Federalism: An Idea for South Sudan to Consider

s. sudan

The current raging debate for democracy in the South Sudan has once again raised an interesting question. What form of constitutional governance would be most appealing to the ethno-regionals multiplicities within the government? Since gaining independence in July 2011, South Sudan has been immersed in ethnic-antagonism. The current centralized political system is viewed as fostering a monolithic regime at the expense of democracy. Federalism has been discussed by the nation’s top politicians and public policy experts.   Riek Machar, the former vice president turned rebel, believes federalism should be a part of the ongoing negotiations in Addis Ababa. But majority of citizens do not want federalism signed into law without representation. The citizenry would like to see a national debate on the concept of democracy.

Federal Models: Cooperative versus Dual Federalism

Nations which have attempted or adapted federalism include Canada, United States of America, Russia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa, Australia, and Brazil among others. However, since South Sudan is a presidential system as opposed to a parliamentarian, it’s imperative to examine the United States federal system. Scholars and experts on governance tend to agree that the United States system is a cooperative federal system. Dual federalism holds that the federal government and the state governments are co-equals, each sovereign. United States had shied away from dual federalism because the system tends to creates power vacuum between the central government and the States. Cooperative federalism balances the need for federal oversight without oppressive restraints on the individual state governments. In this model the federal government and the states’ governments share some responsibilities and assume independence for others. The military for example is a federal responsibility while the National Guard is the state’s responsibility.

With dual federalism, the federal government minimize its support for local programs while continuing to levy income tax on its citizens. As a result, the State governments are usually forced to raise taxes on individual incomes in order to fund local programs left unfunded by the federal government. Both systems, however, have advantages and disadvantages.

The litmus test: United States versus other federal systems

Unlike most federal systems, the U.S. federal system has a constitutionally spelled out system. It identifies responsibilities for both the central government and the individual states. The express powers of the central government include the right to levy taxes, declare war, coin money and regulate interstate and foreign commerce (Article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution). In addition to the express powers, the federal government has implied power to pass any law “necessary and proper” for the execution of its express powers. Other powers called “inherent powers” include the ability of the federal government to acquire more territories whether through peaceful or other means. The U.S. constitution also sets aside what it referred to as “reserved powers” (10th Amendment to the US constitution) for the state governments. Additional shared powers between the federal and states government includes borrowing money and enforcing laws.

           South Sudan political advocates on federalism must evaluate emerging federal systems such as Libya. The rebels who took down Gadhafi in 2011 called for a federal system of government. Immediately, following the fall of Gadhafi from power, the opposition groups attempted to implement federalism and the nation descended into chaos. A group of separatists emerged and issued a declaration of autonomy. Some Libyans view the rebel call for federalism as a betrayal of national unity, and the “separatists” are accused of being influenced by external powers. Many fear that the separatist partition scenario could send Libya into a regrettable chaos possibly a civil war among the old provinces of Cyrenaica in the east, Fezzan in the South and Tripolitania in the west.

It is alleged that the geographical boundaries of these provinces has not been fully established and would be hotly contested. Similar to South Sudan situation, there is also an issue of oil being centralized in one particular region. Without a democratic debate Libya remains an example of a failed system.   Other examples of emerging and struggling federal systems include Iraq which adapted the federal system shortly (in 2005) following the 2003 war. The Iraq Kurds view federalism as an opportunity for them to partition a separate state. More examples of attempted and failed historical two-sided federal systems include Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1960 constitution of Cyprus was based on federal idea but the union of Greek and Turks failed; the federal system of Cameroon operated for short spans between 1961 and 1972 and it failed. The state union of Serbia and Montenegro failed in 2006 after Montenegro declared its independence.

The good

Federalism is not an implied hierarchical structure (centralized) where autonomy is forsaken within the organization. With a centralized system, the power rests with those at the top and the role of those below is to obey. South Sudan public policy experts view federalism as a justifiable way to decentralize governance, prevent marginalization of some regions within the broader system and prevent a dictator from emerging. In this twenty first-century, some believe that the role of national government is getting too powerful, therefore states should have the autonomy to run their owns locals affairs.   States should have the right to implement methods that work for their own population. However, states should not use decentralization as a mean to override the federal or national government.

The bad and the ugly

Federal system may not work in nations with imprecise constitutions.  Without a strong constitution tribal manipulations may rise. Tribal warlords and politicians may use federalism as a means to blackmail the federal government for favorable deals. For instance, the Cobra under David Yau Yau used their tribally backed militia to force the Juba based leadership into accepting a separate administrative system; (Greater Pibor Administrative Area) within Jonglei States.  

Due to high illiteracy in South Sudan, locals may misinterpret the democratic concept to mean realignment of tribal boundaries. Some groups may demand that those who belong to a certain tribal group must be relocated to states where majority members of that ethnic group reside. The result, ethnic discrimination may soar.

The concept may also be misunderstood to mean complete autonomy; an extremist call for separate country from rest of the republic. Some militia groups had already made such an attempt. It is alleged that an old militia in central Equatoria led by Martin Kenyi has reactivated their activities under the Equatoria Defense Forces. According to an article published by www.Sudantribune.com, “the objective of this tribal-based militia is to fight for a separation of Equatoria region from the rest of South Sudan.” There are several tribal based militias within South Sudan and they would like to see the nation disintegrated into small regionally based countries.

References and additional resources:

COHEN, J.M. (1995), '"Ethnic Federalism" in Ethiopia', Northeast African

Studies 2, 2 (n.s.): 157-188.

DELANCEY, M.W. (1989), Cameroon: dependence and independence,

Boulder/San Francisco: Westview Press.

ELAIGWU, J.I., and OLORUNSOLA, V.A. (1983), 'Federalism and Politics

of Compromise', in D. Rothchild and V.A. Olorunsola (eds), State

Versus Ethnic Claims: African policy dilemmas, pp. 281-303, Boulder,

Colorado: Westview Press.

ENONCHONG H.N.A. (1967), Cameroon Constitutional Law: federalism

In a mixed common-law and civil-law system, Yaoundé: Center d'Edition

ET de Production de Manuels et d'Auxiliaires de l'Enseignement.

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Agok Manyang Agok is an author of the book: The Phoenix of South Sudan. He holds a bachelor of science in economic, a Master degree and he’s currently pursuing graduate studies in Law and Public Policy. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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