The Case for Federalism

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The prospect of stability and peace in North Africa, the Sahel and further into the Middle East and Sub-Sahara Africa remains far. Too many interests are competing to reshape the future of these major regions using their own agendas and views. In these lands, conservative Islamists, with their rich Gulf backers, are facing the West, with their wealthy corporations, two major political blocks that have very opposing ideologies and views. As a result, the populations subjected to these ideologies are also divided, siding with one or the other, as their political leaders fail to create consensus positions and are stuck with their own agendas.

Although affected nations have their own crisis characteristics, they also have a lot in common. To start with, many share the same predicament of failed governments. Libya, being the pinnacle in the world of failed states, is facing four major issues in need of attention: too many weapons on the streets, incapable government systems, pride tribes and a big territory. A recipe for out-of-control disaster.

In Mali, another major crisis point in northern Africa, we are dealing with many similar characteristics than Libya. A relatively large uncontrolled territory, armed gangs, a mediocre government and major divisions along ethnic and tribal lines.

These two cases, Libya and Mali, suggest that focusing on these four issues could bring some level of stability in the region. And it starts with a serious discussion about the concept of federalism and regional autonomy as the most likely scenario to exit out of the crisis.

Such discussion would be also valid for a whole group of countries that are also facing tribal, religious, ethnic and political divisions. In northern Niger, there has been a similar independent movement than in Mali. Senegal has its Casamance region, which is isolated from Senegal and locked between Gambia and Guinea Bissau. We rarely hear about that conflict pitting the region with the government of Senegal over autonomy. Yet it is as bad as anywhere else. At the end of 2011, the MFDC separatist organization killed five Senegalese soldiers. The feud pitting Morocco to Algeria centers on the Western Sahara. That’s another territory in urgent need of autonomy. In Yemen, it is about the south versus the north. Same in Nigeria and in Chad, where many voices have been calling for a separate southern province. If federalism is not on the agenda for these nations, then one can see that at some point in the future, the scenario of the separation of Sudan repeat itself again, and where the south and north separated with violence, with a large death toll, and an even larger problem of population displacement.

Even in semi stable countries the issue of decentralizing governance and providing greater autonomy to the regions could never be as important as it is now. Algeria is an enormous territory, in fact, the biggest African nation in terms of size. But the country is ruled from the capital Algiers and the regions, even the wealthiest on paper, feel neglected, abused and poor. The never ending demonstrations, hunger strikes and actions from the populations of provinces where oil and gas are extracted hint on a dismal territorial management coming from the capital. These regions are plagued with economic despair, high unemployment, and poverty and yet they see their own territories used to extract some of the world’s most important commodities. The Kabylie region too, home of the Berbers have long been calling for some degree of autonomy so they can handle their own economic affairs. But governments remain deaf to these calls, and are adamant that no such autonomy should take place.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope, albeit small, coming on the horizon and without any guarantee of success. Despite the state of utter crisis affecting both Mali and Libya, these two nations may be on their way of inventing new models that may save them as nations and may be worth supporting. In Mali, three Touareg organizations have formed a single political entity to negotiate the future of the northern territories with the government of Bamako. That sounds promising in light of that country’s newest President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita seems to be the right man for the job, showing leadership with his willingness to address the grievances of the northerners, rather than resorting to force to discipline the Touaregs as his predecessors did. He is indeed facing intense pressure from most around him to resort to violence in an effort to eliminate the Touaregs demands. Instead Mr. Keita has pledged that he will seek a resolution to the conflict pitting the north with the south, by eventually establishing federalism as a workable governing model.

In highly troubled Libya, its people are not waiting for the government of Ali Zeidan to create the miracle model. These people may be among those we often call “dangerously armed militias,” but I have yet to be convinced that removing these militias will solve Libya’s problems. Some of these men and women may be as patriotic as anyone in government today.

Ali Zeidan and those who support him may have a different agenda, which may not necessarily benefit the people of Libya, in my own estimation. Their idea of the same old central government in Tripoli making all the legislative and executive decisions will only bring corruption and administrative disaster. Centralized Arab governments do not work and are source of misery. And so the people of Libya are moving forward with what matters to them. Just this past week a regional government for the Cyrenaica region, where Benghazi is based, was formed by a group of local politicians and militiamen. There are, as one would expect, problems and divisions, in particular with the existence of a rival entity called PBC, led by Ahmed Zubair Al-Senussi, the great nephew of King Senussi. But in the large scheme of things, these movements bode well for a proactive civil society, providing a contrasting model than what central government figures would propose.

Why is federalism important? Federalism, by virtue of a decentralized government, should work very well, when properly designed and executed. The model has existed for centuries and has proven to be an engine of stability and prosperity in countries like Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. These states happen to be the wealthiest in the world. Federalism does not mean separatism at all. A citizen of South Carolina is an American, but he has to abide by at least two sets of laws, one from his State, another from the Federal government. And in the debates over federalism in Africa and elsewhere, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

In the case of Mali, Libya, and other nations where the debate over federalism has started, the solution seems rather simple. Let the regions and their people consider themselves as major stakeholders in their own affairs. Let them establish their constitutions and laws, elect their leaders, raise taxes, hire a police and security force, punish their criminals and work their economies. The central government’s tasks would be limited to insuring cohesion, defense, foreign policy and whatever has been invented centuries ago as logical working mechanisms. If a highly homogenous people as the Swiss, in a small country as Switzerland found it important to endorse Federalism, large countries like Libya with major regional differences should have no problem accepting the model.

But then again who in the West will support such initiative? For example, specific to Mali, political decisions are not necessarily often made in Bamako, but rather in Paris that makes things happen and forces the needle to move. So the legitimate question is would France go along with such a scenario? Again in the case of Mali, may be a reluctant yes, although the devil is in the detail.

In the case of Libya, the biggest player is Washington DC, to a certain extent London. Zeidan or not, these two capitals have strategic interests in Libya and major leverage on the central government of Zeidan. Whatever Washington wants from Tripoli, generally Washington gets. So a message for the US State Department: federalism could help reduce or end chaos. You can de-nationalize the Libyan crisis by confining issues at the regional level. Accepting a governing system based on a central administration in Tripoli is just going back to old colonial practices, and that is bad.

At the end, the road to federalism will be a difficult one to walk, and the West will be the biggest source of resistance. Allowing federalism to take place at a time when Western powers are competing amongst them and with China over Africa’s resources, federalism could make their pursuit of such resources much more complex. It is easier to support corrupt central governments and erect armies to protect them and one’s interests, than to deal with each regional government separately. So federalism opens up a nasty Pandora’s Box of sort. Therefore the pace of moving Africa’s government systems toward federalism will be paved with landmines.

Arezki Daoud