Nigeria and Ethiopia have adopted federal systems that allow citizens to elect their own representatives at the state and local levels. The states also have their own courts and can collect taxes for their own use.
A man casts his ballot in during Kenya's constitutional referendum i 2010. It gives greater autonomy to state governments.
Dele Olowu, a consultant on governance issues and president of the Africa-Europe Foundation based in The Hague [the Netherlands], said "The major responsibility of local governments," he said, "includes basic health services, basic education, rural roads and economic planning for the region, for their territorial space. And of course water, sanitation...."
South Africa is divided into central, provincial and local levels, with the last two tiers enjoying a degree of autonomy from the national government. And, Kenya’s 2010 constitution gives more power to new regional governments.
Olowu is optimistic about the future of federalism on the continent.
"The reason countries [have broken up] in Africa," he said, "is that...there was not enough autonomy within the federation. So the force of federalism is inevitable in Africa because you have different groups of people, nation states in a sense with their own languages and cultures, and they need a modicum of autonomy (like Nigeria)."
Winluck Wahiu, the project manager of the Constitution-Building Process program at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm, Sweden, said new African leaders often talk about federalism, and some constitutions do experiment with greater local and regional autonomy. But he said there’s still widespread resistance to full federalism, which would entail greater legislative and judicial independence from the central government. Wahiu said even in Ethiopia, with 11 designated ethnic states, the rules still tend to protect officials in the capital who make policy and issue directives for the other tiers to carry out.
Among the areas often kept under tight central control are the economy, education, agriculture and security. Even parts of transport planning and infrastructure are often centralized.
Decentralization vs. federalism
Wahiu said it’s more common for countries to try to decentralize services than give real power over decision-making or the budget. In such cases, the central government usually continues to cover the costs of the services.
Among those countries that have adopted policies to decentralize services are Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Tanzania and Mozambique. Tanzania allows local authorities to manage basic education, health, and water and sanitation.
"There is still a bit of shyness about [giving power to state or local government]," he said. "This is still part of the philosophy that…African state capacity is seen as weak. Holding the country together is seen as a priority for the political and military branches. And it is suspected at a political level that allowing autonomy at a local level might produce an incentive for the local level to stop listening to the center, and you [might] spur this dispersal of [centrifugal] forces."
Federalism and decentralizing services are not the only ways of encouraging local involvement in politics.
Some constitutions support local government efforts to give citizens a direct say in prioritizing the services they need from limited funds.
Wahiu described one plan in Uganda that encourages citizens to help determine local budgets. It’s an idea that he says originally came from Argentina and other Latin American countries.
"Essentially," he explained, "you sit together at the local level. You can even form a committee or a council. You say what your needs are, document them and pass on the documentation to state officials. They are obliged to take that into account when they submit their budgetary requests to the national governments. So this is a way of getting citizens to say what they need money for, according to their own priorities on the ground."
Wahiu expects African countries to continue to experiment with local level governance and make changes as needed.
In some places, local, state and national powers seem contradictory and need to be clarified. He cited one case in South Africa, where the constitution insists on cooperation and coordination between different tiers of government, but also allows the provincial governments some freedom to decide how to implement national policy.
"In the health sector," he said, "the national government is committed to doing things to minimize HIV infection, and they’ve got a national policy. But the ministries cannot dictate priorities to the provincial and local government level or even direct how they use their budgets.
"So you have this reality that the local level is not implementing the national policy, or there is skewed implementation of national policy between one area and another, depending on the skills, level of education of the people who are employed at the different local levels. It creates a haphazard implementation of national policy."
In some African countries, citizens may not have a direct say in allocation of funds and services. But efforts are underway to make it easier for them to petition the government for help with administrative problems.
For example, the constitutions of South Africa, Uganda and Kenya provide for the creation of anti-corruption and human rights commissions that will intercede on behalf of the public.
"The constitution practically removes fees," explained Wahiu. "You don’t pay to access information from these bodies. [And], if you are poor and are not able to go to court, you can go to these commissions and file a complaint, and that body will use state money to try and investigate and give you a solution that works.
"The accessibility of these bodies is unique and different from accessibility of ordinary courts of laws. These bodies are also highly populist in the sense of their compositions. You find constitutions providing for representation of civil society in these bodies, which is unique, because you don’t find representation of civil society in parliament or in the judiciary.
"To participate in a parliament," he continued, "you need to belong to a political party. But to participate in a human rights commission, you could be [a] political [activist], provided you are part of a civil society organization like a bar association, a women’s group, or a farmers cooperative."
Enhancing women's participation
Increasing the numbers of women political representatives has also become a big constitutional issue.
Rwanda’s constitution provides a quota for women and other groups in government. As a result, Rwanda has one of the highest numbers of women in parliament in Africa, nearly 50 % in the lower chamber.
Wahiu said Rwanda has similar rules for other organs of government.
"They’ve also created a constitutional forum called an Inter-Political Party Forum," he said, "whose job it is to discipline political parties so no party espouses what they call the ideology of genocide. So [in effect] the forum legitimizes the discourse political parties can have, the issues political parties can engage in and they also check that parties have national character – that their composition is not ethnic, age or gender exclusive."
Recently, Kenya has introduced a constitutional requirement to guarantee women’s membership in parliament, the judiciary and other state organs.
African constitutions also encourage the inclusion of women and minorities in another important way. They now contain a number of international treaties and conventions on human rights, including the rights of women and indigenous people.
African democrats say the combination of structural reforms and progressive legislation should ensure the voices of the poor and disenfranchised are brought into government decision-making.