The Grand Confusion On Federalism: How Making Last Things First Leads to a Loss of Direction.

Posted: June 21, 2014 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Commentary, Featured Articles, Philosophy

By Aleu-Mabil, Malaysia

Is South Sudan already a federal state? Is the current call for federalism a pretext for confederation?

Is South Sudan already a federal state? Is the current call for federalism a pretext for confederation?

The issue of federalism for South Sudan, especially on social and print media, has recently sparked one of the hottest debates among South Sudanese, home and diaspora alike. Since its renewed call by the rebels (call them armed opposition), so much about it has been said by different writers and in fact repeatedly that this article would not have been needful had enough really been enough. But following an argument with a friend on federalism, who eventually convincingly gave up his understanding, he asked me to put, in writing, my view about it and how it has been misunderstood in South Sudan. Along this line, therefore, coupled with disturbing, misconceived arguments about federalism on social and news sites that I have always seen but resist my urge to join in, I finally thought that this writing, intended to be informal but true to the title, is a good idea worth blacking-on-white.

First of all, federalism is defined as a system of government in which sovereignty of an independent territory is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units (such as states or provinces of the main territory). In other words, it is a system of governance based on democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between the national and provincial or state governments, resulting into a federation. Whereas federalism is synonymous with federation, confederation is morphologically a look-alike of federation but the two are, intrinsically, greatly contrastive. Confederation (also confederacy), on the other hand, is a union of political units (states or regions) for a common action in relation to other units and is usually created and governed based on a treaty  and, following its formation, a common constitution.

The marked functional difference between confederation and federation is that the former is quite a loose alliance between the constituent autonomous or semiautonomous units, has a weaker central authority and, depending on the treaty, each member unit may choose to break away from the confederation. The latter, whereas, has a stronger central authority and the constituent states/provinces cannot normally secede from main entity. Due to the large difference between the laws of the member units and those of the central authority in a confederation, citizens in a confederation do not enjoy equal rights as those in a federation do. USA is an example of a federation (with fifty states) while former Serbia and Montenegro was, till 2006, a confederation.

Straight-away and to casually begin with federalism is not bad for South Sudan especially if its basic meaning among South Sudanese is to be taken as same as it is internationally known. But bad is the way South Sudanese, judging from the recent utterances and debates, interpret it, the alleged or apparent motives behind its call, the stereotypes that have been attached to it and the circumstances surrounding its renewed call. Renewed call because, neither was it the first time leaders of SPLM (in its several variants; SPLM, SPLM-DC and SPLM-IO especially the last one that re-raised it) called for it nor was it the first time federalism was ever called for.

As it has recently become apparent, almost all those who talked in favour of federalism did say that “now is the time for federalism and or we (or the people of …) are for federalism” without elaborating on what system is currently in existence and its comparative down-sides or how and when “federalism now being called for” will really work any better for the humble people than whatever system was there before. As long as there is no clarity in these, confusion, whether or not intentional, is bound to submerge the call. But believe it or not, South Sudan is structurally and facially federal. The country already clearly has federalism in structure and administrative set-up but faintly constitution-wise. The country has states not just by names but with the main branches of government represented in them. They make their own state laws in their state legislative assemblies, characteristic of a federal system. In world records, the new country is classified, by governance type, as a presidential republic with federal system of governance.



On several records, however, there have been gross violations of the system if it were to be taken as in some countries. Demarcation of powers and share of proceeds from the national cake between the state and central governments, for example, are unclear and sometimes completely lacking. This is due to how the transitional constitution, the legal guarantor of the existence of state and central governments and of federalism, was designed in 2011. The lack of the word federalism itself in it is un-debatable but should not be the reason for the call if the practice of the system was clearly stipulated in the constitution and was really working.

As such those backing “federalism now being called for” should not have expressed this call as though federalism were something completely new and non-existent in South Sudan. Since we already have federalism but in a poor or unsatisfactory functional form, current calls should clearly be for a revitalization of the existing defunct federal system, for which we already have structures, some laws and experience with (negative or good). This can be done through amending the constitution to solve such already committed blunders as the undefined “event” or nature of the statement “in the event of a crisis that threatens national security and integrity” in the presidential power to removal an elected governor in article 101(r) of the Transitional Constitution.

The governance and political problems we now have are not because we do not have federalism but because the law that governs its practice was not appropriately put in place. On top people (the politicians, the leaders, the actors) are instead the problem. They are the same people who served, are now serving and or are now calling for it even if they did not practice it when they had a chance to and worse still are now not telling citizens correctly how to correct the loopholes so far seen in the less practical but structural federalism we currently have and which only needs to be reformed. This precision should be drawn and made understandable first of all.

However, the pro-federalism and anti-federalism alike are instead just confusing the masses about what really is federalism. What amuses me is how all the top politicians; the president, vice president, governors, rebel leaders are making it confusing and ridiculous. I was surprised when I read most of these people say federalism is what people of Southern Sudan needed before South Sudan was attained, even in 1947 Juba Conference. Some even went as far as forming committees to be sent to Upper Nile (interesting why Upper Nile alone of all the three regions) to engage with or campaign to people on federalism without recalling that most of the people there are in horrible conditions either on the run, in UN camps, hiding in the forest or holding guns in defence of their threatened lives. Why make a mountain out of a mole hill over federalism to that extent? If the suffering people in Upper Nile could be honoured with a visit, such should undoubtedly be for relief food, shelter items and how to bring back peace and normalcy to their area. But on the contrary and as though wisdom has been killed by air conditioned rooms and cars in Juba, Addis Ababa, name it, they are going for something that concerns the future not the current conditions.

With all these then, it becomes succinct that these people are dishonest about what they say and are at the same time confusing CONFEDERATION for FEDERALISM (or secretly pushing the former dubbed latter or have other agenda behind the call). To revisit the 1947 Juba conference that others have used as the first beginning of calls for federalism, what our chiefs and elites asked at that time from the British and the then Northern Sudanese was a Confederation not Federalism. A few quotes from the conference: Quote

  1. ” Chief Lapponya stated that the principle of unity could only be decided later when the Southerners were grown up, by which time they would be in a position to decide whether to join the North or go to the Belgian Congo or Uganda” Unquote.
  1. Quote Chief Cir Rehan[sic] replied that the Southerners should go on learning under their British Administrators and in due course they would acquire understanding. He could not see that at the present time, Northerners could understand the needs of Southerners” Unquote
  1. Quote Chief Buth[sic] Diu said that Northerners claim to have no desire to dominate the South, but this was not enough and there must be safeguards. There should be no settlement by Northerners on land in the South without permission. Secondly there must be no interference from the North in Local Government in the South” Unquote

These quotes show more than anything that what was asked for in the 1947 Juba conference was actually a confederation within which the then Southern Sudan would choose in the future to break away if things did not work out as the Southerners had actually suspected. If current calls do really intend federalism, then there is no need for restructuring of states, no need for regional based federalism but rather state based federalism (ten states as of now). But since some people think that and are actively seeking for region based federalism, this can be more deeply interpreted as a call for confederation codenamed federalism or as, some people have already charged, ways of garnering political support from the masses, ensuring a comeback in government in another form to basically continue with the same cults as before.

South Sudanese ordinary citizens should look more beyond such stereotypes as some regions are resource poorer or richer than others merely as ways of buying through a hidden agenda in the name of federalism. For facts, no region in South Sudan is poorer than the other. Each is unique and gifted in its own way. For example, in my region/state as well as the entire country, I am so well aware of the untapped natural mineral endowments we have that no stereotypes will set me blind on what matters to the whole of South Sudan. It is needless to mention all such known plus the unknown resources. If the current direct crooked, unscrupulous and deserving beneficiaries of the ongoing oil production do not know the localities or communities on whose land oil is now being pumped out from, how would they know other areas with discovered but untapped oil and other resources?  Only time will prove the drummers of such a campaign that is as worthless for all of us as South Sudanese as well as to the acceptance of the good word (federalism) that is now being portrayed as a bad one. Only the ignorant would be worried by their region being mislabelled as poor or who would celebrate their region labelling as richer than the rest and think that their regions/states/localities are solely theirs without all other South Sudanese.

Personally, federalism, as really it is but not that “federalism being called for”, is ideal for South Sudan, but not now, not even in the next two years or so and certainly not in the manner it is being pursued. It may be adopted just as applied in the USA, Germany or India and then modified to our setting. However, with the prevailing misconceptions about it and the current rate of corruption and weak institutions, that have already handicapped the blurry form of it that we have, it will not bring us free honey and milk neither good governance as we see in those countries but we could still remain as we now are or go the Nigerian way or even worse. Given the current circumstances, the senseless bloodbath and incessant untold human suffering, is it really the wise thing that we should so prioritize in such a way as some politicians have already formed committees to go to other regions for its campaign? This is clearly explains the doubts to the intention dubbed federalism. It would be better to be frank about that hidden, ugly agenda and get credited for honesty than pretend when the intentions are readable.

Thanks to Mabioor Garang Mabioor for he once said,

“I think we should be honest enough and admit that what we are really talking about in South Sudan is “confederation” and not “federation”…the level of trust needed for a federal system is lacking…not to say it is impossible…but confederation can be a transition to eventual federation…because it can be argued that we already have a federal system…a lot of successful federal systems started out as confederations…before they became federal systems”  7th June, 2014 Mabior Garang de Mabior Facebook Page.

That is a recommendable honesty. If there is anything I know Mabioor is best at, it is telling people where he stands. Just as in this case and in his support for Dr Riek Machar, the man his own father once cursed and labelled as a traitor and the same man who once butchered his uncles, cousins and grandparents and actually later accepted responsibility. It was mind-boggling how Mabioor went for his backing. But it is more of a noble virtue when a man stands clear and firm in his position, however wrong he may be considered, than when he always practices democracy even in situation where his democratic virtue lacks basis.   Those are his opinions though and he has the right to go for what he wishes. But his position on the system of governance that South Sudan should adopt is certainly wrong and irrelevant. Confederation, knowing its self-autonomous nature and how potentially it may create risks of disintegration, is NOT good for South Sudan whatsoever as there are no justifications for its call (or whenever there are, they are never fitting for solutions to our problems not even as mock solutions or last resorts). What South Sudan needs is not autonomy for its regions or states. All that is needed is equitable distribution and management of revenues from our resources, fair share of power for all our communities and above all a united, dignified South Sudan. These are by far possible without any need of confederation.

In the nutshell, federalism is good, we already have it but with weak state governments and we only need to rejuvenate it in our own way that suit us as South Sudanese rather than take it as Americans, Germans, etc have it. This has to be done through an all-inclusive constitutional review and amendment and if there are serious objections to it from the citizens, then it has to be voted for in a referendum as President Kiir Mayardid once said. The time now is not rife and right for discussing it as all energies should be dedicated to peacefully stopping the current ravaging conflict and suffering of our people. First things should be first. Where will it be implemented even if unanimously accepted now as the proponents want it if this conflict is not resolved first? We should be realistic enough to start the walk from the mountain foot to the top rather than vice versa.

In the peace talks the involved parties should focus their lenses on the interim national unity government and national reconciliation and subsequently federalism as mentioned above and in the timeline of 2 -3 years down the successful interim government. Prior to that time, public awareness on federalism will have to be disseminated for people to avoid such misunderstandings with federalism as has been seen so far and similar other wrong understandings such as Paloj is only for Ngook or Abyei is only for the nine Ngook chiefdoms, Kapoeta is only for Taposa, Rumbek is only for Agaar, Yambio is only for Zande, Turalei is only for Twij, Pibor is only for Murle or Kejokeji is only for Kuku, et cetra. Remember we have a number of our territories to bring back into our territorial integrity     and control while at the same time we have an acid test to pass before the world; ‘that we are capable of governing ourselves without disintegrating into tribes or whatever units as we now seem to transcend in just as our ill-wishers had forewarned’.

The writer can be reached at   

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