News / Africa

Scholars, Leaders Discuss Retooling Federalism for 21st Century

Scholars and world leaders gathered this week in Ethiopia to examine how a centuries-old Western political system is evolving to suit the needs of modern-day multi-ethnic nations.  Our correspondent in Addis Ababa has more from the site of the Fifth International Conference on Federalism.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi opened the four-day conference by extolling the virtues of his government's ethnic-federalism policy.  He said allowing the country's multitude of ethnic groups wide latitude in governing their own affairs has contributed to unity in diversity.

Federalism is most often associated with Western countries such as the United States, Canada and Switzerland, where different groups govern themselves while existing as a single nation.  But scholars and leaders at this conference are discussing other federal models for achieving the same goals.

Lecturer Johanne Poirier teaches comparative federalism at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

"Comparative federalism for a long time has centered on the same models, and it tended to be Western and Nordic models for all sorts of reasons, and occasionally you would hear about Nigeria and South Africa," said Poirier. "But in this conference the center of gravity is here.  We are not really hearing much about the United States, we are not really hearing much about Canada."

Nigerian scholar Said Adejumobi, who is with the conference co-host, the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa, says there are many forms of federalism.   He likens the expansion of the concept to the World Cup  tournament being hosted in new and different parts of the world.

"I think now we're just expanding the scope, just like we are doing with football, allowing the coverage to go global, moving to Qatar and Russia, with FIFA World cup, leaving the traditional center of gravity," said Adejumobi. "The basic principle of federalism has not changed, whether you are talking about the United States, or Canada or Nigeria.  It is a formula for managing difference."

The president of conference sponsor the Forum of Federations, George Anderson , says many modern nations experimenting with federalism are far more diverse than early thinkers on the concept imagined.

"If you look at traditional Western federations, some of them have more than one language, but none of them have the range of diversity that you find in Nigeria, Ethiopia or India," said Anderson. "So what you are finding now in the debate in any cases in former colonial countries as democratization proceeds, is how do you deal with this deep diversity."

Several heads of state and government were on hand for Monday's opening conference session.  Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir addressed the gathering, along with Prime Minister Meles.

Organizers say 25 federal countries represent 40 percent of the world's population.  Among them are some of the world's most complex democracies, including Brazil, India, Germany and Mexico.   

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