December 2010/January 2011


special section - focus on africa


Federalism and Africa

George Anderson

By George Anderson

It is appropriate that the Fifth International Conference on Federalism is being held in Africa in 2010. The subject is highly relevant across the continent and with the growing interest in sharing experiences of devolved governance – what the Addis conference is all about – the conference is very timely. We must thank the Government of Ethiopia, which has led a major federal transformation of the country, for hosting it.

While it has the suffix of an “ism”, federalism is better thought of as a general approach, an idea, or even a tool box than as an ideology. It is not for everyone, but has potentially wide application given enormous variety and adaptability to widely different circumstances. Its essence is having at least two orders of government, each of which is directly elected and has some constitutional independence. It can be decentralized or quite centralized, parliamentary or presidential, two-tier or multi-tier. Federal features can be grafted on to create hybrid forms of governance, such as the European Union.

This special issue of Federations gives a good sense of the past history of federalism on the continent, including the rejection of some fragile federal experiments in the early post-colonial period. Now, however, the wheel is turning and increasingly Africans are looking for political institutions that are more responsive to their populations and more reflective of their diversity.

Ethiopia and Nigeria, the two most populous countries of sub-Saharan Africa; as well as Sudan, the fifth most populous, all now have some form of federalism. South Africa has a devolved regime with federal characteristics. The constitution of the Democratic Republic of Congo is also influenced by federalism. Kenya has just approved a new constitution in which a central element is devolution to regional governments. Tanzania has a quasi-federal arrangement because of the special status of Zanzibar. There are calls for federalism, or at least greater political devolution, in other African countries as well.

Federalism not a cure-all
Of course, federalism is not a panacea. It requires a commitment by political actors across a country to work together in sharing central governance and build a common citizenship as well as respect for the regional governments operating with some genuine independence. In this sense, the prospects of the breakup of Sudan, which will go to a referendum early next year, reflects more a failure of preconditions than of federalism as such. It is interesting that both the North and South envisage federal forms of government for their respective parts of the country, in the event of a breakup.

The increasing interest in federal and devolved forms of government is directly related to the push for more democracy and less dominance by central elites. Africans know that constitutions are only part of the story. The real functioning of any institutional structure depends on how much real space there is for political competition and how this plays out through political parties. Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia all have one political party largely dominating the political scene. This means that many political issues play out within the dominant party, rather than in more open political competition.

Transition to a multi-party system
A federal arrangement can provide a helpful structure for the transition from a dominant party to multi-party regime, because opposition parties tend to take power first in the regional governments. This happened in Mexico and India, both of which were once characterized by a dominant party that held office both nationally and in all the state governments.

Well designed federal arrangements can help stabilize a country’s politics, create more space for democratic competition, bring government closer to the people and provide an institutional structure for longer-term evolution. Though federalism can carry risks, it has proven itself in rich, middle-income and poor countries with very diverse conditions. A majority of the world’s people who live in democracies operate within some form of federal or devolved governance. However, each country must find its own formula. In seeking to do so, it can learn from others’ experiences at events such as this conference.Forum of Federations logo

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George Anderson is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Forum of Federations.