Malawi’s quest for federal system: Advantages and Disadvantages

Malawi shared a European imposed federal system with Zambia and Zimbabwe ending in the early 1960’s – the so called ‘stupid federation’.  In the post multiparty democracy, people like Denis Simphawaka Nkhwazi did propose a federal Malawi in the mid 1990s but never materialized.

Historically and politically, not until the current call by Malawi Congress Party (MCP) for a federal system of government 2014, the calls to transition from a unitary government to a federal government have emanated from Malawians resident in the northern region of Malawi – historically christened by Kamuzu Banda, ‘the dead north’.

The major reason for the north’s call for a federal state, if analyzed critically, is alienation in the running of the state at the highest levels of presidency. Power in Malawi is ethnicised; so much so that while the residents of the north have voted into power presidential candidates from other provinces, presidential candidates from the north, no matter how appealing, have not attracted support from other regions. This status quo has bred an attitude among the residents of the north I believe, already lowly populated, that they are not only discriminated against but also hated. Thus the call for a federal state, I believe is a way of partial self-determination, achieving power through devolution.

With the current electoral system, the probabilities of a native of northern region ruling are slim; and one need to first and foremost be a northerner to understand the feeling of being a region that is always tail and not head. In a way, the current call from MCP for Malawi to adopt a federal system, a region that will be out of presidential power for 30years if DPP makes 10years, are signs that they too have experienced emotions of alienation that the residents of the north have been subjected to since independence. It is rare that human beings enter the world of another and feel the hurt of another – until one has also experienced the same. It is just that those that have power to change a political system like ours, those that benefit from a tribal presidential system disguised as a national one, have failed to see the folly of the system and do something; the end result is what we are having now, where anger that has been suppressed for too long has began to find way out in federation and secession calls.

True, the Bakili Muluzi government tried to do something through the concept of Decentralization but it was just a cosmetic toothless concept without political gunpowder.

Northern Region, Troublemaker or Panacea?

One Danwood Chirwa, writing in one of the articles, argued that the federal system of government which involves the recognition of the Northern Region as a federal state ‘shoulder the onus of substantiating their proposals rather than appealing merely to their personal perceptions of victimization, supported by scientifically proven facts’. Chirwa is being too academic; political change rarely follows science – politics is more about perception than it is about science. It is not hard physics – it is the social construction of reality. Wise politicians do not wait for science; they read the mood and emotions of the electorate and work out adjustments. Politicians must understand that governments are legalized through two processes: (a) democratic process and (b) a revolution that succeeds through popular support.

I believe what is happening in the north is trailblazing an idea and this idea is federal system for the entire country and not just the north. The people against the idea must be implored to suggest a method or methods of solving the perception of political alienation the north is feeling, and sooner or later the alienation of the centre.Keeping a blind eye to the cycle of ethnicised politics – which the tribal rulers never think of willingly addressing, is playing with the emotions of victims of an unjust political system and thus sitting on a time bomb. The majority of political changes – call them revolutions, never follow scientific routes; on the contrary, it is the rulers that must constantly or proactively pursue a scientific route by their empirical discernment of the people they rule or the political environment they rule in.

Are The Calls For A Federal System Justified?

First it is important to understand that federalism is a system in which two or more governments share power over the same constituents. Ultimate political authority, or sovereignty, is shared between the governments. The national government is supreme and holds powers on certain issues, and the state governments have the same sovereignty over different issues. The goal of federalism is to preserve personal liberty by separating the powers of the government so that one government or group may not dominate all powers. The spirit of federalism is that divided power is limited power.

Federalism is not war as others have proposed, it emanates from the fact that the current electoral system does not gives certain sectors of society an opportunity to ever achieve executive powers – because of ethnic voting patterns. Executive power has been consistently linked with resource mobilization, distribution and use – with the perception that this tends to benefit ethnic groups of those in power and alienating those without it. Thus in a country where one or two regions perpetually retains political power with a minority-majority, because of their populations, the endemic tribalism in the country and a funny electoral system, does one fault disaffection from the regions that fail to produce a president when they call for change of systems?

Federal system is not a monster word in the same way multiparty was not a monster word as MCP wanted people to believe then. No system is good or bad until it has been tried. Fear mongering was funned during MCP multiparty error and it also had proponents and opponents; but here we are as Malawi, we adopted the system and it has advantages, many advantages – but it also has disadvantages.

Now if politicians that are supposed to use science to quickly address the disadvantages of the democratic system drag their feet – should we get surprised with calls of federalism? Or more still should we get surprised when people revolt? I think intoxicating power is to blame for failing us; past multiparty regimes have failed to proactively address or improve the weaknesses that the current system of democracy has visited on an ethnically fragmented country like Malawi and we therefore cannot fault people for suggesting a different system for themselves and their children to come.

A Political System is as Good or Bad as People Make It

Yes a federal system has many disadvantages but it also has many advantages too. After all, which man made system has ever been perfect? Democracy is thriving and crumbling in many countries just as federal system is thriving and crumbling in others. The system is as good or bad as people make it; and until it is made or discussed exhaustively on may not make out heads from tails. From a personal perspective, I glean that the federal system of government, where federal states share political power with a central government, may have the following advantages in Malawi:

  • In the event that the current electoral system is maintained; which is a distracting system and a breeding ground of ethic mistrust and disaffection, then the federal system has power to eliminate scapegoating of spurious provincial development as being the cause of the those in the national government that are perceived tribally and nepotistically; a failing federal state would have themselves to blame all things being equal.
  • Since each of the federal regions or provinces may have their regional or provincial constitutions, their own governor and, among other things their own regionally-controlled educational, trade, public health and financial systems (depending on the national federal constitution) among others. The result of the devolution is greater ability for local-decision making and policy formulation at a localized level.
  • Unlike in the current arrangement of centralized power, regional governments may lead to maximum utilization of resources as it caters for local needs, while national governments will cater for international affairs
  • Unlike in the current system where a person may be forced to practice national politics when their true passion is provincial politics; federal system offers the best alternative. Not all people want to be of service to the national government; federalism solves this by allowing people to satisfy their power in their regions.
  • Politically, the federal system of government would ensure that the national government has representation of ideology from all regions of the country. It would also ensure that the agenda for the other smaller regions are considered and addressed.
  • The federal system also would give space and chance to the small parties to contribute to the development of the country.
  • The federal system reduces the perceived or actual monopolistic powers of the president and the ruling elite; it is unfortunate that in the current system, the president usually abuses the powers that be, conferred upon him by the constitution; which makes other regions jealousy for not occupying it and therefore calls for a federal system.
  • Malawi is already divided into four distinctive regions; the call for a federal system becomes the formalization of what are already administrative regions with autonomous powers in executive administration, legislation and judiciary.

Having dealt with perceived advantages, I glean disadvantages too; but then, I already pointed out – which man made system is perfect? Obstructers of the debate are not being honest in this dimension and hiding behind academics and science. Science is a no go; I would rather stand on the platform of scripture or moral ethics than on science when discussing the merits and demerits of federal system – never science. Among the calls against federal system are:

  • Malawi is one country: I beg to agree and disagree. Yes Malawi is one country legally, physically, but fragmented politically and psychologically. This fragmentation needs a lasting political solution.
  • It creates conflict of authority— i.e. overlapping of work and confusion of who is responsible for what; this can happen even in the system like the one we have.
  • It perpetuates corruption – since more and more people are elected into office, and too many elected representatives have overlapping roles; this is a valid observation against the system and which is valid for the current and any other. This is the more reason to have a robust process to put in place mechanism to control the same.
  • It does lead to unnecessary competition between different regions; as long as this competition is health, it removes scapegoating.
  • A federal government can rebel against a national government, thereby posing a threat to the country’s integrity and security; this is valid and the conduct of handling this will have to be legislated.
  • It promotes regional inequalities – since natural resources, industries, employment opportunities may differ from region to region, and hence earnings and wealth are unevenly distributed.
  • It promotes regionalism—makes state governments selfish and concerned only about their own regions progress; It formalizes diversity instead of pretending that it is not or being blind to its existence.
  • It probably works better in rich countries; probably this is true – but richness or poverty are relative concepts; beyond personal level, richness and poverty is manmade through sick politics.
  • Other tribes and ethnic groups emerge within the federal state and feel entitled to control resources, thus causing another problem; this is true but that becomes their own challenge to solve but not use this to deny a right.


Critics think that federalists are barking up the wrong tree; they believe the answer to the political problems of the country is not a federal state but rather reform of electoral laws so that a president is only elected with more than 50 percent of votes; others see proportional representation as the answer and yet others see rotational presidency as the answer.

My suggestion is let us debate all of them and let the best answer win. This means leaving those debating the federal system to do so. Let the government allow voices to be heard and not stifle them; stifling debate is instigation of anger and violence. Let there be a national consensus on this debate and other similar ones. If need be let there be a national referendum.

However, even in the case of a referendum – where one region or two overwhelmingly vote for or against an ideology like federal system – politicians will still be left with responsibility to scientifically discern the contrasts in the regions and find lasting political solutions.

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7 years ago

Bravo comme Silungwe. It is sad when you hear some people disagree when they don’t even understand what is it that they disagree.

Please malawians give yourself time to understand the system. It is better government to the people.

7 years ago

It is a a factual intelligent article. You are great Silungwe. However, federalism is still a high probability.
Give the government less than a year, a lot of things will crumble down. Coupled with the audit recently funded by the Germany Government, things will soon turn very bad to the disgruntlement of many.

7 years ago

Publish this column in the local paper plz

7 years ago

freedom is never granted at will, it’s fought for. That’s why you hear of wars elsewhere. Nothing pains more than being looked down at as less privileged by people who take advantage of your resources just because they are numerous in number. Let’s wait and see.

7 years ago

freedom is never granted, that’s why you hear of wars.

7 years ago

it’s virtually true that the northern Malawi is sidelined and looked down at. If someone treads on you he/she doesn’t perceive the agony you experience. As long as he/she enjoys that, it becomes difficult to stop the practice. All northerners have to stand up and voice. I for one am ready to die for the cause.

peter mikolongwe
peter mikolongwe
7 years ago

i would not encourage people to use emotions, perceptions to consider merits or demerits of such an important topic…I would rather encourage people to try to understand these things from perspectives of history and methodological approaches of science and academia!

7 years ago

One of mature and informing column I have ever read on federalism. That’s beautiful. Let the nation be well informed rather than demonising and suppressing federalism.

Quota system
Quota system
7 years ago

And finally, let people choose what they may want. Chiefs, government or whoso ever should not decide for people. Full stop

7 years ago

The writer has indeed put suggestions which both sides of the debate can look into and possibly follow or not, looking at what he has talked about on the advantages and disadvantages of federal system of government, i believe the advantages outweigh disadvantages which i think would be a waste of resources calling for a referendum, because in the first place which electoral commission shall over see the referendum if it was to be called when in fact its this MEC which has created more problems prompting the proponents of federalism to advance their cause plus the poor leadership of… Read more »

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