Is Malawi Ripe for Federalism?


Of late, there have been fresh calls for Malawi to move away from the current unitary government to a federal setup. Those championing the cause, seem to be aiming at forcing President Chakwera to call for a referendum for the adoption of federal government system in Malawi. Others, have chosen parliamentary motions on the same.

This is not the first time such calls are being made or is it resurrected. As has been the case before, the fresh calls have brought about some debate around applicability and preparedness for the coin flip.

In this opinion piece, our discussion will therefore centre on whether Malawi is ready to move to federalism type of government and if the motivation warrants for a presidential declaration for a referendum.

Unitary vs Federal Government

For starters, those advocating for Federalism, the main goal is for Malawi to move away from the current unitary government spread around the grounds of Capital Hill to federal system located across in the administrative three regional capitals of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu.

So what is unitary government? Taking Malawi’s current governing system, this is a clear example of unitary system. It is a single central government with total power over all of its other political subdivisions like the 28 districts and the 3 regions.

In a federal system, governmental powers and responsibilities are divided. Federalism, unites separate states/regions within an overarching political system in a way that allows each to maintain its own integrity. Where federalism is practiced like the European Union, it requires that basic policies be made and implemented through negotiation in some form, so that all the members can share in making and executing decisions.

In a unitary state, the political subdivisions like the various districts from Chitipa to Nsanje, all carry out the directives of the central government and the respective District Commissioners (DC) or District Health Officers (DHO) have no power to act on their own. In the advocated federation, the current 3 regions would move to a constitutionally organized union or alliance of partially self-governing regions under a central federal government in Lilongwe. In essence, the current three regions would share sovereignty with the federal government. Unlike the largely powerless local governments under the current unitary setup that cannot decide on a particular DC to have let alone where to plant a district hospital, the regions or districts of a federation would enjoy some degree of independence in their internal affairs under the leadership of an elected State Governor (or whatever title).

The Nigeria and USA government structures are good examples of federations. While their respective constitutions specifically reserve some power for the federal government, other powers are granted to the collective states, and others are shared by both.

Let it be noted that unitary government is the most common form of government in the world and of the 193 member countries of the United Nations, 165 are unitary states. Closer to home, all Malawi’s neighbours have a framework of unitary type of government.

Advantages of Unitary

Unitary governments are premised on the fact of having a clear, central authority. No matter how citizens feel about any given law like the recently amended law regulating NGOs in Malawi, everyone understands where the power lies – at State House. Unitary governments also usually respond rapidly to crises, since only one layer of government needs to consider any given issue. Another advantage that has been cited is that such a government is less costly to run as it takes away the multiple levels of government bureaucracy common to federations. Unitary governments are said to be smaller as they can govern the entire country from a single location like our Capital Hill in Lilongwe. In Federations, that will require sub governments at regional/state level as was the case with the so called ‘stupid’ colonial federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland of 1953 to 1963 as presided over by Roy Welensky as its last Prime Minister.

Motivation for Federalism

Despite the unitary government being the most common form of government in the world, it also has drawbacks. It is from this angle that the pro federalists are motivating their position on.

Although unitary governments may be able to make decisions quickly, such governments sometimes lack the physical infrastructure needed to implement ensuing decisions. Fertilizer procurement under the AIP or the disaster responses are some of the recent examples in Malawi.

Unitary systems are said to encourage abuse of power. In Malawi, for instance, the President holds most, if not all, governmental power including being an appointing authority. History has shown that power, when placed in too few hands, is easily abused. No examples needed here.

Some Reflections

It has to be appreciated that calls for referendum of 1992 and the current one are similar in some aspects except the international pressure on the president which this time will never be exerted at any given time. Engaging one of the federalism proponents, he cites experimental as the main reason – to try out a different type of government which benefits Malawians better, according to him. It is therefore quite sobering to hear others asking to what extent have we used empirical evidence to justify adoption of federalism and what lessons have been drawn from such countries like Ethiopia or Nigeria to make some believe that federal system would be effective in Malawi’s case? The same applies to the testing of the hypothesis that service delivery would improve in all parts of the country if federalism was to be adopted. Looking back at the sentiments said prior to the holding of the 1993 referendum on the adoption of multiparty system of government, one would agree with me that we indeed gained individual freedoms in one hand and lost a handful from the other.

It has to be appreciated that Malawi has several key centripetal forces: dominant regional political parties, entrenched ethnic groups, top-down state administration and high degree of fiscal centralism. Federalism as being championed, may matter in offering accommodative decentralization, but in its operation subnational/regional governments may still have limited autonomy because of these interlocking centralizing features. Few years down the line, the country might be back to the drawing board with secessionist calls as was the case with the Biafra in Nigeria in 1967 and recently, Tigray in Ethiopia. You may remember one Vincent Wandale on his calls for self-governing of Mulanje and Thyolo and there might be more of such.

Way Forward

Listening to the salient features of the debate, one may conclude that Malawi as a family, the wife is complaining that the husband is not equally supporting her side – development (chitukuko) is not reaching her remote village. It is worth noting that Malawi simply needs to stay on ‘holding-together’ and not divorce in order to accommodate the current ethnic pluralism, the rich diversity plus the other underlying issues. As in medical practice, what we are seeing as a problem if at all, there is one, may require proper and extensive diagnosis before medication, with known side effects, is administered. As an immediate solution, we need to understand why development is not reaching some parts of the country if indeed some are being deliberately sidelined. We may need, among others, to know what is delaying the much talked about Nthalire road, why the southern region received its AIP fertilizer after MPs braved the rains and camped at SFFRFM Chirimba depot in Blantyre.

Reaching this far, one may be right to suggest that the country probably needs a rotational president through a constitutional amendment as opposed to adoption of federal government through a referendum. It is a known fact that since time in memorial, the northern region has not produced a state president besides its tremendous contribution towards national development. The closest the region has achieved as a share of the political cake, was a second Vice President position through the late Chakufwa Chihana (MHSRIP) and a Vice President in Khumbo Hastings Kachali.

Whilst others are arguing that the children, the regions as it were, have come of age and need to go their separate ways for the sake of bringing in more development and autonomy, this opinion piece concludes otherwise. The country needs more time to further reflect on this important matter. In essence, the fruit might be said to be mature enough but not yet ripen. It needs kukundika!


Note: The author is an elections analyst and runs @MalawiElects on Twitter

Kumbukani Kuntiya

Kumbukani Kuntiya is a social and political commentator


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