Why Federalism must not be dreaded

It is a sunny afternoon, the temperatures downtown have improved from the heatwaves that characterised a few days ago to the orders of 23 Degrees Celsius. My sons and daughter have taken me for an afternoon bite at the delicatessen in the neighbourhood. On the radio is a popular advocate in town discussing issues of how the student demonstrations, potential impending labour union protests in a number of provinces and marches against poor service delivery may be averted by strengthening the functioning of the multilevel government.

Dr Greenwell Matchaya

Dr Greenwell Matchaya

Suddenly, my son asks me a question about the cause of the demonstrations and why some districts and countries needed demonstrations before people’s needs could be provided for. This launces me into thinking about cooperative governments and how they could offer service delivery more superiorly to people than unitary governments characterised with strong central governanceceteris paribus.

The purpose of this article therefore is to take forward the debate about state organization and how different parts of the government can share power in a manner that can propel development inspirations of a nation. Inevitably, it may touch on some issues related to the jurisprudence of constitutional law to elucidate why we need a constitutional reform of a material nature for purposes of development at the grassroots level.

That the manner in which governments are organized, and power shared, between parts of the government is a critical component for local and national development, cannot be over-emphasized. A disorganized government is often associated with costly inefficiencies, low zeal to tackle urgent issues and low accountability among other downsides. It is hence important to have a better organized government in order to effectively advance the goals of economic development and social liberties.

Although governments may be organized in various ways, for purposes of the present submission we may differentiate between unitary and Federal forms of state organization. Malawi has a unitary government where power is concentrated enormously at the higher levels and the lower levels only have limited powers for deciding or planning their own development. It would appear that such a form of government deters development as may be discerned below.

A federal government (which I will call a cooperative government, hereinafter), on the other hand maybe organized such that we have several spheres of government at various levels working in coordination and cooperation and power is not outright concentrated in one sphere of government. To achieve this, we can, and ought to take a deliberate effort as a nation to re-write the constitution such that is establishes two further spheres of government in a meaningful way, namely, the provincial spheres and the local spheres, so that in total we may have the national sphere, the provincial sphere and the local sphere. Currently, any structures that appear to speak of the same idea unfortunately relate to the national sphere in a hierarchical manner implying that the lower structures parrot the rhythm of the national sphere all the time without much contextualization. This would have to change by law. The number of provinces for example may have to be more than the three regions that we already know whereas all the districts in each province would constitute parts of the local government.

Legislative authority of the Spheres of government

Notice that a cooperative government adds a second level of checks and balances on government branches, the first of which is the usual Montesquieu’s separation of powers (SOP) of government into the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary. The legislative authority of the national sphere of the Malawi government would still vest in the National Parliament and derived from the revised constitution. The national parliament would need to be at least bicameral to provide enough checks and balances to one another and to provide for the heterogeneity in the electorate that now exists in Malawi. For example the parliament would need to comprise of the current National Assembly and then a Council of Provinces as a second house.The provinces would need to have their own legislatures comprising of elected representatives, and so too would, the municipal councils.

Executive authority

The executive authority of the national sphere of course would still be vested in the President and his Cabinet as is the case, whereas that of the Provincial and local spheres would be vested in the provincial Executive council and the municipal councils respectively, all provided for by the revised constitution. All of the spheres of course would need to have their judicial authorities vested in the courts.

Is it worth it?

At this point one would wonder whether this wouldn’t simply impose tremendous pressure on the already meagre resources as these structures would need funding. That is a good point, but one should note that government always has money and the more structures a government creates the more they will find ways of effectively using the money. Such a nature of state organization would enhance checks and balances and reduce state resources abuse thereby freeing up more for development.

Will the provinces win or lose?

Contrary to how the debate has shaped in Malawi, (where some of those who don’t want federalism, appear to think that it will marginalize them because provinces will be independent, or those who want it because they think it will give them full autonomy and advantage them more than the entire nation), the truth lies in the middle and the realities are such that the two opposing extremes are not possible. A cooperative government as can be crafted in Malawi obviously will not mean a creation of independent states within the currently territorial bounds of Malawi. Moreover federalism cannot be taken as a step towards secession as the prime control of the defence of the country will still be under national control.

In practice, the constitution would need to be revised such that the spheres of government are interdependent, interrelated and of course distinct. The implication of this is that we would expect that the national and provincial spheres would have areas where they may exercise complete/exclusive control themselves, for example road traffic rules, fines etc ( for provinces), and defence, mining, etc for the national spheres. Some areas which are both local and national in nature eg taxation can be considered areas of concurrent control and so the national and provincial spheres can have concurrent powers over those, in which case if issues arise, the two spheres would need to cooperate to solve them.

Such concurrence and exclusivity would give both, some level of autonomy and dependence, which is what is needed for federalism to help spur development. The municipalities will also have their tasks some of which may be assigned by the provincial and national spheres etc.

If we were able to embark on something like this, we would be on our way towards achieving real democracy as embraced at the turn of the 1990s by enhancing participation in development. The system would also contribute more to the socio-economic transformation and service delivery agenda of the country, besides enhancing the management of the diversity that is characterising our nation today. That way, development as we want it, may become a reality. My only warning is that, such a worthwhile endeavour, is very ambitious, and only very few would want to take it forward- can you be one of them?


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Good samaritan

Even if you can give the whole north to these tumbukas,’ they will again divide their districts into regions, thereafter constituencies will become regions afterwards villages will turn the same. Ask those living in the south and centre, They can explain why.

sositala masamu
i wish many contributions were as informative as this. I am DPP from the South, and i am now beginning to see that such forms of government can actually be made to represent the wishes of all of us . Can the author Dr G Matchaya submit this to the parliement , to OPC and to opposition ? those can discuss such reforms and take a way forwed . what we see is that those paid to gude gov seem to just eat the money they dont innovate…those who dismiss the author are likely unable to understand these issue, or… Read more »

You have just rushed to comment without understanding what the writer implies to mean. He is not from the North, yet your comment is against people from the North. We need to be rational in our approach to issues of national importance. The writer has provided his email for comments but instead you have chosen to post your hatred comment. We are all one. Malawi is one. North, Centre and South are all just geographical shpere that were arctectured for adminstrative purposes.

Minofu Jekete

If you think federalism will help northeners think again. Northeners are settled in the south, many work in the south, many go to school in the south, the south is more developed than the south, Think again. If you think northerners are more educated think again?

The Patriot
Of the three regions in Malawi only the South dreads Federalism, why? The same reason the Atsamunda did not want Malawi to be independent! After twenty years of Presidents coming from the South and most Cabinet ministers coming from the South , what have we achieved as a Nation??? This federal issue has to be fought tooth and nail to be achieved. Here are some of the advantages of a federal system 1. Most of us Northerners will go back and develop our motherland because every province will have a University, including Mediclal schools. No need for quota system. 2.… Read more »

Did Dr Matchaya study at the same university as Dr Dausi?

Dambudzo mwasanya

51 years of wasted unitary system.Federalism is the only way to go.We just need civic education for the mass illiterate southerners.Grasping of things is very difficult for them.



kelvin siu

mkulu amalemba boo uyu…and pa issue iyi proposal iyi ili bwino ….enanu lembani the other side kuti timveso#

brVO che matchaya…ma president need people like you as advisors….people who can think through complexity and condense them into actionable material…tanthokoza ife…keep writing

karen lazaro

nice analysis as said…wish others in other fields does similar, then president can be helped.

also such gov wodunt disadvantage any region as the doc says, i concur

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