Federal, Unitary, or Confederation for Somalia. Which one?

Federal, Unitary, or Confederation for Somalia. Which one?

I will divide this paper into two parts. The first part, I will try to define each system as simple as I can. The second part, I will try to discuss which system is or is not suitable for Somalia and the reasons why.

Part I: Definitions

What is a Federal System?

By definition, a federal system is a form of multilevel governance whereby the sovereignty of the nation is shared between central and state governments. Moreover, the structures of power sharing between theses bodies are embedded in the constitution of the country.

This kind of system weakens the power of the central government and increases that of the member states. But it also shifts many responsibilities from the central government to the state governments. These two elements allow the state governments to make decisions locally in order to increase and improve the quality of a large number of social services for their residents.  Such services include education, healthcare, local security, infrastructure, and so on.

And because of this shift of power from the central to the periphery, there is always a tag-of-war between these two entities, even in the developed countries that adopted this system many decades ago.  

For a federal system to work properly, there must be an independent judicial system guided by a written constitution that can only be amended with the consent of the regions.

In short, a federal system is one in which the citizens share in the governance of a common system, but at the same time retain certain degree of autonomy within that system in their respective regions or states.  In federal system, the rights of the regions or states are protected under the constitution, and the center cannot modify or abrogate these laws on its own.

What is a Unitary System?

In unitary system, unlike a federal system, sovereignty resides solely with central government. There are different ways the unitary state may disperse power away from the center.

One way is by deconcentration, which is nothing more than moving around the central government employees away from the capital.

Another form is through decentralization. Under this, the center delegates the execution of policies and plans formed at the center to the local governments.

A third way a unitary state may disperse power is by devolution. This is probably the most advanced form of the unitary system where it comes close to resemble a federal system. In devolution, some decision-making powers are given to the lower levels. But still, these devolved powers are not enshrined in a constitutional document, but rather in parliamentary laws that can be amended or abrogated at sole discretion of the central parliament. As the English politician Enoch Powell once observed, ‘power devolved is power retained’. In Somali parlance, a power devolved is like “tobal-caaro”. Meaning a dress borrowed from a friend for a party but that you must return afterwards. You are very lucky if your friend does not change his/her mind and come to the party and ask you to give back his/her dress right there.

What is a Confederacy

It is nothing more than loose federation of member states.  In terms of power concentration, unitary system is the most centralized, while confederation is the least, and the federal system is in the middle. The bond between states in a confederacy is very weak because each member state retains most of its sovereignty. Moreover, the constitution of confederacy states allows each member state the right of secession from the confederation. In Somali parlance, it is like nikah mut’ah (qudbo-siro), temporary marriage.

Today, I am not aware of any country that practices confederation system. Historically, many federal states of today such as USA, Germany, Switzerland have had a confederal system before they became federal.

What we see today as confederal states are the likes of the Commonwealth (formerly the British Commonwealth of Nations) which consists of independent countries that were once ruled by the British empire. The French Community is another. EU, AU, NATO, United Nations all are some form confederation system.

Abdihakim H. Hersi