federal political systems

Joint-decision Making: An Alternative to Centralisation / Decentralisation

Joint-decision Making: An Alternative to Centralisation / Decentralisation


The text presents the concept of joint-decision making as an idea and alternative to the already established concepts of centralisation and decentralisation in federal studies. Whereas the notions of centralisation and decentralisation seem to be well established in federal studies, the idea of joint-decision making seems to count only as a German speciality or a German feature of federal studies. This paper further explores this idea and concept, drawing upon the German case as well as suggesting it is worth expanding beyond it.


It is an open question, if a clear and long-lasting location of competences (or powers in North-American parlance) on the central or decentral territorial level of decision making is needed in any political system. In other words, from time to time an adjustment of the location of competences may be required in order to preserve a stable democratic political system. At the same time, competences also need to be fixed for preserving a stable political system. This paradoxical situation of change and stability exists for all political systems, no matter if competences are fixed in constitutions or not. This also means that political system without written constitutions, like the United Kingdom and Israel, face similar challenges particularly when compared to federal systems. Therefore, the question if decisions about change and stability in politics are taken on a territorially defined central or decentral level is at the heart of all political systems (Benz et al. 2016b). Even if a permanent solution should be found as to where to locate competences (on a central or decentral political level), the question remains: What competences should be placed on a central or decentral territorial level? At this point arguments vary. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages that occur when locating competences on a (de)central territorially defined level.

Another possibility beyond centralisation and decentralisation of competences exists. At least in the German and European Union (EU) realm the idea of joint-decision making is apparent in many instances. A growing number of other political systems have also recently begun to discover the idea of joint-decision making. The additional concept of joint-decision making stands beside the concepts of centralisation and decentralisation. Hence (de)centralisation and joint-decision making are by no means mutually exclusive or an antinomy, but interrelated and can co-exist beside each other. The suggestion of establishing a political system of joint-decision making seems to be a way out of the zero-sum game between (de)centralisation.

In classical texts about joint-decision making (Scharpf et al. 1976), the concept is often presented as an alternative to the issue of the centralisation and decentralisation of competences. Indeed, joint-decision making contradicts the general idea of transparency with the clear location of competences because all territorial levels are involved in the financing and execution of policies. Whereas in the classical example of the work about joint-decision making the financing was or is the task of the central (upper) territorial level, the execution of policies or policy making was or is the task of the decentral (lower) territorial level. This situation, for instance, is the case in German federalism as well as the EU. Indeed, joint-decision making combines a certain amount of autonomy and community for the solution of different problems. In the German context, Fritz Scharpf and colleagues argued that joint-decision making engenders better efficiency in dealing with problems about common goods, joint products and external effects (costs). Whereas finding solutions to those problems requires the cooperation of federal and federated entities, federal and federated entities also need to preserve their autonomy in other contexts. The question, therefore, remains: What mix is needed to ensure they are effective and legitimate? All political systems thus need to determine on their own in what contexts autonomous solutions and in what contexts common solutions are needed or wanted for achieving efficient and legitimate solutions for problems at stake. Throughout time, the mix of autonomy and community needs to balanced anew

Terminological Clarification

The core definition of joint-decision making (Politikverflechtung) can be found in German language in publications many years ago from Fritz Scharpf et al. in 1976:

“…bei dem zwar einerseits die Entscheidungsautonomie der dezentralen Entscheidungseinheiten eingeschränkt wird, bei dem jedoch andererseits die umfassenden Entscheidungseinheiten (Bund, Länder, Europäische Gemeinschaft) nicht gesamte Aufgabenkomplexe an sich zogen,…” (Scharpf et al. 1976: 29)

In a corresponding translation, this means that embracing decision units (like the federal government in Germany, Länder or the European Community / Union) did not attract every embracing competence. The autonomy of decentral political units was restricted to those competences the central and decentral level could agree on. This therefore means that there are no exit strategies or opting out solutions in a joint-decision making system. For none of the governments, be it a central government, decentral governments or any other governmental actor would be able to pursue its own policies.

Starting from this definition the concept of joint-decision making was adjusted into horizontal, vertical or compound decision-making structures (Benz et al 1992). The compound structures were the initial idea for developing the concept of joint-decision making and the horizontal and vertical structures of decision making were added later to the initial concept.

Moreover, the concept of the joint-decision trap gained prominence in public and academic discourse with the definition that a factual joint-decision trap has an elaborated meaning that “systematically (…) inefficient and inadequate problem-solving” takes place. At the same time, the federal system is unable to “change the institutional conditions of its decision-making logic” (Scharpf, 1988: 271). Hence the absence of the joint-decision trap. This is because the political system is unitary (and not federal), but does not mean that political performance is per se better. The quality of political output does not directly relate to the fact that a system of joint-decision making works or does not work (for the case of the joint-decision trap).

Joint-Decision Making and Federal Studies

The concept of joint-decision making is closely related to federal studies because it relates to different levels of decision- and policy-making. Furthermore, testable hypotheses can be derived from the general concept of joint-decision making. The concept was latter made more specific by Fritz Scharpf himself, but also by other scholars, with a particular focus on why joint-decision making is prone to being unable to produce suitable solutions for political problems ending in the joint-decision trap (Politikverflechtungs-Falle) (Scharpf 1988). In reality, there indeed exists a joint-decision trap, but Fritz Scharpf himself laid down that this is only one possibility among several possibilities. Political actors circumvent the joint-decision trap regularly, and are thus rarely caught in the joint decision trap.

Sharpening Focus

Discussions about joint-decision making (Politikverflechtung) started in 1976 with the book of Fritz Scharpf, Bernd Reissert and Fritz Schnabel. Later the concept was narrowed down to the joint decision trap (Scharpf 1988). But the concept was also broadened and a horizontal dimension was analysed in greater depth (Benz et al. 1992). Case studies about Germany (Scheller / Schmid 2008) and the EU (Falkner 2011) gather in edited volumes, so that many policies are covered for Germany and the EU. A case study about school policy deals with party politics and joint-decision making in Germany (Heinz 2015). Also, the concept of joint-decision making is applied in the Literature to Canada (Painter 1991), the EU (Peters 1997) and Scandinavia (Blom-Hansen 1999). Usually main discussions with regards to joint-decision making are related to exploring whether a policy, an institutional system or an institution itself is trapped in joint decision making or not. Few examples, however, are known and acknowledged to show that political actors are indeed trapped in joint-decision making. In addition, the focus of the academic literature lies more on the joint-decision trap and not in joint-decision making, although the trap only rarely occurs.

Contemporary Debates

The topic of joint-decision making is a middle range theory as Fritz Scharpf himself declared many times, because it covers the German case and the case of the European Union / Community. The application of the concept of joint-decision making has been relatively rare in scholarship limited to Germany, Canada (Painter 1991) and Scandinavia (Blom-Hansen 1999). It seems worthwhile, therefore, to widen this research agenda and apply the concept of joint-decision making to other federal states. For the German case, the concept is still of practical relevance, although many forms of coordination have changed over time, but no formal or institutional reforms took place. For example, joint tasks were heavily debated in the past, but they still are also of practical importance at least for German politics.

Concluding Reflections

To conclude, it can be said that Joint-decision making is a characteristic of the German and European federal political system. It enables also a way out of the enduring question of the European Union / Community if there should be more or less centralisation or decentralisation. An answer in favour of Joint-decision making would be that the mix of centralization and decentralisation would be dynamic so that negative aspects would be diminished and positive aspects of (de)centralisation would be increased. But against this statement, the concept of joint-decision making had to face demand for abolishment in the forefront of the first federal reform in Germany.

At least in the cases of Germany and the EU the situation seems to be far away in terms of abolishing joint-decision making, because that was publicly postulated in the past. Obviously joint-decision making proved to be more robust than expected beforehand. Hence, future research would need to discover joint-decision making also in other institutional contexts that is to say in other federal systems.



Benz, Arthur / Jessica Detemple / Dominic Heinz (2016a) Varianten und Dynamiken der Politikverflechtung im deutschen Bundesstaat (Nomos: Baden-Baden).

Benz, Arthur / Dominic Heinz / Eike-Christian Horning / Bettina Petersohn / Andrea Fischer-Hotzel and Jörg Kemmerzell (2016b) Constitutional Policy in Multilevel-Systems. The Art of Keeping the balance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Benz, Arthur / Jörg Broschek (Eds.) (2013) Federal Dynamics Continuity, Change, and the Varieties of Federalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Benz, Arthur / Fritz W. Scharpf / Reinhard Zintl (1992) Horizontale Politikverflechtung: Zur Theorie von Verhandlungssystemen (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag).

Blom-Hansen, Jens (1999) Avoiding the joint-decision trap: Lessons from intergovernmental relations in Scandinavia, in: European Journal of Political Research (35) 35-67.

Heinz, Dominic (2015) Politikverflechtung in der Schulpolitik: Koordination im Wandel, in: Politische Vierteljahresschrift 56 (4) 626-647.

Painter, Martin (1991) Intergovernmental Relations in Canada: An Institutional Analysis, in: Canadian Journal of Political Science, 24 (2) 269-288.

Peters, B. Guy (1997) Escaping the joint-decision trap: Repetition and sectoral politics in the EU, in: West European Politics 20 (2) 22-36.

Scharpf, Fritz W. (1988) The Joint-Decision Trap: Lessons from German Federalism and European Integration, in: Public Administration, 66 (3) 239-278.

Scharpf, Fritz / Bernd Reissert / Fritz Schnabel (1976) Politikverflechtung: Theorie und Empirie des kooperativen Föderalismus in der Bundesrepublik (Scriptor: Kronberg).

Scheller, Henrik / Josef Schmid (2008) Föderale Politikgestaltung im deutschen Bundesstaat: Variable Verflechtungsmuster in Politikfeldern. (Nomos: Baden-Baden).


Further Reading

Scharpf, Fritz / Bernd Reissert / Fritz Schnabel (1976) Politikverflechtung: Theorie und Empirie des kooperativen Föderalismus in der Bundesrepublik (Scriptor: Kronberg).

Benz, Arthur / Jessica Detemple / Dominic Heinz (2016a) Varianten und Dynamiken der Politikverflechtung im deutschen Bundesstaat (Nomos: Baden-Baden).

Benz, Arthur / Jörg Broschek (Eds.) (2013) Federal Dynamics Continuity, Change, and the Varieties of Federalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Scharpf, Fritz (1988) The Joint-decision trap: Lessons from German federalism and European integration, in: Public Administration 66 (3) 239–278.

Falkner, Gerda (2011) The EUs Decision Traps. Comparing Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Posted by Dominic Heinz in Policies, Theory, 0 comments
Secession and Federalism: A Chiaroscuro

Secession and Federalism: A Chiaroscuro


The relationship between federalism and secession might be regarded as antithetical but is an unavoidable fact in multinational political communities. Integration and disintegration are both possible trends in a federation. Recent political events in Catalonia show the salience of independence claims, a political phenomenon already experienced by other countries such as Scotland or Quebec. Liberal democracies evolve and debates on self-government and self-determination cannot be discussed as they were decades ago. Constitutional right to secede is extremely rare, however we can find good reasons both in constitutional and normative analysis supporting democratic self-determination. Minority nations, as permanent minorities, claim for liberal guarantees to protect them from majorities, but also democratic rights to express their views on their constitutional future. Pacts are the basis of any political agreement and any federal arrangement requires individual and collective compromises to be respected.



Wo viel Licht ist, ist starker Schatten

[Where the light is brightest, the shadows are deepest]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If federalism has fifty shades, secession is certainly one of them. The long shadow of disintegration hangs over (almost) every current or past federation in the world. The emergence of independent States out of former federal units has been a common outcome of collapsed federations. Perhaps due to these historical precedents, federalism and secessionism are generally seen as antithetical trends since they are considered to be pushing in different directions.

Federal political systems are “shared rule plus self-rule” (Elazar 1987) institutional designs aiming at either “holding together” (India or Belgium) or at “coming together” (Switzerland, US, EU) (Stepan 2005). Some of them are plurinational, although a majority claim to be mononational[2] (Requejo 2005). Conversely, secession implies a breaking up of the status quo. That is, creating a new State on a piece of territory formerly belonging to another State (or federation of States). Therefore, it entails a transfer of sovereignty from a parent State to a new political unit (Pavkovic and Radan 2007), which is the reverse of any “coming together” federation and the undesired outcome of a system that is “holding together”.

In spite of these contradictions, pro-independence movements (and secessions) are an inescapable part of plurinational federal political systems. First, federalism has often been used to accommodate diversity, with minority nations typically living in federal regimes or at least in States with a certain degree of political decentralisation. Second, centripetal and centrifugal forces are part of any plurinational federation’s political life. Third, debates on secession and national pluralism are always mediated by local understandings of what federalism really means. Burgess (2006) makes a distinction between Anglo-American traditions and Continental traditions of federal thought. Some European countries seem closer to the Catholic notion of “subsidiarity” and Bodinian unique sovereignty; while the Anglo-American tradition would certainly seem to be influenced by the Protestant “covenant” tradition, which would give certain flexibility to sovereignty negotiations. The language of federalism is not only varied but is also constantly evolving and being renewed from a historical perspective (Norman and Karmis 2005).

The Right to Secede in a Federation

Regulations on the right to secede are extremely rare[3], but if they do exist, it is normally in a federal context. Ethiopia and St. Kitts and Nevis have regulations on the right to secede, and the EU Treaty of Lisbon includes Article 50 that contemplates withdrawal from the Union. Apart from these cases, recent regulations on self-determination and secession demands include the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1998 Opinion on the secession of Quebec[4] and the 2000 Clarity Act in Canada. [5]  Another is the 2012 Edinburgh agreement on the 2014 Scottish independence referendum in the context of Scotland’s devolution scheme. [6] Former federations, such as the USSR, also included the right of constituent units to secede.[7]

Instances such as the dissolution of the USSR or the passing of the Canadian and UK legislation raise one crucial question (although there are others): does the right to secede foster secessionism in a federation? Broadly speaking, there are two answers to this question.

Bauböck (2000) argues that the virtue of federalism is precisely to replace self-determination by self-government for minority nations; therefore federalism must exclude secession rights and strengthen self-government. From a more legal perspective, Sunstein (1991, 2001) has famously argued against “secession clauses” in federal constitutions since, in his view, such clauses would lead to strategic behaviours (blackmail) and would undermine the constituent units’ commitment to the constitutional pact from the very beginning.

However, these arguments have been refuted by other authors, who claim the contrary. Kymlicka (2001: 224) stresses the virtues of self-government and federal agreements and affirms that:

the goal shouldn’t be to provide iron-clad guarantees of existing state borders (which cannot be done in a free and democratic society), but rather on providing firm guarantees that the rights of internal minorities will be protected in the event that state borders change, and that the majority group will survive as a nation even if it loses some minority territory.

Moreover, a “secession clause” can actually help to keep talk of secession out of the political debate and to provide actual commitment to the Constitution by defining a clear “way out”, thus preventing potential blackmail (Weinstock 2001; Norman 2006). These views in favour of “constitutionalising” secession seem to be more consistent with some moral approaches formulated by political philosophers. Approaches based on Kantian moral individualism tend to be more reluctant to accommodate these policies than Hegelian approaches that include a commitment to the politics of recognition (Requejo 2013).


Normative Accounts on the Right to Secede in Federations

The moral ground for the right to secede is generally presented as a conditioning factor. Buchanan (2004) justifies a right to unilateral secession when an existing intrastate agreement has been breached by the Central/Federal government, thus endangering the rights of the self-governing minority. Similarly, Seymour (2007) equates the right to secede with external self-determination. While internal self-determination should be a primary right of minority nations, external self-determination would only be justified in the context of an absence of internal self-determination. Equal recognition, proposed by Patten (2014) is another moral foundation of minority rights. When equal recognition is not fulfilled, there will potentially be more ground for claiming a right to secede.

In my opinion, these theories use a common positive intuition by placing fairness at the centre of any justification of secession rights in a federation (Sanjaume-Calvet 2016). However, defining the right as a “remedy” to injustice, clearly a Lockean approach, has some important problems.

Aside from domestic legislation, justice can be defined by international standards; however, the parent State, or the majoritarian nation within the federation, will always be the one that defines the terms of a “just” accommodation in times of conflict with a minority. That is, the parent State has the last word on “what is just”. Moreover, the only legitimate actor in the international arena is the State, not the minority. Therefore, given the fact that secession demands, especially peaceful ones, are often regarded as domestic affairs, minorities tend to be at the mercy of their own parent state. This has important implications since in the eyes of the parent State or the majority group, these kinds of demands are easily labelled as an unfair claim or even a “vanity secession”.[8]

Furthermore, in the absence of a clear “just” ground to claim external self-determination (i.e. human right violations, forceful annexation, breach of self-government agreements, absence of internal self-determination…) this kind of approach might be undemocratic when taken at face value. In a hypothetical case in which a territorial minority in a given federal unit has 90% support for secession but the parent State refuses to grant any legal path or agreement regarding this demand, there would be no legitimacy to unilaterally secede, since there is an absence of a “just cause”. Democratic support in itself cannot be claimed as a ground for unilateral secession in this approach. How can consent be a criterion that is absent from a theory of self-determination?

Real world cases, however, are more complicated. Normally the “just cause” is contested at parent State level and at the minority internal level; while in the international arena, such conflicts can remain a domestic issue for a long time (Coggins 2014). Moreover, there is (obviously) a correlation between injustice or perceived injustice and support for secessionism. In liberal democracies, support for secession rarely achieves overwhelming majorities (Griffiths 2016), but if it exists for a sustained period of time it can be a proxy for malfunctions (and at least perceived/real injustices) in a political system[9].


Catalan Self-determination

Recent events in Catalonia are an example of these political tensions (Cuadras-Morató, 2016). The 2010 Constitutional Court decision on the Catalan Statute of Autonomy and the recentralisation policies led by the conservative (PP) Government resulted in Catalan political forces developing plans for external self-determination (referendum) and secession (an independent Catalan Republic). Between 2012 and 2015, the central Government, Parliament and courts repeatedly rejected laws and legislative initiatives calling for a referendum on independence or self-government (Gagnon and Sanjaume-Calvet 2016).

In the Catalan regional elections on September 27, 2015, the pro-secession parties achieved 47.74% of the vote. On 1 October 2017, the Catalan authorities organised a unilateral secession referendum. The turnout was around 43% and the Yes vote obtained 90% support. The Catalan Government claimed a secessionist victory and declared independence in two sessions in the Catalan Parliament on 10 and 27 October. The parties that were against independence had called on their supporters to boycott the referendum and did not take part in it. In addition, the Spanish police forces forcefully cracked down on it, causing more than a thousand injuries. Criminal courts and prosecutors charged the entire Catalan Government, several independence leaders, 700 mayors and members of civil society with accusations of sedition and rebellion (these are criminal charges). Two civil society leaders, the Catalan Vice-president and the Catalan Home Affairs Minister remain in pre-trial detention, while the Catalan President and four regional ministers are currently exiled in Brussels. The Spanish Government imposed direct rule over the Catalan region and called for new regional elections. These repressive strategies, far from demobilising secessionism, seem to have had a “double” boomerang effect against the Spanish Government. First, the elections showed solid support for the secessionist forces in Catalonia. In spite of repressive measures and having its leaders imprisoned (or in Brussels), pro-independence parties obtained 47.5% of the vote share and 70 out of 135 seats in the parliament. Second, the most voted party was Ciudadanos (Citizens Party), an anti-secessionist party that obtained 36 seats and a 25.4% vote share, while the ruling party in Central Government and currently the majoritarian force in the rest of Spain, the PP, only won 4 seats and 4.2% of the vote share.

The events in Catalonia show the difficulties faced both by federal governments and by legal or moral theories on secessionism and federalism. The Spanish executive led by Mariano Rajoy, and the main state-wide parties (PP, PSOE, Cs) reject both the right to hold a referendum in Catalonia and/or the existence of a “just cause”. On the one hand, their discourse is based on the Constitutional Court’s interpretation of the 1978 Constitution, stating the existence of a unique sovereignty and framing a self-determination referendum as unconstitutional. On the other hand, the fact is that state-wide parties appoint the central State institutions (including judges) and hold a qualified majority both in Congress and the Senate, effectively blocking any constitutional reform[10].

The Spanish authorities’ reaction to Catalan demands can be defined as a “prohibitionist regime” that can easily turn into a trap in a liberal democracy. Pro-independence candidates are allowed to stand in elections, but cannot promise the execution of their political objectives.



All in all, plurinational federalism and secession seem to exist together in marriage, albeit an unhappy one. Federal relationships are based on pacts. In plurinational contexts, these pacts call for individual but also collective compromises in which a Bodinian conception of sovereignty (as unique and indivisible) has little room. These kinds of conflicts cannot be dealt with in the way that they were 20 or 50 years ago. Minority nations now demand liberal guarantees to safeguard their self-government and insist on the democratic right to express their constitutional views.

It seems urgent that we find both legal and moral paths in order to frame and understand otherness within a given demos (or demoi)[11]. Complex institutional settings must accept their contingency and avoid domination by national groups. However, this does not mean falling into eternal instability. On the contrary, fair mechanisms of power sharing and autonomy can be constructed to prevent break-ups; however, their absence cannot be replaced by the censorship of democratic and liberal rights.


[1] I am grateful to Andrea Romano (Universitat de Barcelona) and Prof. Ferran Requejo (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) for their comments on a first draft of this post.

[2] In this post the words “plurinational” and “multinational” are used as synonymous meaning the existence of multiple nations.

[3] The US Supreme Court famously rejected the right to secede of a State in its ruling Texas vs. White (1869). See: 74 U.S. 700 https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/74/700 [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[4] See: Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217.  https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/1643/index.do [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[5] See: An Act to give effect to the requirement for clarity as set out in the opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec Secession Reference S.C. 2000, c. 26. http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-31.8/FullText.html [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[6] See: http://www.gov.scot/About/Government/concordats/Referendum-on-independence [accessed on 6th December 2017]

[7] Article 72 of the USSR constitution affirmed the right of Union republics to feely leave the federation, but in practice there was no law establishing a secession procedure.

[8] This critique has been defined as the “absence of an impartial referee” in these cases. The ICJ has been proposed as a possible candidate to internationally solve this problem since its 2010 opinion on the secession of Kosovo.

[9] The Canadian Supreme Court Opinion on the secession of Quebec in 1998 provided a Solomonic survival guide. A combination of principles was proposed: “democracy, rule of law, federalism and minorities protection” that later on led to the Clarity Act in 2000. Nonetheless, Quebec responded by reaffirming its right to self-determination through the Bill 99, and the French-speaking province has not formally signed the 1982 Constitutional repatriation. In the UK, the 2014 referendum (inspired by the Canadian Clarity Act) returned a clear unionist majority (55%), but instead of defeating the movement for Scottish independence, it fueled the movement (which is strongly pro-EU), which is now reinforced by the UK withdrawal negotiations after the 2016 vote to leave the EU.

[10] See professor Ferran Requejo’s contribution to this project , regarding the Spanish case: http://50shadesoffederalism.com/case-studies/spain-federal-country/

[11] Gagnon (2011) has proposed federalism based on hospitality and habilitation.



Bauböck, Rainer. 2000. «”Why Stay Together? A Pluralist Approach to Secession and Federation”. In Citizenship in Diverse Societies, edited by Will Kymlicka & Rainer Bauböck, 366-94.

Buchanan, Allen E. 2004. Justice, legitimacy, and self-determination: moral foundations for international law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burgess, Michael. 2006. Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.

Coggins, Bridget. 2014. Power Politics and State Formation in the Twentieth Century: The Dynamics of Recognition. Cambridge University Press.

Cuadras-Morató, Xavier, ed. 2016. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? A Debate on Secession Within the European Union. Routledge.

Elazar, Daniel J. 1987. Exploring federalism. Tuscaloosa (Ala.): University of Alabama Press.

Gagnon, Alain-G. 2011. L’âge des incertitudes: essais sur le fédéralisme et la diversité nationale. Auteurs UQAM. Collection Prisme. S.l.]: Les Presses de l’Université Laval.

Gagnon, Alain-G., and Marc Sanjaume-Calvet. 2016. «Trois grands scénarios pour la Catalogne au XXIe siècle: autonomie, fédéralisme et sécession». En Repenser l’autodétermination interne, Edited by Michel Seymour, 135-74. Editions Themis.

Griffiths, Ryan D. 2016. Age of Secession. Cambridge University Press.

Kymlicka, Will. 2001. «Federalism and Secession: At Home and Abroad». SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 258439. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

Norman, Wayne 2006. Negotiating nationalism: nation-building, federalism, and secession in the multinational state. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norman, Wayne, & Dimitrios Karmis. 2005. Theories of Federalism: A Reader. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Patten, Alan. 2014. Equal Recognition: The Moral Foundations of Minority Rights. Princeton University Press.

Pavkovic, Aleksandar, & Peter Radan. 2007. Creating new states: theory and practice of secession. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Requejo, Ferran. 2005. Multinational Federalism and Value Pluralism: The Spanish Case. Routledge.

———. 2013. «Plurinational Federalism and Political Theory». in Routledge Handbook of Regionalism & Federalism, Edited by John Loughlin, John Kincaid, and Wilfred Swenden, 1 edition, 34-44. London: Routledge.

Sanjaume-Calvet, Marc. 2016. «The morality of secession: Secessionist and antisecessionist arguments in the Catalan case», In Cuadras-Morató, Xavier, ed. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? A Debate on Secession Within the European Union. Routledge. 82-106.

Seymour, Michel. 2007. «Secession as a Remedial Right». Inquiry 50 (4):395-423.

Stepan, Alfred. 2005. «Federalism and Democracy: Beyond the U.S. Model». En Theories of Federalism: A Reader, Edited by Wayne J. Norman and Dimitrios Karmis, 255-68. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Sunstein, Cass. 1991. «Constitutionalism and Secession». University of Chicago Law Review 58 (2).

Sunstein, Cass R. 2001. «Should Constitutions Protect the Right to Secede? A Reply to Weinstock». Journal of Political Philosophy 9 (3):350-55.

Weinstock, Daniel. 2001. «Constitutionalizing the Right to Secede». Journal of Political Philosophy 9 (2):182-203.


Further Reading

Cuadras-Morató, Xavier, ed. 2016. Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe? A Debate on Secession Within the European Union. Routledge.

Kraus, Peter and Joan Verges Gifra (ed.) The Catalan Process: Sovereignty, Self-Determination and Democracy in the 21st Century. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern.

Norman, Wayne 2006. Negotiating nationalism: nation-building, federalism, and secession in the multinational state. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pavkovic, Aleksandar, & Peter Radan. 2007. Creating new states: theory and practice of secession. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Posted by Marc Sanjaume-Calvet in Diversity management, Federalism and conflict, 0 comments
Dynamic Federalism

Dynamic Federalism


Traditional federal theory seems no longer apt to grasp recent evolutions in state structures. By delimiting federal states in terms of defining institutional features, federalism scholars put themselves at the margin rather than the centre of where the action is: fragmenting dynamics in multinational states, secession movements, as well as centralist and decentralist tendencies within the European Union. In a dynamic approach to federalism, all multi-tiered systems are assembled with a common denominator being how they manage tensions between autonomy claims of territorial entities on the one hand, and the need for cohesion or efficiency of the central government on the other. In this approach, qualifying criteria to categorise state structures become mere indicators to rank multi-tiered systems on a gliding scale from the most central to the loosest systems. The ranking is based on three sets of indicators, one measuring autonomy, another measuring cohesion and a third, linking both, measuring participation. The core question examined in this contribution is: which mechanisms in the constitutional system have a centralising or decentralising effect?



It is an exciting era for scholars in federalism studies, with a succession of events that keep the world captive, from secession referendums in Scotland and Catalonia, the tiny Walloon Region in Belgium holding some 780 million persons hostage by vetoing a trade agreement between the EU and Canada, to the most pressing concern in the European Union: Brexit. That is – if the UK, Spain, Belgium and the EU are defined as federalist systems, worthy of study by federalism scholars. Books have been written about this question. Traditional federalists would argue that they are not, measured by criteria that have to be fulfilled and that are based on model states of past centuries, such as the USA or Germany. According to the traditional model, states are either unitary, federal or confederal, and systems that do not meet the defining criteria are called ‘regional states’, which, at best, are considered ‘immature federations’, implying that they aspire to become federal. However, excluding these systems leaves federalism scholars at the margin rather than the centre of activity.

At the same time, scholars realise that the federal/unitary distinction ‘is too crude to capture the complexity of contemporary governance’ (Loughlin, 2008: 473). In a new standard book on comparative federalism (Palermo and Kössler 2017), the authors list various definitions of federalism, one leading to a list of 23 federal states world-wide, the other to no less than 180 federal states. ‘The central question’, according to these authors, ‘is whether the question itself is meaningful’. I tend to agree. Whether Spain is a federal or a regional state is, frankly, a purely academic question, such as discussing the sex of angels. In the end, what matters, is to capture the essence of federal systems. The essence is not whether a given state has a bicameral system and a court to solve allocation of power disputes, or whether sub-units have their own constitution. What is at stake, was already defined by Friedrich (1968): the tension between autonomy of territorial entities on the one hand, and cohesion or efficiency of the central government on the other.

This brings us to a dynamic approach to federalism. In such an approach, qualifying criteria to categorise state structures become mere indicators, and the core question is: which mechanisms in the constitutional system have a centralising or decentralising effect?

The Use of Indicators to Define Federal Systems

In a dynamic approach, political systems are situated on a gliding scale, with unitary systems on the left side of the spectrum, and the loosest cooperative associations on the right. Systems are placed on this scale as soon as there is some tension between the central authorities and territorial sub-groups. While we could label these systems ‘federal’ in a broad sense, a more distinctive name that avoids confusion with ‘traditional’ federal systems, is ‘multi-tiered systems’, or simply MTS.

Political systems are situated on this gliding scale on the basis of a general score that relies on three axes: one measuring the autonomy of sub-national units, a second measuring the cohesiveness of the entire system, and a linking third focusing on participation. Political scientists have a longer tradition of scaling political systems on the basis of indicators. However, they are mostly interested in autonomy and they tend to ignore the role of courts (see, e.g., Hooghe et al. 2016). Indicative for the autonomy of sub-units is, amongst others, the entrenchment of subnational entities and competences in rigid acts, subnational representative bodies, financial autonomy, sets of competences and allocations techniques, and whether the entities are (directly or indirectly) involved in decision-making at the EU or the international level. In the literature, much less attention has been given to a second set of indicators that measure cohesion or integration. Indicators are, amongst others, free movement and a monetary and economic union within the legal system, mechanisms to deal with transboundary problems, instruments to prevent or solve conflicts of competences and conflicts of interests, or to prevent subnational entities from undermining central (national of international) policy. The third set of indicators is focused on mechanisms that ensure both autonomy and cohesion, with the subnational entities participating at the central level to ensure central legislative, administrative as well as judicial decision-making while paying attention to subnational specificities.

On this large scale of MTS, we can identify core ‘federal systems’. Federal systems in this narrow sense, find a balance between autonomy/differentiation and cohesion/integration. These systems will score moderate to high on all three axes. On the left side of the scale are those political systems that solve the tension by accentuating centralism. Such systems will score low on the autonomy axis but high on the cohesion axis. On the right side of the scale are those political systems that solve the tension by accentuating autonomy: more effort is made to preserving the autonomy of the subnational units rather than integrative mechanisms.

Within the sub-set of autonomy indicators, a political system can score low on one indicator and high on the other. While under the traditional approach the system should meet certain institutional requirements to be qualified as a federal system, under the dynamic approach other features can compensate for this.

While we preserve labels such as unitary states, decentralised states, regional systems, federal systems and confederations, a neatly cut categorisation of states is not always possible, and not even necessary. Spain, for example, would probably end up somewhere between regional states and federal states, but the exact label is not really important. Moreover, a categorisation of states is just a snap-shot. States evolve. Nowadays, in the centre of our attention are disintegrative states that move from the left side of the scale to the right. However, traditional integrative federal systems have their own, centralising, dynamics, bringing them from the right side of the scale to the left side, and sometimes leaving some doubt as to whether, in the end, highly centralised systems such as Austria can still be called ‘federal’ if defined as a system that upholds an equal balance between autonomy and cohesion.


Methodological Advantages

The methodological advantages of a dynamic approach are manifold.

First of all, it facilitates comparative research since we can easily group MTS with similar scores on one or more of the three axes. If we are mainly interested in the dynamics of state structures, we have a larger population than the twenty-something pure, traditional federal systems. We can look for factors that explain the position of specific types of states on the gliding scale. In addition, we can test whether the level of integration or disintegration is an explanatory factor for other things – for example the behaviour of courts in federal disputes, or the stability of the political system.

Secondly, we can examine phenomena that are not easily captured under traditional federal theory. An example is asymmetry. While traditional federal theory promotes symmetry for the sake of equality and stability, asymmetry is a growing trend in contemporary MTS. In a dynamic approach, we can measure the different sub-national entities on the autonomy-axis, so that we can give an exact score to the differences in status and competences between the most and the least autonomies subnational entities. This might instruct as to how asymmetric a system can be before it risks becoming unstable.

Thirdly, we can examine the impact of the international level on the relations between central authority and subnational units. This is especially important for MTS that are part of the European Union, as the impact of the European integration process upon the constitutional structure of the member states is more intense than that of any other supra-national organisation.


The Core Question: Which Mechanisms Have a Centralising or Decentralising Impact?

As mentioned, the core question in a dynamic approach to federalism concerns the process of integration or disintegration. In this approach, we examine the mechanisms that have a centralising or decentralising effect on the political system. For example, there is a common agreement that courts generally have a centralising effect when deciding on federalism disputes; yet some courts – mostly in multinational systems – take a more balanced approach (Popelier 2017). Political parties can have such effects as well. For instance, in Belgium, the break-up of national parties into regional parties had a disintegrative effect. Techniques to allocate powers may also have some impact: we can hypothesise that the predominance of concurrent powers has a centralising effect, whereas the predominance of exclusive powers has a decentralising effect.

If we have more insight into the conditions under which these mechanisms have a centralising or decentralising effect, we might be able to answer the question whether the dynamics of a specific political system can be turned through constitutional engineering. This is a topical question in the light of secessionist movements in countries such as Belgium, Canada, Spain and the UK as well as developments in, for example, Sri Lanka, where a devolutionary trend institutionalised at the end of the 1980s a form of multinational conflict management (Oberst 1988) but constitutional guarantees of national sovereignty and indivisibility are relied upon to break secessionist tendencies.


An Example: The Belgian Case

The Belgian case demonstrates the need for a dynamic approach to federalism. In the last five decades, it evolved from a unitary state into a federal state with confederal traits. Up until now, this has taken the shape of six state reforms, resulting, in 1993 in a constitutional provision that labelled Belgium as a federal state.

The Belgian federation, however, does not meet several of the criteria that defines federal states under the Hamilton approach. For example, in 1993, discussions on the use of a second chamber did not result in the abolition of the Senate. Instead the federalism argument was used to maintain an institution that did not fulfil a federalist function: The Senate was reformed, but in the new constellation a minority represented the federated entities and they were appointed on the basis of the federal, not the regional, elections. Since the sixth state reform in 2012-2013, the Senate has been reformed into an actual Chamber of the sub-states, but is left with only few competences. On the other hand, the subnational entities can directly interfere, with a suspensory vote, in the federal decision-making process. Moreover, while not represented as such, they have a dominant say through the linguistic groups that structure the federal parliament, the federal government, as well as the administration and the courts. The federal government consists of an equal number of French- and Dutch speaking ministers; these ministers are nominated by regional parties that represent the interests of their language groups. Besides, the two language groups in Parliament have a suspensory veto right.

The federalism argument was also used in the Flemish fight for subnational constitutional autonomy, although the (little) constitutional autonomy that was acquired has not been used in a way that is substantially different from what was regulated at the federal level. On the other hand, the subnational entities do enjoy substantial autonomy when it comes to concluding international agreements or involvement at the EU level.

This demonstrates that the traditional criteria to qualify federations are not always functional: The Senate did not fulfil the function of involving the federated entities in central decision-making, but they got their say through other means, to the point that the system even acquired confederal traits, as no federal decision can be made without the consent of both language groups. It also shows how a low score on one indicator (subnational constitutional autonomy) can be compensated for by a high score for another indicator (international affairs).

The devolving dynamics in Belgium are based upon the allocation of exclusive powers, equality of federal and federated entities, regionalised political parties, and a general ambiance of distrust and conflict typical of dyadic federalism. The dominant political party, N-VA, is a Flemish-nationalist party that supports Flemish independence. According to surveys, Flemings support autonomy though not secessionism, the N-VA’s strategy is to ‘naturally’ end up at independence through confederalism. Legal scholars and political scientists are eager to point out that confederalism, according to traditional theory, means the association of independent, sovereign states, implying that technically confederalism cannot precede secession. This shows, once more, how traditional theory is unable to capture political reality. In a dynamic approach, the N-VA’s strategy makes perfect sense, and the core question for those who support the continuation of the Belgian system, is whether through constitutional engineering – be it federal districts, shared competences, or otherwise – we can turn the tide.



Friedrich, K. 1968. Trends of Federalism in Theory and Practice. Frederick A. Praeger.

Hooghe, L. et al. 2016. Measuring Regional Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Loughlin, 2008. ‘Federalism, regionalism and local government: comparative perspectives on transforming the nation-state’, 7 European Political Science, 472-482.

Oberst, R.C. 1988. ‘Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. 18 Publius 175-194.

Palermo, F. and Kössler, K. 2017. Comparative Federalism. Constitutional Arrangements and Case Law. Oxford and Portland: Hart.

Popelier, P. 2017. ‘Federalism disputes and the behavior of courts: explaining variation in federal courts support for centralization. 47 Publius, 27-48.


Further Reading

Aubert, J.F. 1963. ‘Essai sur le fédéralisme.’ 80 Revue du droit public et de la science politique. 401-452.

Popelier, P. 2015. ‘Secessionist and autonomy movements in Flanders: the disintegration of Belgium as the chronicle of a death foretold?’ in Belser, E.M. et al. (eds), States Falling Apart? Secessionist and Autonomy Movements in Europe. Bern: Stämpfli Verlag, 215-246.

Popelier, P. 2014. ‘Subnational multilevel constitutionalism.’ 6 Perspectives on Federalism, 1-23.

Popelier, P. 2012. ‘The need for sub-national constitutions in federal theory and practice.’ 4 Perspectives on Federalism 36-58.

Popelier, P. and Lemmens, K. 2015. The Constitution of Belgium. A Contextual Analysis. Oxford: Hart.



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Nigeria: A Federation in Search of Federalism

Nigeria: A Federation in Search of Federalism


This article argues that the Nigerian federation epitomises an incomplete federal arrangement. The feelings of marginalisation, which had been suppressed during the military era are fully expressed by ethno-regional groups in the post-military era and these feelings finds expression in the potent agitation for a more functional federal system. The Nigerian political elites have at different times attempted to grapple with the imperfections inherent in the country’s federal system by putting in place a range of distributive and structural mechanisms but the increasing agitation for “true federalism” indicates that the governmental system is defective and in serious need of some bold political reform.



The increasing agitation for a functional federal system or what is referred to as ‘true federalism’ in the Nigerian parlance, after the democratic transition that culminated in civil rule in 1999 is an indication that all is not well with the existing practice of federalism in Nigeria. The apparent defects in the federal system, no doubt, provide the basis for this agitation. Nigeria is a federation operating a federal constitution but in practice the country works as a unitary state, a fallout of the centralising tendencies that have come to characterise the governmental system. However, there seems to be a consensus, especially in the southern part of the country that the operation of federalism in Nigeria does not conform to the fundamental principles of federalism. As Wheare (1963: 20) argues, ‘a country may have a federal constitution, but in practice it may work that constitution in such a way that its government is not federal’. Also, as Erk (2004: 3) suggests, ‘the presence of a federation should not blind us to the absence of federalism’. In other words, there may be a federation without federalism. The Nigerian model is argued to be a reflection of such an incomplete federal arrangement.

This article seeks to depict Nigeria as a federation without federalism.  It further seeks to examine the quest of the Nigerian people for an authentic federal system. The starting point, therefore, is to make a conceptual clarification between federalism and federation. This helps to avoid the danger of misapplication and also put the article in a proper theoretical perspective.


Federalism and Federation: Conceptual Clarifications

Federalism, like most Social Science concepts, has no standard definition as it ‘may mean all things to all men’ (Duchacek, 1970: 189). However, the difficulty in defining this concept has not stopped earlier writers from bequeathing to us some valuable definitions. Federalism has been defined variously as a political philosophy and an ideological position (King, 1982: 75); a ‘political principle’ involving ‘the constitutional diffusion of power’ between the central and the constituent governments to achieve ‘self-rule and shared rule’ (Elazar, 1987: 5–6); and a ‘value concept’ that informs federation (Burgess, 1993: 3).

Federalism may mean different things to different people, but what appears to be constant about this political system is the intrinsic principle that distinguishes it from other systems. This principle, which Wheare (1963: 10) called the federal principle, has been defined as the ‘method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, co-ordinate and independent’. What is meant by ‘independent’ here is that each tier of government has its own independent functions and neither has supreme authority over the other. However, this view poses a problem of applicability because some measures of interdependence and cooperation are necessary for the successful operation of any given federal system. Therefore, federalism refers to a system of government in which powers are shared between the central (federal) government and the federating/constituent/component units (or states as used in Nigeria).

Federation, on the other hand, is a state in which both the central government and the constituent governments ‘rule over the same territory and people and each has the authority to make some decisions independently of the other’ (Riker, 1964: 5).  Also, as King (1982: 77) posits, a federation is a sovereign state in which the central government incorporates governments of regional units into its decision-making procedure on some constitutionally entrenched basis. Thus federation is a state with two or more tiers of government in which there is a constitutional division of power between the central government which is in charge of the whole territory and the constituent units. Given these definitions, therefore, Nigeria is a federation. An average citizen in Nigeria is subjected to at least two main levels of authority: that of the state and the country, but does the federation practice federalism?

The country’s constitution entrenches a clear division of competences between the federal government and the 36 states that make up the federation. There are basically two legislative lists – the exclusive and concurrent lists. Functions not specified in these two are assigned to the state governments as residual functions, and as we know, ‘whoever has the residue, neither general nor regional government is subordinate to the other’ (Wheare, 1963: 12). With this constitutional arrangement, it is not difficult to see the dominance of the federal government or put differently, the subordination of the states to the centre.


Federalism in Nigeria

Nigeria, a previously unitary state, became a federation in 1954. Nigeria’s founding fathers desired a federal political framework, believing that federal states have the structural capacity to accommodate diversity. Besides this desire, there was also the presence of certain socio-economic conditions (Babalola, 2013; Suberu, 2001). Although Riker (1964) had earlier argued against the relevance of these conditions, Babalola (2013) has convincingly argued that Riker’s rejection of social and economic conditions in the creation of the Nigerian Federation is unsustainable. The presence of these factors evidently explains why the initial three-region federation that emerged in 1954 reflected the cultural, political and economic differences among the three largest ethnic groups in the country – the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo – which dominated the then Northern, Western and Eastern Regions respectively.

The role of the country’s military in shaping the character of the Nigerian federation cannot be overemphasised. Before 1966 when the military intervened in the politics of the country through a coup d’état, the constituent units enjoyed substantial political and economic powers. However, the civil war (1967-1970) brought about a number of political and economic measures, which in turn resulted in the federal government assuming a central role, particularly in economic activities. Throughout the war years, the states were subordinated to the centre, ostensibly for the effective control of the various divisions of the military. The central government took over revenue sources previously controlled by the states, thereby contributing to a fall in the states’ revenues. Thus, the concentration of economic powers at the centre resulted in the supremacy of the federal centre as well as the over-centralisation of the federal system.

The oil boom of 1973, which coincided with the era of military rule also increased the economic centrality of the federal government. With the federal government enjoying enormous revenue, particularly from oil sales, the centre became the sole distributor of oil rents, dictating which state got what share of the national oil wealth. The states, in turn, became extensions of the federal government rather than independent tiers of government. By 1999 when Nigeria returned to civilian rule, the character of its federal system had significantly changed from ‘bottom-heavy’, that it used to be at inception to ‘top-heavy’. What exists today is a federation in which the states are fiscally dependent on the centre. This is a negation of the federal principle that enjoins independence among the governments of a federation.

The effect of excessive concentration of revenue at the centre began to manifest in 2015 when state governments started finding it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets. This problem arose when the states began to experience a drop in federal allocations, which is a result of the drop in the price of oil in the international market because public finance is mainly dependent on oil revenue. It is, therefore, not surprising that Nigerians, especially from the south, began to clamour for the practise of ‘true federalism’.


The Clamour for ‘True Federalism’

In Nigeria, true federalism means different things to different people. The newfound  phrase could be better understood using a geo-political lens. Let us begin with the south-west, which is dominated by the Yoruba.

The agitation for true federalism started in the south-west immediately after the annulment of the 1993 presidential election, believed to have been won by a Yoruba man. The Yoruba elite had argued that the election was annulled simply because their northern counterparts were not willing to concede political power to the south. Hence, their vigorous campaign for a ‘power shift’ to the south. By power shift, they meant an end to the northern elites’ stranglehold on political power and, by extension, economic power. However, with a Yoruba man, Olusegun Obasanjo, emerging as the president in 1999, the clamour for power shift became moribund and was replaced with that of ‘true federalism’. By true federalism, the Yoruba elite mean a federal system with a weak centre; a system in which the constituent units are independent of the centre, especially in the fiscal sphere.

The cry of marginalisation has been loud in the south-east, home to the Igbo ethnic group. The Igbo’s position as regards the Nigeria’s federal system is that the system is characterised by lopsidedness, particularly in the allocation of national resources. Another ground of Igbo agitation for true federalism is their perception of non-integration into mainstream politics since the end of the civil war in 1970, citing  lack of federal presence in the region. This sense of lack of belonging informs the views of some pro-self-determination groups like the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) that the Igbo people are no longer interested in being part of Nigeria and should be allowed to secede and form an independent state of Biafra. It is, however, doubtful if the campaign for the resurgence of Biafra is popular among the elite of south-east whose political and business interests cut across the country. By true federalism, therefore, the Igbos of the south-east mean a federal practice that accommodates every ethnic group in the multinational federation.

Similarly, a sense of political and economic marginalisation forms the basis upon which the  minorities in the Niger Delta (or the south-south geo-political zone), where the bulk of Nigeria’s oil is located, persistently demand their own exclusive political space using the euphemism of ‘resource control’ and true federalism. In the Nigerian context, the term resource control means the right of a federating unit to have absolute control over the mineral resources found within its jurisdiction and make contributions to the central government to fund federal responsibilities. The perceived injustice in resource distribution is the main driving force for the struggle for resource control. The oil-producing states have repeatedly argued that Nigeria’s fiscal federalism, which encourages lopsided distributive politics, has been unfair to them. For the people of the Niger Delta, therefore, resource control is a solution to marginalisation. Thus, for the people of this region, true federalism means a federal practice whereby the federating units are allowed to own and manage their resources as they desire.

Seemingly, the northern elite wants the status-quo to remain based on the belief in some quarters that the present system favours its interest. These include the federal character principle, majority representation at the federal level and quota system.



We have been able to demonstrate in this article that central to the agitations for true federalism in Nigeria is about struggle for access to national resources. Oil rents and their distribution have shaped the operation of Nigeria’s federal system and have also contributed largely to the failure of federalism in Nigeria. Nigeria’s history of revenue distribution is about each ethnic group or geo-political region seeking to maximise its share of national resources. One reason for the acrimonious revenue allocation system is that Nigeria’s component units lack viable sources of revenue of their own. Also, the economic disparity that has given rise to unequal development among them is another source of contention. Therefore, any future political reform must ensure the accommodation of the country’s ethnic diversity because this is one of the many ways national unity could be achieved.

As a way out of the over-centralisation of the system, the country’s fiscal federalism should emphasise revenue generation rather than revenue distribution, as this would ensure fiscal viability of the states. Any future reform should be tailored towards the states generating their own revenue and those not endowed with resources should devise strategies to generate revenue from other sources. Internally-generated revenue should only complement a state’s share of federally collected revenue. Moreover, with decentralisation of economic resources, the states would be in relative control of their resources and be less dependent on the centre.

A weakening of the federal centre may not be a bad idea but Nigeria needs a federal system that would ensure the relative supremacy of the central government vis-à-vis the state governments. The size of the federation, as well as its ethnic diversity and economic disparity, requires a relatively strong federal government that would be able to regulate the competition for national resources.

It may be concluded at this juncture that Nigerian federalism is defective and reforms are inescapable. The unending quest for true federalism, political restructuring, and self-determination within the context of the ethnically heterogeneous Nigerian federation will disappear until the political leaders reform the institutions and structures of the federal system to give a semblance of genuine federalism.



Babalola, Dele (2013), “The Origins of Nigerian Federalism: The Rikerian Theory and Beyond”, Federal Governance, Vol. 8, No. 3, 43-54.

Burgess, Michael (1993), “Federalism and Federation: A Reappraisal” in Burgess, M and Gagnon, Alain-G (eds.), Comparative Federalism and Federation: Competing Traditions and Future Directions, New York; London: Harvester Wheatcheaf.

Duchacek, Ivo (1970), Comparative Federalism: The Territorial Dimension of Politics, Lanham; London: University Press of America Inc.

Elazar, Daniel (1987), Exploring Federalism, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press.

Erk, Jan (2004), ‘Austria: A Federation without Federalism’, Publius, The Journal of Federalism, 34: 1, 1-20.

King, Preston (1982), Federalism and Federation, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Riker, William (1964), Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Suberu, Rotimi (2001), Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Nigeria, Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Wheare, Kenneth (1963), Federal Government, 4th ed., London: Oxford University Press.


Further Reading

Amuwo, K. et. al., (eds.), (1998), Federalism and Political Restructuring in Nigeria, Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books Limited and IFRA, 1998

Burgess, M. (2006), Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice, London, New York: Routledge.

Elaigwu, J.I. (2007), The Politics of Federalism in Nigeria, London: Adonis & Abbey Publisher Ltd.


Posted by Dele Babalola in Case studies, 0 comments
Federalism and Federation: Putting the Record Straight

Federalism and Federation: Putting the Record Straight


The terms ‘federalism’ and ‘federation’ are well entrenched concepts in the political science literature, yet remain contested because in practice people have different understandings of the terms federal, federalism and federation. In this short piece I set out the importance of definitional clarity when discussing the abovementioned terms. Secondly, I discuss the relationship between liberal democracy and federalism, noting that a number of values that undergird federal political systems equally fit with democratic principles. In the final section, I focus on the some of the misunderstood aspects of federalism, using the British case as an empirical example.

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Posted by Michael Burgess in Theory, 0 comments
Linguistic Diversity in Plurinational States

Linguistic Diversity in Plurinational States


This article examines the politics of language in plurinational states. First, I argue that the relationship between language and nationhood is politically constructed through two broad processes: state nation-building and ‘peripheral’ activism. Second, I present three broad strategies of territorial management to accommodate the normative and practical issues derived from the politicisation of languages: self-rule, shared rule, and symbolic recognition. Third, I illustrate the discussion drawing on the paradigmatic cases of Catalonia and Flanders.

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Posted by Daniel Cetrà in Policies, 0 comments