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Federalism debate resurfaces in Malawi: Muluzi, Mkaka throw their weights behind it

A discussion involving civil society leaders, religious leaders, politicians and governance commentators has urged Malawians to consider adopting a federal or a devolved system of government and do away with the current unitary system, which they claim is the major factor promoting inefficiencies in government, extreme levels of corruption and nepotism among others.

In federalism, central government delegates some of its powers to sub-unit governments permanently and is guaranteed in the constitution, so the powers of the sub-units cannot be withdrawn unilaterally by the central government.

Devolution of powers however involves the statutory delegation of powers from central government to govern through subnational authorities, such as counties, states, regions or provinces. The devolved powers of the subnational authority may be temporary and are reversible, ultimately residing with the central government.

During the virtual discussion that took place on Saturday, November 26th 2022 and hosted by international expert and social media activist Onjezani Kenani, commentators emphasized that time has come for young people to start having a serious conversation on federalism or devolution as this is the only way to ensure that public service delivery is simplified and goes down to the people on the ground.

Activist Onjezani Kenani hoste the Debate

Among the contributors to the discussion were politician Atupele Muluzi, AFFORD’s lone legislator and longtime federalism proponent Yeremiah Chihana and Dr. Rex Kalolo, a medical doctor and religious leader.

In his contribution Atupele argued that the current system where everything is approved at Capital Hill is not working for Malawi as it makes public service delivery take longer than it should, and gives power to only a few people to control the public purse.

He advanced that a devolved system would provide for better accountability, transparency and equal distribution of national wealth but that devolution or federalism can only be achieved either through amending the country’s laws, or constitution through a referendum.

On fears that federation or devolution may promote regionalism and cronyism, Atupele said he would not advocate for devolution based on regions but rather population and other demographic factors that may be discussed by governance experts.

He highlighted that in 1964 when the current central government system was implemented, the population of Malawi was 4m people and today population has reached 20m which is a heavy increase in the demand for public services and makes it difficult for governments to meet the development needs of its people.

MULUZI: devolution or federalism can only be achieved either through amending the country’s laws, or constitution through a referendum.

Dr Kalolo urged Malawians to bury their fear of the unknown saying even in 1993, those opposed to democracy would tell Malawians “demoracy ndi nkhondo” yet it has been 29 years without any threat of war. He opined that a federation would help reduce powers of the president and that it will provide greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, so that councils can work more effectively to improve public services for their area.

Dr Kalolo said this will also ensure that revenues generated within a particular area are used to develop that particular area and that Malawi’s rich natural resources benefit the people that particular area.

AFFORD’s Chihana has been a proponent of federalism, and in September 2019 moved a motion in parliament for the adoption of a federal system of governance. Chihana argued that a federal system of government would help promote equitable distribution of resources and developments and eliminate regionalism, nepotism and corruption in the country.

He urged the House then to resolve that all efforts and legal framework should be put in place towards adoption of a federal system of government within a specified time period and in any case before the next scheduled election. He was not successful in his bid. 

On his part Kenani urged Malawians to borrow a leaf from federal governments around the world that adopted federalism and understand both advantages and disadvantages so that people make an informed choice.

Lilongwe Mpenu Member of Parliament, Eisenhower Mkaka who is current Minister of Energy and Natural Resources is on record to have supported Chihana in 2019 sand argued that federalism could provide solutions to some of the challenges such as nepotism, tribalism, favourism and cronyism. Immediate former President Peter Mutharika has, on several occasions, spoken on the importance of adopting a federal government system.

MKAKA: federalism could provide solutions to some of the challenges such as nepotism, tribalism, favourism and cronyism

In 2006, when invited to present a paper on federalism during the constitutional review conference, Mutharika supported the idea of a federal state for proportional representation and also endorsed a view to rotate the presidency between the three regions as possible solutions of giving “each region the opportunity to develop” and also a means to addressing regionalism.

Kenya is the latest African country to have adopted devolution. In 2010, Kenyans enacted a new constitution, which established of a system of devolved government with 47 lower level county governments. The operation of the county governments started soon after the March 2013 elections, which included the election of county governors, deputy governors and representatives.

These 47 new county governments are now in charge of overseeing some functions— such as the provision of health care, pre-primary education, and maintenance of local roads— which were previously the responsibility of Kenya’s national government. In turn, these county governments will receive a share of national revenues.

The county governments will also be expected to mobilize revenue from other sources within their counties, such as taxes on property and entertainment.

Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, USA and Canada are either federal or devolved governments.

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