Year XXXII, 1990, Number 1 - Page 53


Is it possible to speak of an African federalism? Taking into account all the studies on this issue – especially academic legal studies concerning African unity – one might be led to believe that everything has already been said.
Actually, the existence of the federative phenomenon in Africa has been pointed out in various contributions concerning the study of Pan-African movements, which developed after the First World War and brought about the decolonization of Africa.
Likewise, many historical and ethnological studies have shown, although with some hesitation, the existence of phenomena of the federal type in the social systems of pre-colonial black Africa.
Finally, the observation of the successes and failures of the unions between African states from the very first years of their independence, the balance of successful or unsuccessful federal experiences and more particularly African unity policies represent the main theoretical basis of what has been called African federalism.
However, when trying to verify the extent of federalist theory within the African continent, everything or almost everything still has to be said, because it really is not possible to speak of African federalism as a political project. Neither for the past nor the present can one claim the existence of a movement, in the form of an association, having as its exclusive aim, in an autonomous form, the support of the federalist idea as a political project for Africa.
Actually, when trying to present or propose the project of a new federalism, based on the principles of the modern federalist doctrine, the term “African federalism” still has to be defined, and the African federalist project still belongs to the future. A study of the experiences of unions between states, in the latter perspective, is of little interest, also as regards what African ethno-philosophy and political anthropology claim about the pre-existence of the phenomenon on the continent.
The only interesting aspect – certainly not to be neglected – presented by this type of historical study [1] on the existence of federal phenomena in pre-colonial Africa (unlike Bernard Voyenne’s works[2] on the idea of European unification in the West) consists in the fact that these demonstrations tend to prove that federalism cannot in any way be considered as an imported ideology in Africa. The possible similarities between the two political and social systems of Africa and Greece consist in the alliance contract or pact among the segments (clans, families and ancestral families) that make up the socio-political systems, which should represent the fundamental principle at the basis of the political organization of the black-African and Greek societies. These verifications establish irrefutably the universal nature of federalism as a form of organization and administration of a political society.
The Jacobin ideology of the state, based on the necessary coincidence between state and nation, conquered the whole world. It arrived in Africa towards the end of the 19th century, with colonization, and it settled there at the end of the Berlin conference more than a hundred years ago.
However, after the Second World War, some signs of dissent began to appear with the refusal of colonialism and the desire for emancipation, initially, and subsequently through the desire to overcome the artificial state frameworks imposed by the colonial powers, expressed by some Africans[3] with the formula of a “federation with the metropolitan power”, or, according to others,[4] through a “militant Pan-Africanism”, to make explicit the objective of a total breach with colonialism. In this new shape, African federalism appeared as an ideology of African decolonization.
But, at that point, we cannot claim that African federalism had clearly established itself as the ideology of a federal state. It had not yet defined itself autonomously with respect to the great ideological and political currents which predominated at that time, namely colonialism and communism.
Actually, when examining the programme of the Parti Fédéraliste Africain (PFA),[5] the only political organization in Africa that refers to federalism, it is quite clear that the African Federation was seen only as an instrument for solving the colonial crisis. This attitude can be explained with the desire of the colonialist governments of the time to oppose the African colonies’ yearning for independence. The experiences of those days cannot be defined as federalist, as the indispensable political conditions were lacking, particularly independence, for the component entities, or entities to be “federalized,” to have at their disposal the freedom necessary to the conclusion of a pact – in the general sense of foedus – destined to reinforce and guarantee their independence. It is worth noting in fact that, from a technical and juridical point of view, the act which creates federations of states is always an international act: a federation of states cannot arise through a “ministerial regulation”, as in the case of the old federations in Africa during the colonial era.
The African and international context, in which those African federalists pursuing a unitarian purpose operated, did not allow them in any way to clearly formulate the African federal objective, despite the presence of the Senghor Parti Fédéraliste Africain; and above all, the elements of federalism were insufficient or almost absent – due to the stage of development of institutional life in Africa at that time – as federalism by aggregation always presupposes the pre-existence of sovereign and separate political entities which federate through a constitutional bond. And in effect, on the one hand, the African states had not acquired a sufficient degree of independence and, on the other hand, the process of internal constitutionalization was too little developed to imagine a constitutional bond among the separate states.
Some jurists[6] maintain, however, that the use of the concept of African federalism is appropriate to describe the political experiences of that time. On our part, we think that a correct interpretation of modern federalism, meant as a conscious overcoming of the national state, does not allow us to see in these experiences forms of authentic federalism. The prospects for a real federalist experience in Africa are ahead, not behind us.
The same conclusions are reached when examining the constituent elements of the concept of “militant Pan-Africanism” in the light of the federalist theory.
“Militant Pan-Africanism” is the movement which raised the greatest hopes during Africa’s decolonization. However, its lack of clarity as, regards the geographical limits of the area to be federated – as it wished for the total unity of Africa,[7] neglecting the areas of civilization – its alliance with international communism,[8] its centralizing tendency,[9] but also the absence of a philosophical and methodological basis able to present it as a coherent doctrine have reduced it to the role of simple ideological fantasy, preoccupied, like many others, with justifying a form of power.
In conclusion, African federalism, in the political and ideological sense so far defined, serves to point out, on the one hand, the attempts made during decolonization to create “federations” among the African states and the old colonial powers and, on the other hand, the “Pan-African Movement” for the independence and the national reunification of Africa, based on the “militant Pan-Africanism” of Dr. K. Nkrumah.
This expression of African federalism, in a historical context dominated by the cold war and the clash between the great political and ideological currents of the world in the post-war years – communism and the power politics – could not escape these historical determinations, which condemned it to remain without any real outlet. African federalism could not, in such a context, expect to reach the degree of theoretical autonomy necessary for it to be used as an ideological basis for the construction of the political unity of Africa.
Pan-African ideology, however, has been useful to create the cultural and historical foundations which could allow the African states to envisage their unity.[10] Actually, cultural Pan-Africanism is able to play this role only on condition that federalism is formulated as a political project for Africa. Since the supposed existence of an “African nation” is not now a motivation strong enough to prompt the union of the African states, the latter can now only be founded on a federal basis. Really, one of the main facts in the history of Africa since the African states have had access to sovereignty has been the triumph of nationalism all over the continent. The myth of the “national way to development”, as underlined by Professor Guido Montani,[11] has been an ideological impulse towards the economic and political establishment of the young African states of recent independence and has replaced Pan-Africanism, which had served as ideological impulse to decolonization. “State nationalism”, which has been popular in Africa for over a quarter of a century, has produced as its result the creation of new national loyalties within the territorial spaces defined by colonization.
It is worthwhile specifying the meaning I give to the concept of “state nationalism”. Beyond the classical distinction between subjective and objective definitions of the nation, it can be considered that the nation is defined as a community whose members, united by ties of material and spiritual solidarity, have become aware that they represent an entity distinct from the other human communities. But the theme of the nation, in the European experience, has always been rapidly associated with that of the state, as a justification of the latter’s independence: it is the emergence of nationalism as an ideological phenomenon different from the “cultural nations”. Within the African context, the role of the state has prevailed in the formation of the nation, because the historical evolution of the national formation in Africa was interrupted by the intervention of colonialism. The present African state has consequently been condemned to seek a new form of national aggregation, which could only be founded on the idea of nation as the Western concept had developed it.
One of the first difficulties encountered by the African state, since the very beginning of its independence, has been (as the French jurist Georges Burdeau has underlined very appropriately) “the one raised by the structure and boundaries of the national framework”.[12] Thus, starting from the territorial framework inherited from colonialism and arbitrarily delimited, encompassing different ethnic groups, the African state has committed itself, over the last thirty years, to creating a new type of global and national solidarity. And it has committed itself strongly. In other terms, the search for a national framework – because of the pluri-ethnic nature of the African state, with the exception of Somaliland and Lesotho, which are mono-ethnic nations – has been possible only through coercive and ethnocidal means. The creation of the nation has taken place without problems only in those exceptional cases in which the state has made the most of the exclusive feelings of a majority ethnic group, which has managed to gather heterogeneous contributions to its cause. However, the African nations are still, at the same time, both an aspiration and an objective to be reached and an operating reality, the various phases of whose establishment are articulated around precise events and different structures of integration which are repressive and inclusive, clearly perceivable and easily found out. This process has now reached a phase of irreversibility. This is what Mouflou[13] rightly qualifies, in an original essay on African unity, as “the triumph of the nationalists”. The author concludes, at the end of a sociological analysis of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), that this organization has served more to consolidate the national states than to construct African unity.
The creation of the OAU, inspired by the confederal model, in actual fact opens up a new chapter of African history. This act is founded on the acceptance of the state entities derived from the Berlin Treaty. For the first time now there is the indispensable condition for a federation which was missing in the aftermath of independence – in other words the existence of independent and separate sovereign states. The decolonization of Africa and then the triumph of the “myth of the national way to development” have considerably reduced the force of what represented fundamentally the basis of Pan-African unity: the memory of the common experience of slavery and of colonization. This evolution has resulted in the emergence of a feeling of diversity between the new nationalities, a feeling which has almost managed to place the original cultural identity of the Africans in the background. Thus Maryse Condé is not wrong when she questions the operative character of cultural identity. “Cultural identity – she says – has been spoken of for some time. The term is supposed to indicate the notion of an original and clearly defined identity which shows at all the levels of the collective expression of a country or people and which allows them to assert themselves among others. Fear and the sensation of being threatened can generate very disputable feelings. Now the African peoples have already suffered enough from myths. So we see the sad effects of ‘negritude’ raised to the status of system of government. The first question is the following: who speaks of cultural identity?”[14] The author wanted to point out, although in a rather confused way, the fact that the development of “state nationalism” in Africa tends to checkmate all the expressions of the Pan-African movement.
The fact that the process of emergence of “state nationalism” has come to maturity can be noted by the numerous conflicts which have set the independent African states against each other, all members of the Organization of African Unity,[15] which have largely taken the shape of an armed war. It is the result of the policy of national interest, of the application of the doctrine of the raison d’Etat in inter-African relations. It is clear that the Pan-African system has now entered the era of the nation-state. The model of the nation-state, based on the necessary coinciding of state and nation, is the system on which those African states which have reached full maturity are based. Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist: “To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighbourhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages”.[16] This means that it is impossible to maintain peace among sovereign states without a federal tie. The problem therefore lies in the difficulty to reconcile the idea of sovereignty with the need for peace.
The latter can only be achieved on condition that democratic institutions be extended to the governments of the various states considered. These are the first premises of federalism, which after Kant and the American experience represent the essential instrument of an association of states for maintaining peace. It is not the “confederation” proposed by Rousseau,[17] in other words an association of sovereign states for purely defensive purposes; but, according to Wheare’s definition,[18] two levels of government at the same time co-ordinate and independent, each in its own sphere.
It seems that these two elements, considered in conjunction, pose the problem of African unity in new terms. The use of the concept of African federalism we mentioned before thus finds its full meaning, contrary to its previous use. In actual fact, these elements make conceivable an institutional structure in which the local government – the independent African state – will be able to give expression to advanced forms of self-government without undergoing interference on the part of a central African or foreign authority; but in which, at the same time, thanks to the co-ordination existing between the two levels of government, the formation of the African political will and the decisions taken at this level can be applied at a general level.
Thus the federal model has become a necessity in Africa. African unity can no longer be conceived of except in terms of federalism, since the policy carried out at present in Africa by our national governments almost exclusively follows the classical principle of every foreign policy, which consists of obtaining advantages for one’s own state and citizens, whence the numerous conflicts among the African states. And this assigns to African federalism a fundamental role, both as apolitical project and as a solution to those inextricable conflicts, in maintaining peace.
Therefore federalism, as a “scientific critique of the national state,” in the meaning given to it by Mario Albertini,[19] finds in Africa the conditions for its full application. It becomes necessary to refute the erroneous ideas unfortunately taken up by many federalist writings, according to which “nationalism, the ideology of the national state, still has a role to play in Africa, due to the number of tribes and clans”, “Africa can only start building regional confederations, because the integration process of the African peoples has not yet been completed ...” This assertion is not only a dangerous attenuation of the universal significance of federalism, but it tends to lose sight of the fact that the essence of federalism lies not only in its supra-national nature, but also and above all in its fundamental goal of maintaining peace among human groups, independently of the forms of political organization. Of course, African unification, in the light of the federalist theory, cannot be conceived as dull uniformity. It is quite evident that it is a matter of limiting unification only to those areas whose dimensions go well beyond local politics’ scope and which cannot be controlled through mere intergovernmental co-operation. All other matters must be left to the local authorities’ competence. Thus the “subsidiarity” principle has been enunciated, according to which the general collectivity – the union – intervenes only when the regional collectivities – the states – are inadequate in relation to the size of the problems to be solved. The subsidiarity principle[20] is the very foundation of federalism, which has often been defined as “unity in diversity”.
Unity and diversity characterize African history and culture. The great religious and philosophical currents, the main styles of architecture, art and music have never known boundaries in Africa, just as the multitude of our languages and the diversity of our regional and national identities belong to the cultural heritage of Africa. The political history of Africa has been dominated, for long periods, by a constant alternation between centripetal and centrifugal forces.[21] If, in events, centrifugal forces have prevailed over centripetal forces – the great African empires lasted much less than the periods of anarchy and political breaking up – this is due in most cases to the phenomenon of foreign invasion, which is also a constant element in African history. Within this context, African unification can only mean the search for a unity which does not destroy diversity. Thus the African federation will necessarily be, in its initial phases, a multinational and multilinguistic federation.
It is worthwhile pointing out, to eliminate any doubt on the up-to-dateness of African federalism, that the “national framework” in Africa[22] – more than anywhere else in the world – is insufficient to guarantee the harmonious development and real independence of our peoples. The smallness of the territory, the weakness of the national market, the precariousness of the economic resources condemn every African state, taken separately, to never being able to acquire the dignity of a real state nor to being elevated to the rank of a modern nation. Therefore it is useful to affirm that the federalist model is not a metaphysical ideal, but corresponds to the need to create common structures able to face the challenge of the transnational dimension. The federalist model, and there is no doubt about it, is the most effective formula to organize African unity so as to solve the economic development problems of Africa.
It seems appropriate, before going on, to clarify the meaning I attribute to the word model: it is by no means an arbitrary choice comparable to Max Weber’s “ideal type”,[23] but the federalist model, in the sense I use it, in Africa is a historical necessity, which has its roots in our concrete realities: it is required by reason. Moreover, the Bismarck concept of politics as “the art of what is possible” has often guided us in our political choices in Africa, while today it is most of all a matter of making possible what is necessary.
Most of our peoples are worried and are trying to find an answer to many problems, such as unemployment, famine, education, professional training, health, working conditions. Federalism offers an answer to these challenges. Only an African government, in fact, can have the necessary means and mobilize the necessary resources to tackle these fundamental problems.
But, in conclusion, what do we mean by federalism, beyond the formula “unity in diversity”?
One first classical definition is given by what is commonly called the American or Hamiltonian school,[24] which sees in federalism the theory of the federal state, characterized by the vertical division of powers between the Union and the member-states: it is institutional federalism. The federal state, according to this concept, is nothing but a framework which does not imply in itself a choice of society, since it can exist in regimes and systems as different as those of the United States, the USSR, the Federal Republic of Germany, Mexico, India, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Australia or Switzerland.
Beyond the juridical and institutional experience of the federal state, federalism also appears like an organization principle applicable to various aspects of social life. Trade unions, political parties, the most diverse associations, business companies often have structures of a federal type. Starting from these observations, some authors consider federalism as a way of organizing society: it is integral federalism,[25] represented by the French school inspired by Proudhon.
Beyond these exclusive definitions, it seems legitimate to speak of federalism, as Ferdinand Kinski proposes, “when a political, economic or cultural organization comprises various autonomous collectivities linked to each other by common structures and institutions to which they have delegated some of the power and competence for managing common affairs and for defending their external interests; when unity and diversity, in a complex organization, are equally respected; when the distribution of powers is carried out so that they are exactly suited to the problems to be solved and, finally, when the member-groups and the autonomous parts can take part in the decisions of the embodying organization and control it”.[26]
Is it then possible, starting from this partial experience of the federal states and the already existing federal structures in the non-state areas, to set up federalism as a model for Africa?
We are persuaded that Africa needs to progress towards federalism, if it wants to survive as a civilization.
This need cannot be met except by overcoming the obstacles opposing it. The federalist model will have some probability of success in Africa only if forces and tendencies favourable to its achievement already exist and if the federalists take the initiative in this process and deeply commit themselves to it. Today in Africa there are many economic and institutional factors, whose presence tends to prove that the continent is evolving towards its unification. The presence of pre-federalist mechanisms, certainly insufficient, but real, in African unity policy, represents a considerable progress in the unification process. In conclusion, the present crisis of African unity is but the result of the lack of federalism in Pan-African institutions.
However federalism will serve as a basis for African unity only on condition that – as William Riker,[27] who derived this conclusion from the federalist experiences in history, has underlined – there exists a conscious political subject to propose it. In Africa there has never really been a movement which has supported in an autonomous manner in front of public opinion the idea of African unity. The establishment of a federalist force becomes an indispensable condition for the federation of Africa.
If for many reasons federalism is a necessary model for the Africa of today, its realization depends on the mobilization of young Africans as the federalist force of the future.
Fall Cheikh Bamba

[1]Diop Cheikh Anta, Etude comparée des systèmes politiques et sociaux de l’Europe et de l’Afrique de l’antiquité à la formation des Etats modernes, Paris, Lettres, 1960.
[2]B. Voyenne, Histoire de l‘idée européenne, Paris, Payot, 1984.
[3]L. Senghor, Liberté 2 et 4, Paris, Seuil, 1978.
[4]K. Nkrumah, I Speak of Freedom, London, Mercury Books, 1961; see also Sékou Touré, L’expérience Guinéenne et l‘unité africaine, Paris, Plon.
[5]Parti Fédéraliste Africain founded by Léopold Senghor, 1-3 July 1959, Dakar. See Guédel Ndiaye, L’échec de la fédération du Mali, Dakar, Ed. NDA.
[6]D. Thiam, La politique étrangère des Etats Africains, Paris, PUF, 1963.
[7]K. Nkrumah, Africa Must Unite, Paris, Maspéro, 1963.
[8]G. Padmore, Panafricanisme ou communisme, Paris, PA14.
[9]C.A. Diop, L’unité culturelle de l’Afrique Noire, PA, 1959.
[10]C.A. Diop, Ibidem.
[11]G. Montani, L’unité européenne et le tiers-monde, Lyon, Fédérop, 1982.
[12]G. Burdeau, L’Etat, Paris Seuil, p. 37.
[13]Mouflou, Sociologie de l’OUA: unité ou triomphe des nationalités, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1986.
[14]Maryse Condé, “Propos surl’identité culturelle,” in Des africains en France, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1987.
[15]See my paper on this subject published by the Institut d’Etudes Mondialistes (IEM), July 1985, La Lambertie.
[16]A. Hamilton, J. Madison and J. Jay, The Federalist, chap. VI.
[17]J.J. Rousseau, Du Contrat social (oeuvres completes), Paris, Gallimard, 1964, vol. III, p. 431.
[18]K.C. Wheare, Federal Government, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 10.
[19]M. Albertini, L’Etat national, Lyon, Fédérop, 1982.
[20]G. Heraud, Le fédéralisme, Paris, Presse d’Europe, 1986.
[21]J.Ki. Zerbo, Histoire de l’Afrique Noire, Paris, ed. Hatier, 1978.
[22]B.Y. Ioure, L’Afrique à l’épreuve des indépendances, Paris, PUF, 1984.
[23]M. Weber, Essai sur la théorie de la science, Paris, Plon, 1965, p. 181.
[24]G. Heraud, “L’état actuel de la recherche fédéraliste”, in L’Europe en formation, n. 190-192.
[25]The French philosopher Alexandre Marc is considered as the father of integral federalism.
[26]F. Kinski, in L’Europe en formation, n. 226, pp. 12-13.
[27]F. Lanrsen, “Etudes fédéralistes aux Etats-Unis,” in L’Europe en formation, n. 190, 192, 1986.


Share with