Malawi and the idea of Federalism

It is within a specific political and historical context that the idea of federalism has started to ignite the imagination of various social and political commentators. The context has been such that ever since our independence our governments have visited various forms of atrocities on us and we have been and are largely, depending on the political sectors we are aligned to, disenfranchised at various points of that historical process. It is therefore in my view that calls for Federalism are symptoms of a deeper problem in which citizens have largely been cut off from the political process, thus warranting this desire to have government structures closer to home.

Federalism As It Has Been Presented So Far

The camps seem divided into the binary positions we have so gotten accustomed to. There are those who are gung-ho for the transition into federalism, and those who are equally militantly opposed to it. The middle-group, as is also usually the case in Malawi, is made up of a lukewarm mixture of Doubting-Thomases who have in their memory no clear record of Malawi ever having managed a serious transition properly… 1994 comes to mind.

The camp that supports Federalism are ignited by the desire to sever themselves from Malawi’s neo-patrilineal politics which involves a complex mixture of ethnic hostilities, regional proclivities and identities, inter-regional patronage and of course the “big-man” syndrome that continues to politicize public and civil positions. In their charge, they feel that Federalism, in not so many words, would unplug them from the marginalizing effects of a skewed central government in the capital through elected regional governments in the new peripheries. The benefits of this uncoupling from the central government would out way the costs, most of which are incurred by the ordinary people.federal

The camp that derides Federalism however feels that its implementation would not speak to the fundamental problems that continue to be left intact in the Malawian society. These fundamental problems, which ultimately – through continuous processes of accretion – accumulate into the disenfranchisement already mentioned above. For one, after colonialism, Hastings Kamuzu Banda sought to unit a nation and consolidate his power through naked force, fear and eventually a climate of silence. The inter-ethnic and inter-regional political tensions that had accrued during colonialism were not dealt with but rather were steamrolled and carpeted over by State repression and force.

Secondly, the hurried manner in which we sought to dispose of this dictator undermined the nascent processes through which an alternative ideology upon which our new nation would be anchored could develop. Such was our hurry that in less than two days, our constitution had been debated, passed and ratified into our “Supreme Law” just before the Referendum. This was preceded by under two weeks of consolidations following the public input processes which had run for only 6 to 9 months (compare this to Kenya’s more than 24 months of Constitutional Drafting). In the end, we ratified a document that very few people had read, and that even fewer people understood – and here we are today, unable to implement a central pillar of our entire new dispensation.

Discussing the Arguments

In simple terms, Federalism is a political system in which semi-autonomous regions (often called States or even provinces) are overseen by a larger overarching government. The regions are semi-autonomous (and indeed their autonomy varies from place to place) because they relinquish at least two fundamental functions that ordinarily would be the responsibilities of a State. The first function is the right to protect or defend by military force its territory and citizens, and secondly, the right to forge treaties with other States or Nations in a unilateral capacity. These two rights are conferred to the Federal Government which acts on behalf – albeit autonomously – of the interests of these regions.

By extension, a Federal system therefore also requires a common federal contract which regulates the functions of the Federal government so as to limit arbitrary overtures into the spheres of the semi-autonomous States or regions. And this contract is termed a Constitution. Indeed from watching the practise of Federalism in the world it seems standard that the Constitution is ratified and subsequently amended at the Federal levels of legislature; that the constitution is defended at the federal levels of the Courts (Supreme Courts); and executed at the Federal Levels of the Executive replete with Ministries mandated to carry out various duties and functions that are of collective importance to the entire Union of semi-autonomous States. In this simplistic rendition, the distance between people on the ground and the federal government is not shortened by elongated.

By deduction, a Federal government has to be funded in order for it to carry out the fundamental state responsibilities of defence, and the provision and facilitation of services that would be in the common interest of the union. For example, States typically have state security services which only have jurisdiction in their State territories. This means if a crime is committed in one region and the suspect flees to another region, the other region should be alerted to pursue a suspect who in their region has not committed any offense – it must also be borne in mind that because States have their own Constitutions and Laws passed by their parliaments (subject to call it the Federal Constitutional), certain offences might be stipulated as such in one state and may not exist altogether in another.

Furthermore, this implies that there has to be a smoothly implemented legal dualism within the institutions of all States so that Federal laws are also enforced by States without too much interference from the Federal government. A look at the US court circuit for example shows a complicated system of courts dealing with cases which fall into various categories in the Federal-State dichotomy of laws. The simple point I am trying to push here is that Federalism requires not only strong and efficient public institutions which speak to each other, but also requires a deep national pursue to finance the myriad of replicated institutions that mediate in the process if the benefits of Federalism are not to be seriously attenuated.

Can Malawi Become A Federal State – or rather, is it necessary?

The simple answer to this question is yes. The factors that have been mentioned for example by – and with all due respect – DD Phiri of size are not significant; what I think are important are the institutional and economic nuances that necessitate effective Federalist implementation. If we focus the debate on these matters, then the answer will begin to sound like a YES with very strong and heavy BUT’s. However, a more important question that needs to be answered within the Malawian context even before we look at the institutional and economic factors comes from my opening premise which was – what has necessitated this sudden turn towards Federalism? And the answer was largely, political injustice and marginalization due to neo-patrilineal politics.

If this is the problem that has inspired the rise of talks about federalism, then an automatic second question has to be – is neo-patrilinealism an automatic outcome of a unitary state, or did we do certain things towards its inception and continuation?To answer this question, we only have to go back to 1994 and to look honestly at the way in which we implemented our own constitution. By the way, the Malawian Constitution, with all its flaws, is still one of the most progressive and liberal constitutions in the world. The simple reason why we are where we are today is that we have failed to implement fully the many rights, privileges and benefits (and responsibilities) that are gathering dust in our constitutions various provisions. We have up to now failed to implement the basic principle of separation of powers reducing our parliament to a market place full of noise and no substance. As a consequence, because parliament has been a non-performer, we have silently conferred and unduly so, extraordinary duties to our Courts over and above what would in spirit be their conventional roles of arbitration – hence the injunctions galore. And lastly, we have continued see the executive overextend themselves into our protected spheres of rights.

If this is indeed the culture of politics we have accepted for ourselves and our nation, then I would say strongly that Federalism (regardless of whether it is economically viable or not) will become a serious thorn in our side. In Malawi we must understand this simple fact, all systems are run by human beings who have decided to live by and in accordance to the creeds of those systems; in the absence of which, all systems become mere opportunities for deeper corruption. In Nigeria, the Federal government due to problems similar to ours actively defaults on its responsibilities to certain states such as the region where over 200 girls were abducted. This might seem far-fetched but our own history shows us that Malawian politicians too can be extremely malicious. Let us work to perfect what we have. Our constitution only needs to be implemented. Let civil society including the Trade Unions, Media, the intelligentia, together with the general public begin to champion a full implementation of our supreme law. Let us not call a system bad when it is in fact us who are bad. Bad laws are written by people; good laws are implemented prejudicially by people; so let’s fix people and stop blaming intangible essences we can neither feel nor touch.

Like a certain politician said – the Malawi Government’s Payment system does not have hands through which it can steal… it was people not systems who stole money during cashgate. Federalism or not, unless we mature as a people, whatever system we implement will continue to cause suffering. And in the long run, we all gain this derogatory name together – “Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the World.” That is what the world knows us as. What a shame.


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