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Majimbo fear blinds us to the potential of federalism

Published on October 3, 2007, 12:00 am

BY Kioi Mbugua

ODM and ODM-Kenya have stated their preference for devolution or majimbo. Kenya experimented with a majimbo constitution between 1963-4.

Some Coastal politicians have often called for a majimbo system of government. Some sections of society view it as a sign that they wish to see all upcountry people evicted from the area, or denied plum jobs at the Kenya Ports Authority.

Using the language of majimbo, beginning in 1991 as Kenya prepared for its first-ever multiparty election, ruling party politicians incited their supporters to drive away members of ethnic groups that were expected to vote for opposition candidates. The same happened at the coast in 1997 virtually crippling tourism.

A former Cabinet minister, Mr William ole Ntimama, invoked majimboism to hold back what he evocatively dubbed “a majoritarian avalanche”.

Being an emotive issue, majimbo is rarely analysed in an objective manner. From large countries, like the United States, Canada, Australia and India to smaller ones, like Switzerland; a federal system has been found more responsive to local needs.

According to the Forum of Federations, an Ottawa-based think tank, there are about 25 federal countries in the world today, which together represent 40 per cent of the world’s population. They include some of the largest democracies such as the United States, India, Brazil and Germany as well as some of the smallest, including Belgium and Micronesia.

While complex in nature, the Forum says, many of the federations are among the most prosperous countries in the world with high standards of government services.

More recently, previously unitary countries such as Spain, Belgium and South Africa have adopted federal structures.

There are several features that define federalism. Governmental powers and responsibilities are divided between the federal (national) and the state (regional and local) governments. The federal government’s authority is limited to matters that the state governments cannot handle satisfactorily. State governments are free to handle local affairs according to their constituents’ desires.

In a unitary system, almost all policies and decisions emanate from the central government. Each state government may define with local governments, the functions and the powers of the latter.

Decentralisation is basically both administrative decentralisation (deconcentration) and political decentralisation (devolution). Both types can exist in either unitary or federal system of government. However, it has been universally observed that the federal system is the closest to the ideal of operationalising democracy than any Unitarian order.

In ‘cooperative federalism’, both the federal and the state governments share responsibilities in certain areas to ensure the operation of national programmes. Examples of countries with this type of federalism are Ethiopia, Germany, South Africa, United Arabs Emirates, United States, Venezuela and Yugoslavia.

In ‘competitive federalism’, the federal government has a reduced role in state/local government. On the other hand, state governments have an increased role in managing their own affairs. Examples of countries with this type of federalism are the Pakistan, Belgium, Austria, Brazil, Micronesia, Switzerland and United Kingdom.

In ‘coercive federalism’, the federal government continues to direct both national and state policy. State laws may be presented by the federal government. An example is Nigeria, which has a federal military government.

In ‘permissive federalism’, the federal system is almost like a unitary system. The state/local governments have only those powers and authorities permitted to them by the federal government. Examples of countries with this type of federalism are Austria, India, Malaysia, Mexico and the Russian Federation.

Federalism is compatible with both presidential and parliamentary systems, for example United States, Venezuela and Mexico have presidential systems. Examples of countries that have a parliamentary form of government and a federal system are Australia, Germany, India and Malaysia.

The cost of running a government depends at the stage of a nation’s economic development and, not entirely, on the system of governance. There are costs in establishing new structures. But if federalism will bring peaceful co-existence, then financial implications do not matter, for there is no price on peace.

The constitution takes the form of a treaty between a certain number of states that defines the division of powers between the states and the federal level. Importantly, constitutional changes cannot be made unilaterally by the federal government, but have to be accepted by the states.

The difference between a unitary and a federal state is not that one is more decentralised than the other, but that the former is decentralised through legislation whereas the latter is decentralised by constitution. In a federation, certain matters are thus constitutionally devolved to local units, and the central government cannot unilaterally revoke this decentralisation, as it can in a unitary state.

Kenya could remain the same nation with a joint flag and national anthem and one citizenship. It would not need to change its name, although it could become the Federal Republic of Kenya or the United States of Kenya if this were seen as desirable.

A federal state is not always more decentralized and democratic than a unitary state. Sweden, for example, is a unitary monarchy — but with a very high degree of decentralisation and local democracy. Several of the former communist states in Eastern Europe (including Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union) were (and remain) authoritarian and centralised federations.

If indeed proponents of this system mean federalism, why can’t they coin a new word such as Serikali ya Ushirika that carries no baggage? Whatever forms the nation-state takes, the important issues to be looked at are people’s participation, good governance and improved standards of living.


About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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