The prospects of federalism as an effective form of governance, and how it can rescue South Sudan from the brink of collapse

By Gabrial Pager Ajang


As a state, the South Sudan seeks to find what sorts of system that would better serve its citizens. The transitional constitution consolidates powers at hands of the president. It also does not mention word federalism in the text. However, the South Sudan political history and current system in the state and national governments was derived from a federal system. The transitional constitution of South Sudan declares centralization and decentralization of powers between state and central governments as a form of governance, and this alone defines South Sudan as a federal state. Therefore, politicians who want use federalism to advance their regionalism or tribalism can find different avenues for divisive politics to fuel their war. The Equatoria, and Bhar el Ghazel regions have been relatively calm, and anyone who want to initiate fighting because of federalism is ill informed about this subject. Politicians must understand that system of governance will not be fought in the battle fields; people sit down, dialogue and write their constitution. This is not 1990s where some politicians use self-determination, an idea they plagiarized from 1972 Addis Ababa agreement to derail the SPLM/A. Our country yearns for honest debate about form of governance, i.e. federalism. Federalism isn’t tribalism, and it is not even regionalism or other form of divisive agendas that are floating around. This paper proposes constitutional federalism or a form of governance that would ensure sharing of powers between state and national government, equitable distribution of national resources, and effective institutions, and development.



South Sudan was founded as a federal republic state and it will remain as a Federal Republic of South Sudan. Even if federalism debate is employed by rebels’ leaders and opportunists to advance their agendas, I suggest that this debate can be championed by the government of South Sudan. The drafted transitional constitution is premised on a federal system, and the current government of South Sudan has paramount interests to sell federalism to its citizens. Federalism is the most effectiveness ways of governing that can rescue the government of South Sudan from it brinks because it does give accurate representation of citizens in various states and could possibly avert growing discontent. Citizens in various states feel that they fought against the North (Sudan) for principles of preserving in federalism because it enhances effectiveness of individuals and small businesses in the private and public sectors. Federalism is not federation. Federation means separation or secession of state from a country, for instance, Jonglei state seceded to be part of Ethiopia. However, federalism is form of governance that distributes powers between state and national governments.

South Sudan government is based on the principle of federalism, in which powers are shared between the national and state governments. Framed in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and transitional constitution was the very essence that that certain powers would be delegated to states, and some powers would be reapportioned to the central government. The idea of federalism is neither derived from 19970s Korkorya policy of Equatorian that was spearheaded by their leaders nor orchestrated by rebels’ leaders.  The federal system has been guiding principles of the SPLM/A Leadership during the liberation struggles. Nevertheless, confusion comes from the adopted transitional constitution that blurs the powers given to state and central governments. At this point, it would be better if the President of South Sudan along with the legislature, and supreme to specify powers given to the national and state governments to improve their relation with citizens, curve concern in East, Central and Western Equatoria, and many other stakeholders. What is the right time to do the right thing in South Sudan? How long is long enough to wait and do the right thing? Doing nothing caused anarchy. And the reality is there is no designated time for doing right thing. Governments across the global prioritize a policy and execute it or act on a program. And indeed, government works in crisis and intense competing political parties. Hence, South Sudanese want a viable state, and the priority is writing permanent constitution. United States framers wrote their constitution before declaring war against England (simple example of Americana). Hence, the debate about federalism is intrinsically ties with framing new constitution. The drafters of the South Sudan framed constitutional federalism without deep understanding that they have actually framed a federal system.

If the debate of federalism is not carefully managed, it could feed tribal mentality or hatred, and engineer another conflict. Constitutional federalism can be designed to help both levels of governments to function more effectively. This debate is at the crust of dividing governmental roles and responsibilities.  If the constitution is written based on federal system, it could pave ways for developmental programs in the areas of infrastructures of roads, school, hospitals, and it could attract investors and enhance private and public sectors projects. For instance, the programs of primary and secondary schools and universities education lie within responsibilities of both national and state government. And if the states are not given powers of developmental programs, power to generate revenues, powers to pay their employees, and  powers to secure their developmental projects, South Sudan will not see development that its desperately needs.

The federal system is anchored on the principle of national and states’ aiming at generating more revenues and that comes with responsibility and accountability at each level of government. Injecting regionalism, and tribalism in this debate is ill inform and irresponsibility in part of government officials, opportunists, and rebels leaders. However, I encourage the president, and his senior officials to welcome healthy, legitimate and well informed debate on federalism. The country needs a permanent constitution and that warrants healthy and legitimate debates. This is a right time for constitutional debate because the country is at the transitional periods. The current system is straining resources, blurring and so elusive, and increasingly inadequate to the extent that all the 10 states do not know their roles in the arena of development. Both national and state governments are challenged by lack of developed structures of governance. If federal system is implemented in South Sudan, each state can develop or create capacity to develop its own infrastructures, and potentially increase their revenues so that South Sudanese can develop better sense of independent in a globalizing economy. The federal system will simply cure structural deficits and deficiencies. It can reduce corruptions and wasteful spending. The mounting corruption in states water down state revenues and it is at the same exacerbated by lack of institutions of governance. 

Besides, the government of South Sudan is under significant mounting pressures. This disproportionate pressure comes as a result of series of miss opportunities. The level of distrust in the government, perception of federal overreaching, and polarization are at all times higher. The only system that would rescue, recover, and relief the government from all the mounting challenges start with government articulating a well-grounded constitutional federalism with clear time-lines of adopting and implementing it. The government and rebels must cease gridlocked over serious issues, and working out pragmatic solutions to current conflict.

However, federal system is complex interrelationship between the central government and the states, but it is never static. If federalism is implemented in South Sudan, it could pave ways for health economic and political development. The facts that South Sudanese are frustrating with fiscal pressures and dysfunctional politics may lead to rethinking and creation of distinction of powers between national and state governments programs, how they should be financed, and how the levels of government should relate to each other.

Definitely, I will not dwell on what types of federalism is needed to be incorporated into South Sudan permanent constitution.  Federalism is an effective and efficient form of governance that ensures delivery of services to people. This ideal is never based on tribalization and regionalization of natural resources. All the national resources for instance oil, belongs to the national government. Hence, let not entrain cheap bogus divisive politics, and look at the federalism in it real context and features. The following features give exact meaning of federalism:

1. Enumerated powers: are specifically granted to the federal government for example, land, and all the national resources, i.e. oil, raising army, federal tax collection, signing treaties, trade agreements, building public schools.

2. Reserved powers: are specifically granted to the states, (for instance, governorship elections, collection of state taxes, agricultural developments, encouragement of entrepreneurship, building schools )

3. Concurrent powers: are shared jointly by federal and state governments (for instance Tax Collections, police, subsidiary funds for business)

4. Prohibited powers: are denied to either or both levels of government. These powers belong to citizens (For instance civil liberties or Bill of Rights, freedom of press, speech, religions, legitimate criticism) Note that the Bill of Rights under the constitution ensures protection of citizens from their government, (Ajang lectures, 2014) American government.

As an expert in this field, I concur that the state and national governments should be accorded their responsibilities and makes it clearer that which level of government is in charge of delivering which specific services in each state. The roles of the states and the central government must be enunciated in the areas of development for instance, building world class education system, creating flourishing economy, and development tend to overlap and intertwined to the point that it made it difficult for citizens to know which level government is responsible for what services and whom to hold accountable. The overabundance of national government, and mandates at the state and local level inhibited efficiency and transparency. Citizen engagement and advocacy for improved services can be undermined and also confused over which level of government is in charged.  Hence, writing constitutional federalism for the government of South Sudan would ensure effective governance that could potentially deescalate current war, restore public confidence, and could improve functions of governments at all levels. It can also help the central government takes responsibility for functions that are best performed at the national level and granted reserved powers to the states.

The current system of government in South Sudan is corrosive and nonexistence structures of state and national governments inhibited adequate, equitable financing of public services at both levels. Each State government is eagerness ready to attract businesses and affluent residents to conduct business in their states but constitution does not give them an ability to do what they want. Hence many wealthy South Sudanese left to rent, buy houses and schooled their children in East African countries or abroad. Moreover, the federal government relied too heavily on oils, which might inhibit investment and job creation because may encourage laziness and governmental projects that promotes culture of getting everything free of charged and discouraged dignity of work for one own country.

National and state taxes are cornerstone for development. Hence, structuring national and state tax structures and sorting out the division of responsibilities could be better venue for starting development debates. Both state and central government that can be strengthened by identifying taxes that could be most effectively collected at the national and state level and shared based on equitable distribution formula basis. While this debate of federalism elicited considerable discussion in since the signature of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement 2005, among national and state government officials, it did not gain political traction. It is now nine years later that the confusion over state and central government roles has increased, while trust in government, especially the central government, has eroded dramatically; and complex, overlapping state and national revenue systems are increasingly inadequate to finance services at either level. Hence, it is time for government to reexamine the state of fiscal federalism and write a new constitution that seeks to restructure the state and national fiscal relationship to project its developmental programs.

The December 15th war had a devastating impact on the national budget. Revenues plummeted as wage and investments in the country dropped. Spending rose as unemployment and poverty increased, the looming humanitarian catastrophe, and famine post amounting threat to South Sudan viability.  Political gridlock and lack of cooperation among the SPLM political leaders has made it difficult to end hostilities and bringing back normalcy.  These problems continuously intensify the funding problems of states and their local governments. Creating federal system that would broaden national and state projects can eliminate potential problems and increase both level of governments’ revenues.

State finances are extremely important to economic conditions, and their increasing reliance on oil and tax to create flourishing economy and development. Moreover, the more serious worry comes because the national and states face long-run structural deficits will remain while the country is at war. There is serious risk, both at the national and state levels on the humanitarian fronts, famines internal and external displacement of citizens. The prospects of supporting displaced population are huge and their situations are dismal one. Avoiding that dismal outcome will take more efficient government at all levels and a more effective division of responsibilities between central government and the states.

The Transitional Constitution lacks clarity and usage of better terms because it uses “dissolutions of powers or decentralization of powers” instead of using distribution of powers or separation of powers, the drafters chose to use poor words in the text. These words in the text lack practicality and hence go elusive.  Recently, citizens have been locked in vague and often erroneous ideas of what the national government actually does and what it means. Many people are confused and not sure whether they can benefit from a federal system. Confusion is heightened among ministers, president, and rebels’ leaders. They are using federalism to advance their agendas and getting edge in debate. However, federalism is not a cheap subject that anyone could use in politics to advance their narrow interests. It is a subject of significant national important programs because federalism can set a brighter future for next generation of South Sudan.

It is fundamentally vital that our national government cedes some major powers to the states and concentrates on carrying out its remaining national responsibilities more effectively. The case for dividing the governmental powers rests partly on efficiency in the lower the administrative loads and responsibilities are overlapping and interacting and this impede progress and development. It also rests on the perception that the South Sudan is an extremely diverse country and that many governmental services should be tailored to local conditions. Whether the service is education or transportation and other programs responsibility of state governments need to be much clearer. The local and state governments are closer to citizens and they are able to assess the needs of citizens and design programs to meet them. It is easier for citizens at the state and local level to be actively involved in what their own government does and hold their own officials to accountable for their performances or wrongdoings.

I affirm that federal distribution of powers to the states could provide solution to imminent problems. For instance, primarily education is a state and local function, and national funding is a modest fraction of the total, especially if I excluded University education. However, perceived national crises have prompted the creation of federal programs designed to help the states improve education systems. South Sudan never had a system of education; therefore the government needs to set measurable educational standards and measure progress toward students, using standardized curriculum as indicators of educational performances and achievements, and these students can be rewarded by sending them to places like United States for more studies.

In conclusion, the private and public sectors, and foreign aides programs can simultaneously score successes in improving the quality of life of South Sudanese if better system is put in place. We, as people of this country need to understand that we are faced by overwhelming challenges, and only the federal system can clarify the complexity, confusion over responsibilities, and erase dilution to better meet the needs of our diverse communities. Federalism can pave ways for economic development and future prosperity that is now at risk.  The federalism or constitution gives certain powers to state relate to problems that concern voters most, even though the federal government may not have the best tools for addressing them. The introduction of federalism could make enough positive contribution to offset the confusion over state and federal roles and the possible loss of state and local commitments to lay out ways for their own developmental programs. Federalism is essentially important on the economic development fronts, local transportation, local law enforcement, and other areas where states and localities might perform better if they had clear responsibilities to enhance their performances, and free of national autocracy. The division of powers in governmental jobs ought to be seriously considered as one element in a strategy to use the collective national resources of state, and local government to produce the most appropriate and most effective services in an era when resources are scarce at all levels of governments. Citizens cannot or will never see the development they desire if powers are concentrated at the hands of the national government.

Gabrial Pager Ajang is a Political Science and History Instructor at Wright Career College, Former State of Nebraska Legislative Assistance. He can be reached at [email protected]


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