Malawi federalism: A light-hearted conversation

It seems like Federalism has finally captured the imagination of our public intellectuals – which comprise mostly of those of us with the means to access media outlets of whatever kind. It truly has captured mine as well even though the hat of an intellectual is not one that I like to wear. Several weeks ago I wrote two articles on this very platform raising caution – not about how good or bad federalism is, but rather what Malawi’s problems are and whether or not federalism is able to fix them. This seems reasonable because calls for Federalism, at least in our case, are in response to a particular set of problems brought about by nepotism, regionalism, tribalism, underdevelopment etc.

Moses Mphatso Kaufulu

Moses Mphatso Kaufulu

For the other somewhat more successful federal states like America, the concept arose in an attempt to consolidate formerly independent states under one union hence the name “United” States of America, and similarly “United” Kingdom, and more recently the onward march towards a consolidated Europe through the Europe Union.

Interestingly, federalism especially with regard to the southern states of the USA was consolidated with force or the very real threat of force as the initial 13 states bequeathed significant arsenals to their new mother government. Indeed, this would be antithetical to our hopes that federalism would reduce rather than increase the prominence of a central government. But never mind that: for me it is a fact that a federal government welds incredible powers through its greater financial muscle and its stockpile of weapons in comparison to any State within its territory.This notwithstanding and for our intents and purposes, federalism is as good a system as any – the trick however is to implement it in a manner that addresses the particular sets of problems we are trying to free ourselves from.

In view of this, we can learn a lot from how we implemented or (mis)implemented other current system of government. For one, the way in which our present unitary model came about facilitated the formation of many of the problems we now have. There was a huge rush to have a referendum, and the constitutional consultation and drafting process were largely left to “the experts” or “the intellectuals” (the professors). Citizens were inadequately consulted, and it seemed almost as if that the energies at that time were to see Kamuzu go, first and foremost, and to deal with the complexities of our new dispensation as secondary matters.

Well, we modestly succeeded at the first, and failed fantastically at the second, and we shouldn’t make that same mistake this time around. Let us rather fully understand what we want to achieve, and to soberly anticipate the challenges this transition would bring about. These inherent transitional challenges do not render federalism a bad idea or system; rather theymerely require that we become aware of and honest about how tedious it is to implement and maintain. Like the saying goes – those who point towards the difficulties of an arduous trip about to be undertaken are not the enemies of the trip but they are that trip’s truest proponents because they want everyone to come to terms with its besetting realities(I just made it up… I do beg your pardon). So let us come to terms with the realities of federalism in a way we never did with regards to the realities of a unitary government when the dictatorship was being unseated in 93-94.

Firstly, we do not want to continue reproducing the conditions of suffering and marginalization that Malawi has come to be characterized by – this is why after all federalism has become a hit, not so? This means that – on the basis of principle – we must not uproot one unjust system in order to implement another which turns former victims into victors, former victors into victims, while creating new grudges and fomenting new sensitivities against groups who formerly where neither victims or victors. This is important for at least two reasons. The first reason is that the entire central and northern regions are not completely populated by Chewas and Tumbukas respectively.

There are other groups there, which are equally proud of their own tribal or ethnic identities and who are currently being overlooked because of their lower political presence due to their smaller numbers. If Federalism continues to be seen under such broad categories without deliberately turning our attention to ethnic minorities, we will implement provincial or state governments in each of the four regions that are dominated by Yaos (in the east), say Lhomwes (in the South, though I am really not sure because there are several huge groups there), Chewas (in the central), and Tumbuka’s (in the north). In no time, we will see the minority groups in these new provinces begin to agitate against domination within their own provinces.

Such internal wrangles become potent grounds for an “opportunist” central federal government to escalate divisions in order to gain control over a province dimmed important for whatever deficit reason the establishment might have (political, economic or other) at that time. So we must be careful to find a federalist system that is sensitive to the issues that have brought the unitary model under disrepute – because these same issues could find their expression in the new federal setting.

The other issue is the selection of presidents and representatives in parliament. We cannot sweep this under the rag. As a country we will still needlegislative and executive arms that will respectively enact laws and enforce them across the entirety of Malawi’s territory. The first question is, who would be a legitimate president of federal Malawi? Would we not find ourselves under a president put into office through the same mechanisms of tribes and regions that currently beset us? I say this because I have confidence neither in the silly idea of a rotating presidency, nor in the idea of the provincial governors electing from amongst themselves a representative to that high office. Such would merely spawn circumstances through which specific regions will seize the state, roll out programmes that favour their particular regions, isolate antagonistic regions, and then leave office having destroyed the little that was there.

And whatever would be left would be further destroyed by the next leader from another previously victimized province. In response to this question we may need to borrow from progressive documents such as the Kenyan constitution which requires that majorities be won in various pre-defined small constituencies – that is to say, getting 50%+1 would not be enough: rather, a federal president would need to win majorities in a majority of (or in all small)constituencies in order to get into power.

African presidents in this day and age must win sufficient minority caucuses rather than a few majority blocs. (However, we would need a Malawian definition of constituency that spoke to our unique realities.) This requirement would forcegroups to form alliances and to become tolerant of each other. This same idea could apply to the provincial governments themselves to ensure that the north does not become Tumbuka dominated, the south Lhomwe dominated, the East Yao dominated and the centre Chewa dominated.

And yet, these are all still the lighter matters – ultimately, we will need to answer the more difficult question: what will the developmental mandate of the Malawian state be? Recall that this is the question that informed the decision to concentrate powers in the executive in 93-94. Our “experts”, including our own incumbent, were of the view that Malawi had very serious developmental challengesthat required a strong executive to – through active state interventions – implement development in the country.

In my opinion, Malawi has not yet graduated from the need to have some kind of developmental state (all this liberalist nonsense will not feed the poor and plug them into sustainable enterprises), and yet a developmental state always implies an executive with exceptional powers, which puts it at odds with the liberal ideals that are implicit in the federalism we are calling for. This is seen starkly in the Russian federation which has eviscerated provincial or state governments to allow the federal government implement “Russian (Re-)Nationalism” after the collapse of their Soviet empire. Depending on which news channel you watch or listen to, you could view Russia as a resounding success or a failure with regard to the objectives it laid out for itself (I am of the former view).

Nonetheless,this is the question I would like to see people debate because it points towards the kind of country we will end up having irrespective of whatever flowery language we use in our new federal constitution – the law, regardless of its spirit and meaning, is always implemented according to the socio-historical workings of power: this is why two laws, written in exactly the same language are never implemented in the same way across two different countries, or within the same countries but at different times. The socio-historical and cultural baggage of any country materializes in the application of its laws. It takes tremendous political-will to offset such well entrenched patterns of power of the sort that Malawi has not yet seen since democratization in 93-94.

So again, the problem is not with unitary or federal systems of government… the problem has to do with a clear articulation of what we are trying to rectify, what we are trying to avoid, and where were hope to be in the next several decades. Scholars do debate the objective advantages or disadvantages of the two systems, but in Malawi I fear that the failure of Unitarianism has more to do with our inability to even implement it properly rather than its inherent or objective limitations (or perhaps this is an objective weakness in itself? Hmmm, we would have to ask an “expert” or a “professor”).

But until we do, my suspicion is that the same problems would arise under federalism: if we get into it without a clear definition of what it is, what we want, and a commitment towards implementing fully what we will have called Malawian Federalism. Failing which, we will all be here again several years from now – slightly older and dripping with our usual auras of expert knowledge – talkingabout how federalism failed us while drooling over whatever new system the world would have yet contrived at that time. I wish us well.

  • Moses Mphatso Kaufulu writes merely for Nyasa Times to add his voice to the many usually more qualified others to matters that affect Malawi and her people. His feeling is that in the long run we all lose together even though in the short run some are deluded by their small “parasitic” victories.
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Optic Computer

Every system has its own merits and demerits. What educated Malawians need to do is to roll out civics in primary and secondary education to enlighten the citizens on the government system in use (as well as other available forms of government), so that Malawians can make informed choices. Kamuzu failed to allow Malawians to own televisions; now televisions are here, civics is no longer taught in schools to enlighten the citizens. Many educated Malawians cannot even make informed decisions for themselves.

one minute man

loud and clear konzi



This article by a Kaufulu is meant to be anti-federalist,kill the debate and continue with the unitary system that oppresses and suppresses regions that are less populated. Malawi has defacto federal structures in place. All major churches,ie catholic and anglican have appointed bishops administering dioceses. CCAP has synods . Government has heads of department in each region eg police,education,agriculture etc. Every major political party has an elected regional governor or chairman in each region,yet the country is not divided as preached by the anti-federalists. I therefore dont see any problem to democratise the defacto federal system that exists in malawi… Read more »

If the incumbent leader wants to keep Malawi as one he should look into the issues of those who want Federalism or Session and not bury his head in the sand and just suggest a referendum

agogo a Mo

Very constructive article from a sober mind You make us proud.




Federation imadibwa?



When we talk of quota system is it not one way of equal distribution of the resources (National cake)? It means Nchisi, Neno, Phalombe, Dowa etc are now able to send 10 children to public Universities. Imagine Machinga up to now does not have a Govt boarding secondary school, should we deny 10 children from Machinga from attending Public University because it is a poor district? Then how do we expect Machinga to develop? This is why others are saying anthu ena akuzikonda. Anthu ena akufuna zonse zikhale zao. Lets distribute education and other resources equally and people stop calling… Read more »

The issue is not Quota system but the question is why is Machinga allowed to be poor when Bakili and Atupele come from there, do they only look after themselves ?


That’s the whole reason people are fighting for federalism; so that those in power should not only be developing their own homes but the whole country should equitably develop.

Ujeni Phiri
If you go to Livingstonia synod headquarters you will find a poster saying speaking Chichewa is prohibited, meaning they hate the language and the speaker of the language in equal terms. You will not find this no sense anywhere in the south even in Magochi or thyolo. it mean minus the north the rest of the country is united and there is no hatred among them. The solution is simple LET THEM GO KWAWO. kAYA AZIKAKHAPANA AZIKAKHAPANA KWAWOKO. No wander there is no single party representing the majority views of these people kwawoko. LET THEM GOOOOOOOOOO PLEASE. NGATI TRANSPORT INGAVUTA… Read more »

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