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African countries witness a call to federalism: does the concept deserve more attention?

23.07.2019
Article from AFRIC Editorial
The idea of federalism is currently resurfacing in the political and constitutional scene of many African countries. The concept which once had its place in the continent was never given adequate attention and chance to develop. The implementation of the federal system has experienced difficulties with most of the minority states within the system clamoring for more autonomy. Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa, the three established federal political systems among the 54 states in Africa are still facing difficulties in fully executing the idea. Despite the refusal by most countries to adopt this phenomenon, most people still believe it is the solution to the ethnic conflict that has plagued several nations.

The idea of federalism in Africa dates back to the post-colonial period during which some countries upon gaining independence decided to establish federations with their neighbours. For instance, Senegal and the Sudanese Republic, two former-French colonies came together to form the Mali Federation. Libya and Egypt merged with Syria to establish the Federation of Arab Republics. Some of the most common mergers today are the Eritrea and Ethiopia union and the Federal Republic of Cameroon which brought together French and British Cameroon.

However, most of these unions were short-lived as the system of federation later collapsed. The Mali Federation collapsed shortly after it was created while the Arab Republics was barely getting into its fifth year before it was put to an end. Similarly, the people of British Southern Cameroon are fighting for an end to their union with French Cameroon years after the government went from a federal republic to a unitary state.

Same as the idea of federalism did not work between states in the past, nations that adopted the idea are equally not finding it easy to handle. Ethiopia, which is one of the few countries in Africa which embraced the concept is facing increased violence from its ethnic minorities which in most cases are demanding greater autonomy within the federal state. Similarly, the increasing agitations among ethnic communities in Nigeria and the call for a functional federal system is an indication that all is not well with the existing practice of federalism in Nigeria. The call for real federalism in Nigeria began in the south-west of the country after the annulment of the 1993 presidential election, which according to many was won by a Yoruba man. The Yoruba elite argued the annulment was as a result of the fact that the northerners were not willing to concede political power to the south. Hence, those in the south believe that the practice of federalism in the country does not conform to the fundamental principles of federalism.

Africa leaders have equally paid little or no interest to the federal system. Most of them did not hesitate to transform their countries from federal to unitary states. In Kenya for instance, a decision to transform Kenya into a unitary state was made barely one year after a new constitution imposed a federal system as the government refused to decentralize provinces. The Ugandan government also introduced a new constitution that ended the special status of Buganda and transformed Uganda into a complete unitary state.

This issue is dreaded by most leaders who often regard a call for a federal system as a threat to the nation. Cameroon’s President Paul Biya in 2017 tagged leaders of the Anglophone crisis terrorist and charged several others for an attempt to destabilize the country due to their call for the return to federalism in the country.

Why Africa could not sustain the idea of federalism

A throwback on the federal system in Africa shows that the system failed in several states. The federal system in Uganda which was supposed to include the Kingdom of Buganda was ended. Also, the federal system in Cameroon which was put in place after the unification of the British and French Cameroons gave way for the formation of a unitary state.

Some researchers opine that several factors led to the failure of this system of governance in the continent. Some of these factors pointed out included the size of the constituent units which made up the federations. The dominance of one part always gives room for the smaller unit to feel marginalized and continuously call for more autonomy. A glaring case in point is the ethnic conflict in Ethiopia between the Oromo and Amhara people. Feeling marginalized, the Oromo people in 2015 began pressing for more political participation while others demanded greater regional autonomy.

Furthermore, the emergence of dictators who were not willing to share power did not make things any better. As such, these leaders regarded a federal system as a concept that will weaken the state, reason why president Biya of Cameroon regarded a call to the return to a federal system as an attempt to destabilize the country. Hence, most of the leaders feared losing control of the state should they try to decentralize power through a federation because it was seen as a means to independence or secession.

Ethnic diversity in Africa reawakens the need for federalism

Tables are gradually turning in the continent today as the once faded concept of federalism is now resurfacing. The unitary system adopted by most leaders has failed to deliver political stability in their respective countries. The unitary systems put in place failed to carter for the feeling of marginalization expressed by minority groups within the state. This provoked violence and the upsurge of ethnic liberation movements in some of these countries.

The political and economic marginalization of the minorities in the Niger Delta is one of the reasons why these groups are persistently demanding an exclusive political space and what they termed true federalism.

Most states are undergoing this situation because in their nation-building attempt, many countries did not succeed to develop a common national identity and the spirit of national unity was not consolidated. Instead, many leaders succeeded in building a state where a particular group enjoyed a privileged position over the others.

In 2016, the Anglophone crisis sparked off in Cameroon as those in the English speaking regions stood up against the marginalization of the region and called for the return to a federal system of government. This crisis which is now at the international level has caused damages to the state unity which was highly propagated by the head of state. In 2019, the Swiss government offered to mediate in the conflict which many think only a return to a federal system can solve. In the same light, several ethnic communities in Ethiopia are demanding greater autonomy which has led to persistent ethnic violence threatening the stability of the state.

Some countries today face ethnic groups that continue to press for greater sovereignty. Hence, it is believed that disgruntled ethnic groups may force the restructuring of the state in some countries to restore peace and stability.

Most often than not, the failure of some countries to embrace ethnic diversity through federalism has led to increasing tensions among ethnic groups. Hence, there is the need not only for these countries to design a federal system but must also adopt a system that can carter for all ethnic exigencies.

Article from AFRIC editorial

Photo credit: google images/ illustration

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