Federalism is not a dirty word – University of Malawi law professor

There are a number of rude words that begin with the letter “F”, but federalism is not one of them. Yet, judging by the horrified reactions that have greeted recent calls for converting Malawi into a federal state, federalism might as well be at par with other more notorious f-words.

As has been the case on too many occasions in the past, the federalism debate has quickly descended into emotive quarrels that cloud, rather than clarify the issues at stake.

The clouding of the debate starts with the mixing up notions of federalism and secession.

Kanyongolo:  Federism is not dirty

Kanyongolo: Federism is not dirty

Listening to various talking heads pontificating on the subject, it is rarely clear what the debate is really about. Is this about reorganising Malawi into a federal state? Or is it about secession by the Northern Region and its establishment as a separate and independent state? This question must be answered clearly before we can even begin to have a debate about the merits and demerits of the proposal.

Listening to the main arguments advanced this far, it is clear that the blame for confusing, rather than clarifying the issue lies on both sides of the divide. On the one hand, some proponents of federalism appear to suggest that the future they envisage is one in which a region—in particular the Northern Region—will take full responsibility for its development. It is difficult to see how this vision could be realised within the framework of a federal state.

Typically, in federal states, national economic planning and control of the national purse remains with the central government, as is the case in federal states such as Nigeria, India, Canada, Ethiopia, Switzerland, the United States of America (USA) and Australia.

Typically, the power of regional governments in such federal arrangements tends to be limited; certainly not enough to allow people in those regions, provinces or states to enjoy the degree of autonomy and independence that appears to be envisaged by many of the proponents of federalism for Malawi.

It seems to me that the degree of regional autonomy and independence control of development planning and funding that some proponents are advocating comes with secession. Could it be then, that what we are really debating is secession? If that be the case, then let us call a spade a spade and not pretend that what we are discussing is federalism.

Proponents of federalism have also failed this far, to explain how federalism or secession in and of itself, can cure the problems of discrimination and inequity. This has only succeeded to make the debate even foggier.

Opponents of federalism have not helped matters either. Their only response to those advocating for federalism (or is it secession) seems to be limited to saying repeatedly that the advocates of federalism wish to divide the country. Of course, raising the spectre of disunity is by the opponents of federalism because it appeals to the human being’s primal and instinctive longing for community and fear of separation and isolation.

In most of the responses of the opponents of federalism, I have seen no clear explan-ation of whether what will divide the country is federalism, secession or either. While it is easy to see how secession would mean the end of Malawi’s existence as a unitary state, those who warn of disunity ought to explain how such disunity would necessarily result from having a federal constitution.

If both sides of the argument persist with the confusion and conflation of federalism and secession, the ‘debate’ will be reduced to a shouting match involving expression of political frustrations and old regionalistic prejudices. This will not only be unproductive, but will also obscure what I suspect are the underlying factors that trigger and fuel the calls for federalism or secession in Malawi.

In my view, the calls are merely a symptom of two underlying problems: incomplete implementation of the National Decentralisation Policy and apparent pervasive nepotism in the ruling class.

I suspect that if the decentralisation policy were fully implemented, local authorities in the country’s various regions would wield such amounts of political, functional and fiscal powers that there would be little appetite for federalism or secession.

In the same vein, if successive governments and political leaders since independence had not been as nepotistic as they have been, there would be little reason for any sections of the population to feel marginalised and, therefore, motivated to seek autonomy. Yet, regime after regime, our ruling elites have persisted in nepotistic public appointments, allocation of public resources and public pronouncements.

Does this mean we should, therefore, abandon the debate? Not at all. However, if we want to make progress even at that symptomatic level, let us be clear about what the debate is about.

*  Edge Kanyongolo is a Professor of law at Chancelor College, a constituent of the University of Malawi

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emmans kaunga

I believe as anation we need to learn and do justice we all belong to mother Malawi. Our leaders do not take us for granted our prayers can decide your destiny

Let’s see. Thengere people, you’ve heard it for yourselves. Federalism won’t help. If you are gonna have the kind of autonomy that you are seeking then try Secession. Nyasa @34 has elegantly expounded on a few issues. It is clear that both Edge & Nyasa have offered SECESSION to the Thengeres, on a silver platter. No fuss, no bloodshed! The question then arises: Does a PARASITE voluntarily leave its host? Simple answer is a resounding NO. My Propositional Logic leads me to conclude that the North cannot secede, even if the president permitted it. The North is TOO DEPENDENT a… Read more »
che Mbela

The problem in Malawi is depravity of the masses. They are besoted with mindless hatred for each other. Leaders are likewise perverts who formulate discriminatory policies and perpetrate them with impunity. It’s madness; how do you want to rule a people you openly hate so much? Aukila kumene. You Will have no country to rule.

One thing is being overlooked. The “north” is not one homogneous region. I would even venture to say the north is culturally more diverse that the south, which is in turn more diverse than the center. We already know some Ngonis in Mzimba would like to declare a Ngoni kingdom of their own. I don’t see the Tongas being content under the umbrella of the “Tumbukas” (trust me on this, I grew up in the north). On the other hand, as a Yao I don’t want to be saddled witbh the Lomwes, if the Mutharika brothers are anything to go… Read more »
Nigerian boy
I don’t know about other countries but here in nigeria,the governors are elected by the the citizens just like the president is elected by the citizens also,so the president has limited powers over the governors! Its the constitutionally right for the state house of assembly to impeach a serving state governor for irregularities such as funds embezzlement,corruption e.t.c the president has no power in the nigerian constitution to impeach or remove a serving state governor, we also have a federal legislature a bi-cameral one such as the house of representative(the lower house) and the senate(the upper house) both are referred… Read more »



i think we in the south must become an independent covntry.

big man

well said Prof Edge Kanyongolo. It is in fact surprising how the so called leadrned colleagues seem not to understand the centrality of central government in a federal system. I am surprised that even the advocates such as Ngwira himself, Jesse Kabwila and Chakwera are myopic and ignorant about federal state government. So civic education must start with these people before we go to the masses.


State govts will be responsible for day to day activities in their states. Central govt will look after the army, collection of national taxes, paying the army and police distributing the national budget to states through parliament etc. Civil service will function as usual. Distribution of state development will be responsibility of federal through parliament and states will decide priorities..

Some Malawians have run federal govt in RSA. states.



it is a clean word

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