Federalism, Peace, and Democracy in Africa

A map of Ethiopia, where the design of federalism remains highly contested
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Africa, a continent brimming with diverse cultures, has long grappled with the intricate puzzle of governance under diversity. Within this complex tapestry, federalism and state restructuring have emerged as crucial elements in the pursuit of conflict reduction, unity, accommodation, and territorial integrity. This piece is based on an article titled Federalism and State Restructuring in Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Origins, Rationales, and Challenges, recently published in Publius: the Journal of Federalism. Like the article, this essay sheds light on the rationales of African federalism, the extent to which federalism has succeeded in achieving them, and the remaining challenges.

Rationales of Federalism and state restructuring in Africa

Across Africa, nations grapple with governance challenges encompassing land disputes, calls for self-rule, and disagreements over power distribution. In response, many countries have pursued state restructuring to address competing territorial, political, identity, and governance demands. States such as Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda have opted for devolving power to subnational units (Erk, 2014), while Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa have embraced federalism to both decentralize authority and navigate the complexities of diversity. In recent years, Somalia and South Sudan have also turned to federalism as a mechanism for post-conflict peacebuilding and the restoration of state capacity.

However, despite the adoption of federalism, each nation possesses unique intentions and objectives. South Africa, for instance, introduced federalism to facilitate post-apartheid peacebuilding, territorial politics, and democratization, aiming to manage racial conflicts through self-rule. Ethiopia has constitutionally recognized and indeed celebrated ethnonational diversity and sought to allocate regions to ethnonational groups that formed a majority in specific areas. While other countries have considered identity and group distribution when redrawing internal boundaries, they have typically avoided constitutional declaration of ethnic diversity, and conveying the right on different ethnic groups to push for grater autonomy. Despite differing approaches, the accommodation of diversity and conflict management remain the underlying rationales of African federalism.

Federalism extends beyond Africa, of course, finding relevance in diverse contexts worldwide. The purposes driving the adoption of federalism can be categorized into three major theoretical threads. Firstly, according to Elazar (1987), states embrace federalism to enhance individual liberty, equality, freedom, and democratic self-rule. Secondly, as Riker (1964) notes, by forming a federated union, states increase their geographic size, capitalize on opportunities to prosper and deal with collective external security threats. Lastly, as Kymlicka (1998) and Stepan (1999) assert, federal systems facilitate diversity management by providing accommodative mechanisms. The first two purposes represent the classical objectives of federalism.

Rather than classical objectives, the primary rationales of African federalism are conflict management through accommodating diversity and thus maintaining territorial integrity. The classic objectives, such as democracy and liberty, are dividends federalism would give to African states.

Appraising African Federalism

The first criterion to evaluate the success of federalism is longevity, which assesses whether the federal arrangement endures over time. In Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa, federalism has demonstrated resilience and longevity, indicating its viability. However, it’s too early to assess the success of federalism in Somalia and South Sudan.

The second criterion examines whether federalism ensures territorial integrity, accommodates diversity, and manages conflicts. In Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa, federalism has played a crucial role in maintaining unity despite centrifugal forces. Through power-sharing, decentralization, and accommodating identities, federalism has successfully preserved territorial integrity. Therefore, federalism can be considered successful in these cases.

Federalism and Accommodation in Africa

Assessing federalism’s success involves evaluating the extent to which it has genuinely promoted accommodation. Exclusion and power distribution by social group serve as proxies for this assessment. Nigeria has historically shown moderate accommodation with an average level of exclusion by social groups. In post-apartheid and post-federalism South Africa, exclusion by social groups has significantly decreased.

However, in Ethiopia, despite the implementation of federalism, high levels of exclusion persist, revealing shortcomings in fairness and inclusion. While Ethiopia’s federal system allows for self-rule institutions, cultural preservation, and language development for diverse ethnonationalities, equal access to state power remains elusive, partly due to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) monopoly until 2018.

Somalia exhibits a similar level of accommodation as South Africa and Nigeria, thanks to its robust clan system that facilitates power-sharing. To achieve formalized equality in accessing state power, Somalia’s federalism should incorporate a power-sharing scheme based on the clan system. However, it is essential to reevaluate the situations of marginalized clans to mitigate potential conflicts. These findings highlight the significance of not only establishing institutional frameworks for accommodation within federal systems but also continually reassessing and adapting these mechanisms. This ensures fairness, equal access to power, and prevents marginalization.

Scholars frequently highlight ethnicity as a significant source of division and conflict in Africa. Therefore, evaluating whether Africans identify more strongly with their nation or ethnic group is crucial. Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa are characterized by deep divisions and rank among the top four African countries with the highest ethnic sentiments. This underscores the significance of ethnicity in shaping the politics and governance of these nations, with federalism emerging as a response to the centrifugal forces present on the ground.

In terms of managing identity dynamics, Nigeria and South Africa can be considered more successful than Ethiopia. A higher percentage of their populations identify with both their national identity and ethnic group. Conversely, Ethiopian federalism faces challenges due to competing forces of extreme Ethiopian nationalism and ethnic nationalism, leading to tensions that strain the country’s unity.

These observations highlight the complex interplay between national and ethnic identities in African states and emphasize the need for effective navigation of these dynamics. By acknowledging the significance of ethnicity in governance, federalism can strive to create inclusive frameworks that accommodate diverse identities and mitigate the divisive impact of ethnic tensions.

Federalism and Conflict in Africa

African federalism aims to reduce conflict, but empirical data shows mixed results in achieving this objective. South Africa is considered a success story, with a significant reduction in political violence following federalism’s implementation, though the end of apartheid also played a crucial role. In contrast, Nigeria continues to face conflicts, such as those in the Niger Delta region and the Northern states, characterized by insurgencies, ethnic mobilization, and religious fundamentalist conflicts.

In post-federalism Ethiopia, political violence has slightly decreased, but recent events like the Tigray War and conflict in Oromia have led to an increase in violence. However, federalism has facilitated a relatively more equitable resource distribution compared to what might have occurred under a unitary system. It is challenging to determine if the situation would have been worse without federalism, but a unitary system would not adequately address localized and regional demands, as seen in Ethiopia’s experience.

These observations underscore the complexity of conflicts in African nations and the limitations of federalism in resolving identity-based conflicts. While federalism contributes to fairer resource distribution and accommodation, it alone is insufficient to address the underlying causes of conflicts. Additional efforts are necessary, including addressing social, economic, historical, and political grievances, to achieve lasting peace and stability in these contexts.

Federalism and Subnational Autonomy in Africa

Federalism in African countries establishes subnational units with formal autonomy, but the realization of this autonomy in practice is influenced by the prevailing party system, often contradicting the principles outlined in the federal constitution.

In Nigeria, federalism has been intertwined with military administration, resulting in a fusion of power between the military and the federal structure. Ethiopian federalism is rooted in one-party electoral authoritarianism, based on the Leninist notion of nationalities’ self-determination. South African federalism aligns relatively more with liberalism, but the ruling ANC maintains a centralized structure. Considering the extreme diversity in the continent that is ready to rip the states apart, the incumbents’ centripetal roles can be defensible. However, formal territorial self-rule institutions hold little meaning if political practices are driven by the party structure, as Ethiopia under EPRDF demonstrated.

Despite opting for federalism to maintain state cohesion and accommodate diversities, ruling elites in these cases militarize authority, and centralize party systems. This leads to power consolidation instead of constitutionally intended decentralization and autonomy.

These observations highlight the complex interplay between federalism and party politics. The original intent of federalism to foster regional autonomy and accommodate diverse identities is undermined as ruling elites exert centralized control and consolidate power, casting doubts on the effectiveness of federalism as a mechanism for decentralization and governance in these contexts.

Federalism and Democracy in Africa

The revitalization of federalism and the end of military rule in Nigeria, as well as the adoption of federalism and the end of apartheid in South Africa, have led to an increase in electoral democracy. However, Ethiopia’s limited political space under a de facto one-party system has hindered democratic progress despite federalism. The outcomes of democracy as a dividend of federalism in Africa are mixed, emphasizing the importance of democratic institutions and pluralistic practices for the full realization of the rationales of federalism.

While federalism can exist without democracy, it is most effective and achieves its intended purposes within a democratic framework. Democracy provides the necessary political environment and safeguards for the successful functioning of federalism. In a democratic system, federalism can thrive as democratic principles such as the rule of law, separation of powers, and protection of individual rights and liberties complement federalism by ensuring that power distribution is balanced and respected.

Conversely, in non-democratic contexts, federalism faces significant challenges. Autocratic regimes can manipulate federal processes to consolidate power and suppress dissent. Without democratic institutions and processes, there will be limited checks on the federal ruling party, leading to the concentration of power at the center and undermining the principles of federalism.

Concluding remarks

In summary, the success of federalism in managing territorial conflicts in Africa depends on more than the mere existence of power-sharing or self-rule institutions. Ethiopia’s identity-based federalism and Nigeria’s ethno-regional repartitioning approach have shown limited success in mitigating conflicts. Effective conflict management through federalism requires robust democracy, strong institutions, and a party system supportive of federalism, elements that are often lacking. Despite the challenges and ongoing conflicts, federal ideas remain the most viable option for achieving peace and unity in diverse African nations. However, this necessitates incumbents embracing democracy, restraining centralizing tendencies, and genuinely committing to the principles of federalism. By prioritizing democracy and institutional frameworks, Africa can work towards more effective federal strategies for peacebuilding and unity in diverse societies.

Bizuneh Yimenu ( @BizunehYimenu ) is a Teaching Fellow in Public Policy, University of Birmingham.

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