Attaining sustainable national unity through federal system of government

By Jacob K. Lupai

May 1, 2013 (SSNA) — In the old Sudan, South Sudan had demanded a federal system of government to sustain national unity. However, the narrow minds of the old Sudan rejected the South demand. With no alternative South Sudan then embarked on one of the longest and bloody protracted armed struggle on the continent for freedom, justice and equality. This was spearheaded by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

After twenty-one years of armed struggle South Sudan achieved what it had aspired for, total independence. This was expected for people who had suffered so much injustice and gross marginalization in the hands of brutal neocolonial North Sudan. It was easy realizing independence through the ballot box but it is going to be a different matter to attain sustainable unity of South Sudan being diversified as it is.

There are instruments, nevertheless, when carefully considered and applied with a nationalist and revolutionary vision may promote sustainable unity. The problem may be that people hardly differentiate between a nationalist and a tribalist vision. People are confused as the level of tribalism may be high.

SPLM Constitution 2008

The SPLM is the lead party in government in South Sudan. It has a constitution that will make South Sudan a paradise on earth, only if it could be rigorously followed with a nationalistic zeal. In the constitution the SPLM is guided by principles such as democracy and political pluralism, prosperity, harmony and social cohesion. In addition the SPLM is guided by the principles of decentralization and devolution of power and voluntary unity of people, respect of diversity and economic interest.

Among other things the SPLM is guided by the principles of justice and equality for all irrespective of ethnicity, religion, region, social status or gender, accountability, transparency and good governance, and above all emancipation of the individual from constraints to freedom, prosperity, self-realisation and happiness.

From the highlights above the SPLM constitution 2008 is a masterpiece. The constitution has clearly set out basic principles to follow in making South Sudan truly a country all can call home. The aims and objectives of the constitution suggest that the SPLM has a clear revolutionary vision and an instrument to attain sustainable unity and prosperity for all in South Sudan. However, in practice it is not clear to which extent the SPLM has rigorously followed its own constitution to realize the aims and objectives set.

Transitional Constitution 2011

In the Transitional Constitution, 2011 of the Republic of South Sudan, Articles 24(1) and 25(1) stipulate respectively that, “Every citizen shall have the right to the freedom of expression, reception and dissemination of information, publication, and access to the press without prejudice to public order, safety or morals as prescribed by law” and that, “The right to peaceful assembly is recognized and guaranteed; every person shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form or join political parties, associations and trade or professional unions for the protection of his or her interests”.

In Article 36(1) of the same transitional constitution it is stipulated that, “All levels of government shall provide democratic principles and political pluralism, and shall be guided by the principles of decentralization and devolution of power to the people through the appropriate levels of government where they can best manage and direct their affairs”. 

It can be seen that what the Articles in the transitional constitution stipulate is indeed magnificent. However, what matters are not the niceties of the Articles in the transitional constitution. What is of great importance is for the constitution to be seen making the difference in the lives of ordinary people. For example, the freedom of expression guaranteed in the constitution should be translated into practice when people are not silenced for expressing critical views.

Decentralisation and devolution of power to the people to manage their own affairs is something that is universally accepted and is put into practice to make the unity of a country attractive. In South Sudan, however, decentralization and devolution of power to the people at best remains theoretical on paper. There are ten state but remain like departments in a centralized system.

Centralisation of power is evident and examples abound. Tax collection has been centralized and so are the police, prisons and the wildlife forces where the states hardly have power over deployment. This does not sound at all like decentralization and devolution of power to the people in the states to manage their own affairs.

SPLM Manifesto 2012

According to the SPLM Manifesto 2012, “Good governance is achieved through transparency and even more through inclusion, in decision-making through opportunities to give voice to concerns at all levels of governance, and through exercise of the right to ask questions and to demand appropriate answers”. The manifesto states that the ultimate goal is the full empowerment of the people of South Sudan as agents of their own destiny in the economic no less than in the political life of the nation.

What the SPLM Manifesto affirms can only mean decentralization and devolution of power to the people as agents of their own destiny. The manifesto also affirms that the SPLM will ensure democracy under the rule of law and good governance, to safeguard fundamental human. economic, social, cultural and religious rights, and freedoms.

On equality the SPLM Manifesto asserts that it is rooted in the understanding that all men and women have an essential right to be respected fully as human beings, that all human life has equal worth and that all human beings must be afforded equal dignity.

With reference to unity the manifesto affirms that it should not be confused with unanimity. The manifesto asserts that people of South Sudan are diverse and value their diversity, and respect for equal dignity of all human beings necessitates respect for their right to assert and preserve collective identity and values.

The SPLM Manifesto 2012 is very clear on governance, equality and unity. However, good governance, equality and national unity cannot be achieved by word of mouth without the empowerment of people to manage their own affairs. Empowerment of the people is best achieved through proper decentralization which in other words could mean a federal system. The SPLM Manifesto couldn’t have been clearer about empowerment of the peop0le when it asserts that, “True national liberation comes not with the achievement of formal independence, but with the achievement of full and effective empowerment and sovereignty of all citizens and of the nation as a whole”.

The manifesto further affirms that the SPLM shall uphold and respect the rights of minorities and guarantee their representation and participation in the life of the country. Arguably the rights of minorities and their participation in government cannot be guaranteed through a centralized system. Minorities may need to be empowered to manage their affairs and that can be through a federal system for sustainable national unity.

Models of federal system

There are various models of a federal system of government in the world. Models of a federal system are found in countries such as the United States of America (USA), Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Nigeria to mention but a few. To avoid boredom only two models of a federal system are highlighted. They are the Swiss and the Nigerian model.

Swiss model of federal system

Switzerland is a small country located in the heart of Western Europe. It is only 41,277 square kilometers, smaller even that Central Equatoria State whose size is 43,033 square kilometers. However, the population of Switzerland is 8.02 million almost the same as that of South Sudan.

Switzerland has quite a unique democratic tradition. Although a small country Switzerland is a federation of 26 member states known as cantons. Switzerland’s basic political philosophy can be described as far reaching with a form of federal system granting member states a maximum of political self-determination and restricting the competencies of the federal government to absolute minimum.

The Swiss model of a federal system consists of governments, administrations, parliaments and courts organized on three political levels, federal, state (canton) and communal which may be an equivalent to county in the case of South Sudan.

The importance of the Swiss model of a federal system is that Switzerland is made up of different ethnic groups. Over the centuries whenever conflicts have arisen between the different ethnic groups, the Swiss have resolved the conflict by allowing each of the warring groups to govern themselves.

Single states have divided into half-states, new states have been formed and border communes have opted to leave one state to join another. In this way the Swiss have developed a federal system which permits people of different languages, cultures, religions and traditions to live together in peace and harmony. This makes the Swiss model of a federal system particularly well suited to ethnically diverse countries.

Nigerian model of federal system

In Nigeria, under the British colonial rule, conflicting demands for autonomy by the various political grouping compelled the British to establish a measure of compromise to accommodate conflicting demands. The Nigerian model of a federal system can be traced to when the Northern and Southern protectorates were amalgamated. With the existence and recognition of the two autonomous parts of Northern and Southern protectorates, the administrative system of Nigeria was an outlook of a federation.

Under a new Nigerian constitution introduced by the British, a federal system of government was established. This system was based on three regions Eastern, Western and Northern Nigeria. The idea was to reconcile the regional and religious tensions as well as accommodating the interest of diverse ethnic groups. Coups and counter-coups created a volatile situation in Nigeria when the Eastern Region announced secession and proclaimed its independence as the Republic of Biafra. However, the Republic of Biafra could not win an all out war for independence and after a cease fire the Eastern Region was reintegrated into Nigeria.

The three regions of Nigeria were restructured into twelve states with the intention to produce larger representation for other ethnic groups. Each region was divided up into states as were the three regions of South Sudan each also divided up into states. The Nigerian population is diverse with well over 250 ethnic groups. Given the historical legacy of divisions among ethnic groups and regions in Nigeria, the federal imperative was so fundamental that even military governments, characteristically unitarian and centralist, attached great importance to the continuation of a federal system of government.

The model of a federal system in Nigeria is flexible. This means with time more states in the federation can be created. For example, in 1967 the three regions of Nigeria were restructured to create twelve states. The number of states increased to nineteen in 1976, and eventually to twenty-one in 1987. In the span of twenty years Nigeria, from three regions, has developed into twenty-one states in addition to the Federal Capital Territory. The increasing number of states was a direct response to the demands of groups that were not satisfied with their positions in the federation.

National unity through federal system

Both models of a federal system of government in Switzerland and in Nigeria have one thing in common, the achievement of sustainable national unity. The two models adequately address ethnic and regional diversities and challenges that a centralized system may hardly cope with. South Sudan has similar ethnic and regional diversities and challenges as in Nigeria which seems to be coping through a federal system. South Sudan may also cope adequately with its ethnic and regional diversities and challenges through the adoption of a federal system of government.

The main worry about adopting a federal system in South Sudan is that some circles are very scared that they will be out of Equatoria through administrative mechanism of deployment to work in one’s state when a federal system is adopted. This is because Equatoria seems to have become a safe haven for people escaping insecurity in their own states. This may explain the bizarre proposal to annex the states in Equatoria to the insecure neighbouring states. Nigeria abolished the federal regions and instead created federal states. The existing ten states in South Sudan could become federal states with the larger ones to be divided up into more states to address imbalances in service delivery.

It is not the solution to insecurity and development stagnation to annex the states in Equatoria to the insecure neighbouring states in the other regions. Arguably the solution is the adoption of a federal system to empower the people to manage their affairs with adequate support from the national government. The recent announcements by the President of the Republic of South Sudan for amnesty to rebellious groups were a giant step forward and in the right direction to realize security and peaceful co-existence. However, so that not to be seen as discrimination, the amnesty should also include Peter Abdelrahaman Sule though he is a politician. This may go a long way as reconciliation and confidence building for a peaceful South Sudan.


In conclusion, it can be seen that sustainable national unity can be attained through the adoption of a federal system of government as the Swiss and the Nigerian models seem to suggest. A federal system addresses the challenges of ethnic and regional diversities in the national interest. The main challenge to the adoption of a federal system may be how it is interpreted in the context of South Sudan. However, from a positive perspective a federal system appears to promote sustainable national unity in diversity as the Swiss and Nigerian models seem to confirm.

The author can be reached at [email protected]

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