Federalism: a better solution to tribalism, regionalism

The political stability you see in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Argentina, Australia or India are due to federations or federalism. By definition, federalism is the mixed form of government, combining a general government (‘federal’ government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system. It is the contrast of a unitary system i.e. a state governed as a single power in which the central government is ultimately supreme and any administrative divisions (sub-national units) exercise only the powers that the central government chooses to delegate.


Currently, Zambia is a classical unitary state like many other UN member states (Out of the 193 UN member states, 165 are governed as unitary states) and many of them which are ethnically, religiously, culturally and racially diverse and heterogeneous are not politically at peace or stable.
Before independence, ethnically, culturally and regionally diverse Zambians were united under the political spirit of ‘nationalism’ i.e. a political ideology to unify the citizens under one state, release them from foreign rule and proclaim self-rule and autonomy. This made Kenneth Kaunda and the UNIP team to wrongly think that Zambia is or can become a nation. But nationalism is far different from the concept of a nation; this now explains why the ‘One Zambia, One Nation ’ political slogan has not and will never work as anticipated.


According to the French historian and philosopher Renan, a nation is ‘a culturally homogeneous group of people, larger than a single tribe or community, which share a common language, institutions, religion, and historical experiences and are willing to continue being together’. Good example of nation states are Japan, Portugal, England, Spain, Italy, China, Swaziland, Saudi Arabia, France, Sweden, Finland, Holland or Germany.
In simpler terms, a nation is a collective group of people with common characteristics attributed to them – including language, traditions, customs, beliefs, race, habits and ethnicity of which Zambia is not one but has many multiple cases of nations in it. Good examples of classical nations in Zambia include Kum-mawa or Nyanjaland (Eastern Province) Tongaland (Southern Province), Bembaland (Northern Province), Barotseland (Western Province), Lambaland (Copperbelt Province) or Soliland (Lusaka, Chongwe, Runfunsa,etc). Hence, in a country like Zambia especially under the current unitary state system, it is practically impossible to fight and eradicate politics of tribalism, regionalism, political violence and national disunity unless we call upon the strength of federalism, i.e. mode of political organisation  that unites separate states (diverse nations) within an overarching political system in such a way as to allow each to maintain its own fundamental political integrity.


As such, the following preposition stands out in this case:

  1. Zambia is huge and vast such that it is very hard, if not impossible, to overcome the growing threat of regional divisions or ethnic isolations, political confrontations, regional hostility or provincial squabbles as long as we insist on holding to the unitary state model;
  2. As long as Zambian politicians, governments and political stakeholders fail to realise that sustainable peace, security and political stability at national level may only be guaranteed in Zambia through federalism, the revival, consolidation and long term survival of democracy is doubted in this country;

iii. Unless the question of federalism is seriously addressed and pragmatically prioritised, the demands for self-rule by regions such as Barotseland by the deprived, frustrated or angered regions and bitter provinces will not be avoided, stopped nor suppressed in Zambia;

  1. If the quest to political federalism is either ignored, over delayed or denied and all political power and final decision making is retained in the capital city, the dream of fostering political stability that is needed for the workability and survival of democracy may not be attained in Zambia;
  2. As long as the question of establishing regional states or provincial governments though federalism is not seriously prioritised and urgently addressed, the prevailing unproductive governance trends and unnecessary political culture where multiple political jokers, regionalists, ‘experimenting candidates’ are overcrowding the parliamentary and presidential elections contesting as presidents or MPs will not be reduced in Zambia; and
  3. Unless strengthening of grassroots democratic rule through federalism is prioritized and executed, the trends of vigorous political confrontations, ethnic fights, regional protests and unwarranted civil unrests and even blood violence as a result of fighting for one position of running the central government or parliament will persist in many parts of Zambia and the viability and survival of democracy will continuously be threatened and permanently betrayed.


In conclusion, it is imperative to stress that the greatest political weakness, leadership hypocrisy, policy dilemma and intellectual sub-normality among our voters and leaders is to continue thinking that Zambia is one big political family that can be fostered to peacefully co-exist and harmoniously love one another as one people thereof in national unity through ‘One Zambia, One Nation’ under a unitary state system. But if we can transform the current Zambian provinces into 10 or more regional states to be semi-autonomous under a federal government that can mainly be responsible for foreign relations and defence? among other few areas, while we allow the regional states to govern themselves in line with their respective culture, aspirations, values and needs, then the emerging and growing threat of tribalism, regionalism, political violence and national disunity can be pragmatically mitigated across the political horizon. This is more crucial because Zambia is not a ‘nation state’ and the current unitary system is too political, divisive and promotes anarchism at its best while the KK ‘One Zambia, One Nation’ political slogan is merely too stale and below par of being a governance solution to the growing political puzzles and national fires of today and tomorrow.


Chris Zumani Zimba is a political scientist, author, PhD scholar, lecturer, researcher and consultant.

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