To be of Not to be: A federal republic of Malawi

whichrouteArticle written by Stanley Onjezani Kenani which first appeared on Nyasa Times on December 15, 2014. This version has been edited for clarity.

When historians sit down to chronicle the story of our nation, it will be written that Reverend Christopher Mzomera Ngwira MP struck the match to light the fire of federalism. Hopefully, historians will remember that the Reverend was not for federalism “per se”; rather he wanted the northern region to secede from Malawi altogether. Federalism became the middle ground between the unitary state and secession.

So much has gone into this debate. Emotions have crept in. Some have begun to view anybody with opposing views as an enemy, if derogatory comments on online media are anything to go by. Others have put across interesting arguments. Dr Blessings Chinsinga and Dr DD Phiri have been quoted by the media as saying Malawi cannot be divided because it is too small. I agree that Malawi is the size of Pennsylvania, one of the fifty states that make the United States of America. But then Malawi is three times bigger than Switzerland, and yet Switzerland is a federation and Malawi is not. Closer to home, Malawi is 60 times bigger than the Comoros Islands, yet the Comoros are a federation and Malawi is not. So, at any rate, let us take size out of this debate. Federalism has many advantages. To compose this article, I spoke to four Malawian friends, all of whom are in favour of federalism, and have brilliant arguments in support of the system. I will summarise these in due course. But first, let us start with what I lifted from online research (Wikipedia has been most helpful).

Like in all logical arguments, we will begin from the beginning, with the simple question of: What is federalism? “Federalism” is a word used to describe a system of government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (such as states or provinces). It is a system based on democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and provincial/state governments, creating what is often called a federation. The world has 196 countries. Of these, 26, or 13 per cent, are federal republics. Five of these are found in Africa. The full list is as follows:

African countries with a federal system:

• Comoros (Anjouan, Grande Comore, Mohéli)

• Ethiopia (nine regions and two chartered cities)

• Nigeria (36 states and one federal territory (the Federal Capital Territory)

• South Sudan (10 states)

• Sudan (17 states)

Americas & the Caribbean:

• Argentina (23 provinces and one autonomous city (Buenos Aires)

• Brazil (26 states and the Federal District)

• Canada (ten provinces and three territories)

• Mexico (31 states and one federal district (Mexico City)

• Saint Kitts and Nevis (two states)

• United States (50 states, one incorporated territory, and one federal district (Washington, D.C.)

• Venezuela (23 states, one capital district and one federal dependency)

Asia & Australia:

• Australia (six states and three territories)

• India (29 states and seven union territories)

• Iraq (18 governorates and one region (Iraqi Kurdistan)

• Malaysia (13 states and three federal territories)

• Federated States of Micronesia (Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap)

• Nepal (14 zones)• Pakistan (4 provinces, 2 autonomous areas and 2 territories)

• United Arab Emirates (seven emirates)


• Austria (nine states)

• Belgium (three regions and three linguistic communities)

• Bosnia and Herzegovina (two entities and one district)

• Germany (16 states)

• Russia (46 oblasts, 21 republics, nine krais, four autonomous okrugs, two federal cities, one autonomous oblast)

• Switzerland (26 cantons)

Thank you, Wikipedia; now we must continue with the argument without your help. And so, from discussions with friends, from broader reading outside the ambience of the internet, and also from living in a country that is a federal republic (Switzerland), I have concluded that federalism has its many advantages, but it also has its own disadvantages. But before we get down to the laundry list of advantages and disadvantages, let us ask ourselves why, after 50 years of independence, the question of federalism is arising only now?

It is because, to say the truth, some regions feel shortchanged. Some regions feel that resources are being inequitably distributed. So some people are genuinely angry for not having their regions get a fair share of the national cake. It would seem that the word “federalism” was in the throat of many people who were waiting for someone to strike a match. So when Reverend Ngwira spoke, he did not speak only for himself. But what, exactly, is wrong with our country? Is it the system of government? Or is it the bankruptcy of leadership we have almost at every stratum of society? Before answering this question, we have to first go through the advantages and disadvantages of federalism. The biggest advantage of federalism is that provincial government representatives live in proximity to the people and are most of the time from the same community, so that they are in a better position to understand the people’s problems and offer unique solutions for them. For example, there is too much sand on the road between Mzimba boma and Manyamula — a problem that could best be solved by the local government of the region, keeping local factors in mind, rather than by somebody living in Lilongwe. Yes, currently the Member of Parliament can and does take the problem to Lilongwe, but decision-makers there will only see it as a problem printed on a piece of paper, quite different from decision-makers at provincial level, who actually use that road. It must be mentioned that perhaps it is this singular advantage that is the biggest selling point of the idea of federalism. I, for instance, come from Kasungu West. If I would be asked to choose one thing I would like our government to do for us, the road from Kasungu town to the headquarters of Sub-Traditional Authority Nthunduwala would be it. It is the tobacco heartland, yet the road is so poor it is never easy to send tobacco to the auction floors. In the end, industrious Zambians cross the border to buy the tobacco at give-away prices. Meaning Malawi is losing. But somehow we are not doing anything about it, and it has never been a priority of any government in 50 years, so this road will remain a collection of potholes. One can then hope that with federalism, ‘unimportant’ roads like these could be given attention, and probably we could have tarmac in our life time. The second advantage is that provincial governments have the freedom to adopt policies which may not be followed nationally or by any other state. For example, Governor Ahmed Sani Yerima of Nigeria’s Zamfara state decided that his state was going to adopt the Sharia Law, in January 2000, and it did; whereas the rest of Nigeria did not. So given the protests against selling pork we witnessed in Mangochi last year, it could well be that the Eastern Province may want to choose to adopt Sharia law if Malawi were to become a federal republic. That would be up to them as they would be free to adopt any policies or laws they want. And here is the third advantage: a political party could lose national elections and win provincial elections. In the last elections, for instance, the Malawi Congress Party could have won the central region despite losing national elections; and the People’s Party could have won the north, while the United Democratic Front could have won the eastern region. This gives parties an opportunity to test and prove their capacity for leadership by offering them a chance to demonstrate how they perform once elected at provincial level, such that by the time they ascend to power at federal level, the leaders are tried and tested. Barack Obama, for instance, was first a senator in the state of Illinois before becoming senator and president at federal level. In India, the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, started off as a provincial czar when he served as Chief Minister of his state of origin, Gujarat. Successful there, he has now ascended to the topmost political seat in the world’s biggest democracy.

Apart from the advantages above, the competition that would develop among provinces could result in faster and more ambitious developmental activities. One can assume that no state would want to be viewed as lagging behind, as that would defeat the very idea of changing the political system from unitary to federal.

But not everything about federalism is good. The system has its own disadvantages. The federal system of government is very expensive, it must be said. More people are elected to office, both at the provincial and the federal level, than necessary. Thus, it is often said that only rich countries can afford it. In Switzerland, for example, the canton of Geneva alone has 100 MPs, and since there are 26 cantons, it means roughly there are around 2,600 provincial MPs besides the 200 federal MPs that sit in Bern, the federal capital. And, like we have already said, the country is only one-third the size of Malawi. In Malawi, we are already complaining about the salary raise of our 191 MPs. How much more, then, would we complain if there were 400 other provincial MPs (assuming 100 MPs per region more or less), all of them receiving a 300 per cent salary increase? And yes, the provincial Czar would require his or her own state house, bodyguards, and a motorcade. Where would we get the money to run such an expensive system? We don’t have money to run the unitary state. Donors, as we speak, have deserted us. We import far much more than we export. In short, our economy is on life support. Where on earth will we get the money to finance such an expensive system? Proponents of federalism argue that the current system is wasteful because of endless corruption and dysfunctional systems. They argue that corruption and wastefulness would be reduced or eradicated altogether when resources are managed at provincial level. While they are right about the corruption and wastefulness that prevail at present, it is utopian to imagine that all provincial leaders will be saints, that they will not be corrupt. Sometimes there can be an overlapping of work and subsequent confusion regarding who is responsible for what. The result would be finger-pointing, as the boundaries of responsibility may not easily be defined between the provincial and the federal government. I know Malawian politicians – they like personalizing development. So the regional Czar and the federal President might cherry-pick – anything that succeeds they would want to attribute the success to their individual efforts, and anything that fails they would want to blame the other guy. In my view, talk of federalism is misdiagnosing our situation. Development is not well-spread because we lack good leaders. Our leaders have mostly been nepotistic and greedy, thinking mostly of themselves and some few greedy souls of their tribes. They are also obsessed with being praised, even if it means praising them for doing nothing. So, to me, what federalism means is to multiply the poor leadership from currently being at centralized level to provincial level. Because it will be the very same leaders who are failing in the unitary system who will go on to create fiefdoms in their provinces. Thus apart from struggling to foot the enormous bill that would come due to the new layers of positions, corruption will be two-fold: the federal president and his people stealing at the top while regional Czars and their people steal at provincial level. Which financial base could accommodate that? In all this, let us not forget that we are failing to operate without the support of donors! Our tax base is small, and over-taxing the people could work only to a certain degree.

Some of the leaders pushing the federalism agenda are doing so for their own selfish purposes. Power having slipped from their hands, they want to find other means of retaining some sort of power, which is why they want federalism. Otherwise, why did they not call for federalism when they themselves were in power? Why call for it now that they have lost?

So, in my view, let us not treat the symptom while ignoring the disease. Let us elect to office leaders that are not nepotistic, who will ensure that development is equitably distributed. Let us hold our leaders to account, instead of clapping hands for anything they do. Let us not allow our leaders to govern us by uttering empty platitudes and wallowing in concentric bonds of narcissism. We need to make sure our leaders understand that we are not electing them to become our lords and princes, but as our servants. We do not need to praise them for doing what they were hired to do, or indeed for doing nothing. We Malawians do not need to be afraid to demand our rights. I have never, for instance, seen people from my part of the country protest to demand that our road be given attention. Freedom is not given, it is taken. I therefore wait for the day the people of Kasungu west will march onto the office of their District Commissioner, demanding that the road I have mentioned above receives attention. This does not happen. Instead, we hope that the change of the system from unitary to federal will work wonders for us. As I have already said, it is true that something needs to be done to ensure that this nonsense of shortchanging other regions stops. But to expect that federalism would be the quick-fix solution to our problems is wishful thinking.


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