Mohamed Beshir Hamid

The Federal Option

Democratization and State-Building in Africa:
The Federal Option in the Sudanese Experience


Mohamed Beshir Hamid


An Arabic translation of this study was presented to the conference on Problems of Democratization in the Arab World (اشكاليات التحول الديمقراطى فى الوطن العربى) Cairo, Egypt, 2-3 March 1996. The writer is currently updating and expanding the Arabic version to cover the period from 1995 to the present as a book project.

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As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again to-day.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.

Hughes Mearns, The Psychoed





Democratization in Africa is a concern that dates back to, and was implicit in, the nationalist struggle for independence. But the parliamentary system inherited from the colonial period failed to live up to the democratic ideals. The failure was due partly to the colonial legacy and partly to the unresolved contradictions between the imperatives of democracy and the exigencies of development. “What emerged from the debris of the parliamentary model were varied forms of personal rule that achieved degrees of success, with varied degrees of coercion. Where there was success, however, it was precarious, temporary and crippled by its class and ethnic limitations; where there was failure, it was egregious, massive and tragic”.


The democratization process in Africa can thus be seen as yet another attempt to fulfill the promises of independence. The challenges were no less demanding today than they were more at the time of independence; the consequences of failure would seem to be even greater.


The outcome is by no means certain. It is not clear whether democratization would necessarily entail a better performance by the state, a more equitable allocation of power resources, and more secure rights for individuals and communities; or whether its overall impact would be to rekindle and reinforce the kind of disintegrative forces that had in many cases plagued the process of state building in African countries.


One central problem is how liberal-democratic pluralism can be achieved without exacerbating the tensions inherent in ethnic-cultural pluralism. The issue is directly related to the wider context of political development theory. Arend Lijphart notes three significant aspects of the notion of political development:

In the first place, democratization and other dimensions of development are usually thought to be dependent on national integration… Second, the prescription for policy- making which follows from this proposition is that nation-building must be accorded priority and must be the first task of the leaders of developing states. Third, the usual view is that nation-building entails the eradication of primordial subnational attachments and their replacement with national loyalty.


It can be argued that democratization and national integration need not be seen as making mutually exclusive claims, nor is the achievement of the latter a prerequisite for success in the former. Yet the need to resolve the contradictions of liberal-democratic pluralism and ethnic- cultural pluralism still remains.


It is within this context that the idea of a federal system presents itself as the means of resolving the contradictions. The general and popular assumption is that a federal structure will bring the government “close to the people”, diffusing in the process latent separatist tendencies in the peripheries, and reinforcing through participation the democratization process at the center.


In this respect the Sudanese experience is instructive, primarily for the failure to resolve the problem of national integration – a failure that made the country virtually ungovernable for the most part of the civilian-military cycles through which it has passed since independence. But also because the failure involved experimentation with various integrative forms ranging from decentralization through a devolutionary approach to a so-called federal system of government.


But before examining the national integration problem and the federal option and experience in trying to resolve them in the Sudan, it may be necessary to examine some of the difficulties and theoretical assumptions inherent in the very complex concept of federalism. This intended to shed some light into the viability of the federal principle in resolving the problems of democratization in a divided country like the Sudan, rather than to provide a descriptive or prescriptive account of the organizational and operational structure of a federal model. It is the conclusion of this study that a workable and effective system of federalism is as relevant to the problems of national integration in the Sudan as it was when the federal idea was first broached on the eve of independence.


Download the full paper PDF [29 pages]


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