Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Decentralization and Federalism are Faces of the Same Coin

By John A. Akec*
A Week Cannot be Longer than Seven Days
If you catch cold and seek medical advice, it will take you only a week to recover from it; and if you don’t see your doctor, the cold will last for only seven days to get over. This was how we would quip during our beautiful school days when we saw a friend struggling with cold.  What is the point to be made here, you wonder?  Simply put, some things mean the same thing, because a week and seven days measure up to the same length of time (68 hours and 0 seconds). A one-week old girl is not older than seven-days old boy.

Federalism will be no more "Just" or "Fairer" than Decentralisation or Devolution
And in the same way, the disaffection with the implementation of decentralization clauses in our constitution has driven many of our citizens to call for the adoption of federalism as a better cure for our political injustices, be they real or perceived. However, from a personal perspective, this debate is nothing but war of synonyms. It is a vain attempt to reinvent the wheel when we have plenty in the store, to create a bone of contention when none existed, and to pretend to be innovating when the real term for this kind of futile exercise is "recycling" the old instrument.  

Many self-confessed federalists, I think, do not seem to realise that decentralization clause in our constitution is meant to address the same governance concerns that are tackled by different brands of federalisms applied in other jurisdictions. First, by bringing government closer to the people (as stipulated by article 36 (1) of SSC 2011, and Local Government Act 2009). Second, by devolving power to three levels of government: national, state, and local (article 47 SSC 2011). And third, by accommodating diversity in terms of cultures, beliefs, languages, values, and economic resources (article 48 SSC 2011). Finally (by implication and extension) reducing complexity of governing a large expanse of land; and installing systems of checks-and-balances in the way a country is run by the executive.  

It means, amongst other things, local problems will be addressed using local solutions that are conceived and crafted by local people; as opposed to centralized, one-size-fits-all prescriptions that are handed down from capitals to states; or from states to counties; or from counties to payams and bomas.

Those who believe that appending the term "federalism" to our constitution will add value to our decentralized system of government have not shown us as yet as to how this could be achieved, unless they have other definitions of federalism in mind, which they have not shared with us.

It all reminds me of the saying: "in the land of the blinds, one-eyed man is king." And in South Sudan these days, I have never witnessed such a large number of one-eyed men and women, (in form of politicians bored out of their bones for the lack of challenges, and lazy intellectuals masquerading as federalism experts), misleading such a large number of us. And that is not acceptable. 

What is wrong with Current Decentralisation Arrangements?
According to some of the opinion writers (Refer to Jacob Lupai's article in Juba Monitor, June 12, 2014): "The present centralized system dubbed as decentralization mostly favour none other than Dinka."
The writer goes on to point out the percentage of presidential advisors, the chairs of commissions, the undersecretaries, and security personnel who come from Dinka ethnic group as higher than those from the remaining 63 ethnic groups that make up South Sudan. And as a matter of fact, this was a correct observation (the relatively higher percentages of Dinka occupying high political positions cannot be questioned or denied). However, the writer misses the point about the yardstick by which the "strength" of a federalist system of governance is measured (it should by how much power is centralized and how much is devolved to lower local levels or concurrent).

Furthermore, assuming that federalism is measured in terms of representation of different states/ethnic nationalities in the central government, the writer should have acknowledged the fact that for every 10 South Sudanese, 4 are Dinka. That in South Sudan's 10 states, 7 states have Dinka population. And in order for any system to be just and fair, the distribution of political and economic power should be reflective of such asymmetries (the 64 ethnic groups forming South Sudan have sizes ranging from several millions to a few hundred individuals).

Moreover, and tragically still, according to this same school of thought, being "favoured" by a system is measured solely in terms of ministerial portfolios held by members of an ethnic group and not by distribution of economic benefits and service enjoyed by each community.

This is because the graduates of this school overlook the fact that 85% of South Sudan government revenue is currently spent in Central Equatoria State (Juba); that Central Equatoria continues to lead the whole country in most development indicators:  according to the 2009 statistical year book,  it is evident that that it had the highest level of children immunized in the country (43% compared to 12% in Warap State, and 6% in Northern Bahr El Ghazal); recorded the highest rate of primary school enrolment (20% compared to 2% in Warap and 1% in Northern Bahr El Ghazal); the second highest percentage (30%) of households with  access to improved water resources after Western Bahr El Ghazal which has 37%, but higher than 12% in Upper Nile, 7% in Jonglie, 2.3% in Eastern Equatoria, and 6% in Warap. This is to say nothing about the number of kilometers of paved roads in Central Equatoria or access to better health services compared to the rest of the country.

These prosperity indicators are better benchmarks for measuring economic and social inequality/equality in any viable country, as opposed to a ludicrous headcount of how many Dinka or Non-Dinka are occupying how many ministerial portfolios, all of which bear no correlation to how our various communities are faring on the ground.

Federal Systems are Many Types
Although many opinion writers acknowledge that federalism as a system of governance differs from one country to another, they fail to acknowledge the peculiarity of our adopted version of federalism as a natural consequence of our peculiar political and cultural ecosystem.
In the United States, for instance, the central government is referred to as the federal government. Federalism in the US was a result of the move by the founding fathers away from previous confederal union of semi-independent states, to a tighter union (the United States of America). In fact, in recent years, the US federal government powers have increased at the expense of powers exercised by the states. The state governors in the US are democratically elected as they are in South Sudan. The federal government controls one state (the District of Columbia). Attempts to surrender (more persuasive and makes sense) control of Juba metropolitan area to central government were stiffly resisted by Central Equatoria State.

In India, there are three types of lists for areas of jurisdiction for the central and state governments. The union list contains items on which Indian central government exercises exclusive jurisdiction; a concurrent list shared by both central and state governments (but if there is a conflict between two levels of government, the central government's jurisdictions prevail); and a third list, called state list containing items for states' jurisdictions. Furthermore, where national interests are threatened, the government of the Union of India can dissolve the entire state government. States of India do not enjoy equal representation in the Parliament but depend on demography. Doesn't it make sense to weigh in the population size of each ethnic group?
In Germany, the central government, also called the "federal government", is much stronger than the US federal government and many other known federations.  

In Australia, the states governors are appointed and not elected. Like India, there are powers for individual jurisdictions and others for common overlapping jurisdictions. The Central government is called Commonwealth government. A high court rules whenever conflict arises between states government and Commonwealth government. More often than not, and in many high level cases in recent years, the Australian high court ruled in favour of Commonwealth government. 

As we can see, there are varieties of federalist systems, each dictated by individual countries' needs with some similarities and differences here and there. The Western federal governments and their associated democratic and economic systems that are being emulated today everywhere are a creation of centuries of intellectual debate and political activism and governance that dates back to times of Socrates in Athens; Thomas Hobbes, John Locke in England, David Hume in Scotland; Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jaques Rouseau in France; Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, Martin Luther King in the US; Karl Marx, and Emmanuel Kant in Germany; and list goes on to no end.

In contrast, most African systems of governance, including our own, are second hand models inspired by Western systems and values. Our systems of governance lack originality to the extent that they could be fairly described as "copy and paste" democracies that are yet to stand the test of time (with apologies to Justices John Luk). It will take us decades in South Sudan to internalize, implement, and test-drive these systems, and modify them as our experiences using them grow and mature with time.  
The fact that in South Sudan the President can remove an elected governor is not unique as is the case of India where the central government can dissolve the whole state government. Should we disagree, we need to amend such clauses in the next constitution after a thorough debate, while ensuring that a provision is made about the measures that would safeguard our sovereignty from actions of unruly state governments. It is an issue which cannot be left to chance in the constitution.   
The Way Forward
There is much unutilized capacity in our constitution, especially in regards to devolution of powers to lower levels of government and delivering services to our citizens through a devolved power. For instance, local government act 2009 has not been fully implemented and that is why we still have appointed county commissioners as opposed to elected commissioners. County legislative councils have not been set up due to financial constraints. The central government in Juba has been trying its best to be inclusive in the distribution of political power with appropriate regional representation; representation of women, religious minorities, special interest groups as such army and business sector, those with special needs, and other minorities such as Muslims.

As far this author is concerned, the structures and forms of an inclusive society and representative if equitable government systems with generous provisions for federalism are in place. The challenge at the moment is to give it a substance and how to fund these arrangements function as well as how the whole structure orchestra (from federal, to state, to local) can be made to play in constructive unison in order to deliver prosperity to all our citizens; from Raja to Pibor, and from Renk and Abyei to Nimule.

 Our strength lies in discovering our shared patriotism and history, and as African Sudanese and not fretting over our ethnic differences. This is an ideal for which we as the citizens of this great nation should live to realize, or die to defend.