1966, but their leaders were restored in the early 1990s.

By Isawa Elaigwu

Nineteenth century Europeans, in their scramble for Africa, drew artificial boundaries for the countries that emerged from colonization. These boundaries created conflicts and at the same time opened the door to federalism.

The artificial boundaries cut through linguistic and cultural groups in many countries, having lasting implications for the continent’s political development. Federalism, or a semi-federal form of government, was sometimes the best solution.

The imposition of artificial colonial boundaries caused two major sets of problems for the newly independent African countries.

First, it brought together unrelated ethnic and linguistic groups into one territory. The problems of integration that resulted from this forced diversity sparked communal and political instability and bids for secession. There were attempts at separation in Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia.

Finding compromise solutions
Second, the artificial boundaries of modern African nation states also created other crises of development. After independence, the Hausa of Nigeria had some members of their families who were citizens of the Republic of Niger.
The Ewes were split between Ghana and Togo. The Yorubas straddled across the borders of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. The Somalis found themselves in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, and the same thing happened to the Masai in Tanzania and Kenya.

Africa’s cultural diversity is manifested in many forms, including religions, ethnic groups, languages, geopolitical units and race. Conflicts arising from one or a combination of these factors have bedevilled many African states, some of them fuelled as well by rich mineral resources in a single ethnic region, such as Katanga in the DRC, the Niger delta in Nigeria and oil fields in Sudan. Different states have used various techniques in trying to manage these conflicts, including federalism.

A federation often arises from the desire of people to form a political union, without necessarily losing their identities. In a culturally diverse society, federalism is a compromise solution between the determination to maintain a national government based on powers shared with the constituent units and the self-determination of component units which is guaranteed by other powers of self-rule. This is achieved by providing for at least two orders of government; a constitution that distributes powers among levels of government; and an independent judiciary which adjudicates in cases of conflicts among these different orders.

Federalism is not foreign to Africa. Nigeria has always made use of the federal framework in dealing with conflicts, even under military rule. However, federalism has not suited all countries that have tried it. For example, some African countries changed from federations to unitary governments not long after independence. The federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland collapsed when Nyasaland became independent as Malawi.

First generation leaders resisted
And the Cameroons adopted a federal constitution when Western Cameroons joined the Republic in 1960, but this was changed in favour of a unitary one in 1972.

federal, but the party of its first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, mobilized against federalism because it considered that federalism was divisive. The “Majimbo” constitution of Kenya had federal features, but it was changed to a unitary constitution by the party of its first Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta, because the party’s leaders considered that federalism was too expensive. Uganda also had a constitution at independence that recognized asymmetrical relations between the centre and the provinces or regions, but President Milton Obote changed the situation in 1966 when he created a unitary government of Uganda. The French attempt to create a federation of states in West Africa also failed in 1958, when residents of Guinea voted in a
referendum to reject the proposal.

These examples show that attempts at federal-type solutions to problems of cultural diversity were rejected by the first generation of African leaders, for four main reasons. First, as argued by Kenyatta, federal government was “too expensive” to operate. Second, it was often feared that federalism crystallized subnational identities and often sharply divided the loyalty of component units. Third was the concern by the new leaders of these countries at the time of independence that consolidation of power at the centre was essential and they were therefore not ready to share powers and functions with subnational units. Fourth, irredentist movements seeking a united homeland were not satisfied with federal solutions that still left their own ethnic group divided among different countries.

Since achieving independence in the 1960s, many African countries have experienced various forms of conflicts and crises. There was an agreement of the Organization of African Unity for the mutual respect of all colonially inherited boundaries. This agreement has been breached by the recognition of the independence of Eritrea. The referendum on independence in South Sudan scheduled for January 2011 may add another violation. Secessionist attempts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, as well as civil wars in Chad, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and other countries, probably call for reconsideration of the mechanisms for conflict resolution in many African countries.

A road sign identifies the Zamfara State Judiciary Higher Shariah Court, in the northern city of Gusau. The state’s support of Shariah is supreme. Zamfara transformed Nigerian politics in 2000 when it extended Shariah law from the jurisdiction of civil law to that of criminal law.
REUTERS/Christian Charisius
A road sign identifies the Zamfara State Judiciary Higher Shariah Court, in the northern city of Gusau. The state’s support of Shariah is supreme. Zamfara transformed Nigerian politics in 2000 when it extended Shariah law from the jurisdiction of civil law to that of criminal law.

Clause prevents domination
In Nigeria, the adoption of a federal-type solution to conflicts arising from diversity has been so successful that many Nigerians believe that without federalism, the country would have disintegrated. For example, when the constitutional crisis erupted over Shariah law, which many claim must govern all aspects of a Muslim’s life, Nigeria’s federal structure provided a compromise.

Each Nigerian state that wanted a Shariah as well as a customary court could establish them. At the Appeal Court level, three judges were asked to serve as a panel to adjudicate such religious issues – one each from the common law, Shariah and Customary law courts. This gave Nigeria a chance to avoid a religious confrontation. Similarly, in response to Nigeria’s cultural diversity, the Nigerian Constitution contains a federal character clause, which carries provision for the prevention of domination in the public domain of one ethnic or regional group by another.

Another federal country is Tanzania, which was formed by the union of two sovereign countries, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. It is not clear what the prospects are for this model of federation in Africa.

There are other crisis-prone countries for which a federal structure may be attractive. Sudan adopted a federal compromise under President Gaafar Nimeiry in 1972. This gave relative autonomy to the South. Sudan relapsed into another bout of civil war when Nimeiry imposed Shariah and other laws, which the South perceived as discriminatory.

Sudan’s current president, Omar al-Bashir, struck another federal compromise in 2004-05 that ended the civil war with South Sudan, providing autonomy for the government based in Juba in the South, and promising power-sharing in Khartoum to provide southern representation in the central government. The situation has become complicated by the discovery of crude oil in large quantities in the South. A further complication is the civil war in Darfur. Although Darfur is Muslim in population, it does seem that, even if South Sudan becomes independent, the country may not achieve relative peace until Darfur has autonomy over its affairs.

Another country that recently embraced a federal-type solution to problems of diversity is Ethiopia. Ironically, Ethiopia had rejected federal-type relations with Eritrea in 1962, making an autonomous Eritrea a province under a unitary Ethiopian government. However, under the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995, Ethiopia became an “ethnic federation” of nine regions or states, and two chartered federal cities – Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. The Ethiopian constitution recognizes the right of communities to be multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic, and even grants the regions the right to secede. It is fascinating to speculate about whether Eritrea would have remained part of Ethiopia if it had been within a federal framework.
South Africa, with its coincidence of ethnic, class, racial and religious divisions, was expected to be an important candidate for a federal-type solution. However, its history of the misuse of federalism by the apartheid regime, including the creation of ethnic homelands, frightened the African National Congress during the process of creating a government that was not based on race.

Including federal features
The ultimate effect was that during the transition to democracy, the ANC felt that adoption of federalism would reinforce these apartheid-era homeland governments. Eventually, South Africa opted for a version of a federal government that has become more centralized in practice under African National Congress governments. The country has three orders of government – central, provincial and local. While the central government is very strong, the regional governments have substantial autonomy.

Today, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa are the only African countries that are overtly federal or have governments with federal features. Sudan is attempting to implement a federal system. The Transitional Federal Government of Somalia is in control of only a fraction of the country. Comoros has a federal constitution but since independence in 1975 has had 20 coups or coup attempts and only one peaceful transition of power. However, it does seem that federal-type solutions might have some attraction for some other African countries.

Over the years, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has demonstrated the fragility of its central government and its inability to exert authority over the country. Given its problems of integration, a federal-type compromise could be useful in national integration.

Chad appears to be stabilizing after its civil war, but the conflicts arising from diversity in the process of nation building seem to persist. Chad could be another candidate for federalism.

Subnational units seek authority
Uganda is another prospect for a federal-type solution to conflicts of integration. With its history of strained relationships between the central government and subnational units, the unitary Constitution of 1995 has not resolved the problem of subnational claims to autonomy.

While Uganda’s 1995 Constitution allowed the return of traditional rulers, it provided no political functions for them. The Baganda, particularly, feel short-changed by the constitution and have been mobilizing other groups to support a federal constitution.

However, a majority of African leaders opted for a unitary solution to problems of state and nation-building. The fragility of central governments in Africa and the struggle to consolidate authority, as well as the costs of running a federal system, seem to have worked against the adoption of federalism in many countries.

Federalism is a paradoxical elixir in the political world. While it provides for the security and survival of a country, it also safeguards the self-determination of subnational units, which can undermine the process of nation-building. Fears of many African leaders about separatism make the federal solution unattractive to them.

In countries in which different ethnic groups form only small minorities, the unitary solution may work satisfactorily. However, in multi-ethnic states such as Nigeria, which have strong regional identities, the federal solution has been so attractive to leaders that commitment to federalism has nearly taken on an ideological dimension.

Mutual benefits
In Tanzania, the federal union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar seems to be working out well. Again, loud demands for the break-up of the federation were heard from Zanzibar not too long ago.

And while the Sene-Gambian federation, founded by Gambia and Senegal in 1982, ended in 1989 when the much smaller Gambia withdrew.
Essentially, federalism is not an elixir for solving all political problems arising from cultural diversity.

Many problems involving sharing of resources, justice, fairness, political participation and economic development transcend the form of government.
While the form of government may assist efforts aimed at solving these problems, they are not preconditions for success. Federalism may provide a structural basis for the distribution of powers and resources in a country, but it does not solve all political problems.

Amidst the growing self-awareness of groups around the globe, with greater demands for participation, the federal compromise may yet be an appropriate cure for some of the problems of the nation state, while only serving as a temporary pain reliever for others.

As the necessity for regional co-operation becomes more compelling, the African Union seems to be trailing the European Union’s example.
Perhaps some useful lessons could be learned from the European experience, including the Union’s strengths and weaknesses.
Finally, federalism responds to local situations and the problems it is designed to solve.Forum of Federations logo

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J. Isawa Elaigwu is professor emeritus of political science and president of the Institute of Governance and Social Research in Jos, Nigeria.