Unitary System of Government: Meaning and Characteristics


Unitary System of Government: Meaning and Characteristics

No modern state can be effectively governed from a single location only. The distribution of powers between or among different levels of government is, therefore, an importa

nt aspect of the constitutional arrangement at present. All states have at least two levels of government: central and local.

Several countries also contain a third level of government, which is responsible for the interests of more or less large regions. This article will examine the meaning, characteristics and the merits and demerits of a unitary system of government. It will also use examples of some countries in the world to illustrate the application of unitarism.


Meaning of Unitary System of Government

A government is regarded as unitary when the national or central government is supreme over other levels of government that might exist in a given state. Other levels of government referred to in the above definition are the local governments or units. The central government enjoys almost complete control over their smaller local government entities.

In a unitary system, almost all power and responsibility is vested in the central government. Local governments may only exercise power through the central government. The central government has full legal right to over-rule such Local governments. They are not only created by the center, they owe their existence to the centre and are subordinate to the national government. 

The principle that governs a unitary constitution is Unitarianism.  The word ‘Unitarianism’ means the concentration of political power in the hands of one visible sovereign power; be it that of a parliament or a legitimate dictator.

In short, a unitary constitution means that sovereignty is exercised from one source rather than from many sources. It is a unit center of power, meaning that power emanates from one source only.

We must note that the terms unitarism and federalism are contradictory and mutually exclusive. To put it differently, while there are different types of unitary or federal constitution, we cannot, strictly speaking, have a constitution which is, at the same time, unitary and federal.

The phrase quasi-federal or quasi unitary is a hybrid, which merely seeks to derive the best from both ends, and is therefore unrealistic. Though a full discussion of the federal form of government in the next unit, it will be of benefit to you here if we enrich this discourse by introducing what the late Chief Awolowo once popularized and described as the linguistic principles.

Although the first and fourth of these four principles are particularly relevant to our discussion on the unitary form of government, it will be more illuminating to mention the other two:

i) If a country is unilingual and uni-national, the constitution must be unitary.

ii) If a country is unilingual or bilingual or multilingual, and also consists of communities which, over years, have developed divergent nationalities, the constitution must be federal, and the constituent states must be organized on the dual basis of language and nationality.

iii) If a country is bilingual or multilingual, the constitution must be federal and the constituent states must be organized on a linguistic basis.

iv) Any experiment with a unitary constitution in a bilingual or multilingual or multinational country is bound to fail, in the long run.

Read On: The Parliamentary System of Government: Meaning and Features

Characteristics of a Unitary System of Government

The following are the major characteristics or features of a unitary system of government:

i) There is only one centre of power from which authority flows to subordinate levels that are created by the centre.

ii) The central government not only has the power to dissolve the subordinate levels it has created; it can equally modify or reduce the powers given to them.

iii) The subordinate levels are created as agents of the centre to administer the local areas on behalf of the centre and to also convey the wishes of the people in the local areas to the centre where the real power lies.

iv) A unitary government may either operate a unicameral or bicameral legislature. For example, Ghana and Britain are unitary states, with the former operating a unicameral while the latter a bicameral legislature.


Applications of Unitary System of Government

Britain operates a unitary system of government. Under this arrangement, all governmental powers are concentrated at the central level. Any local level of government that exists are created and allocated powers by the central government. This is unlike the United States and Nigeria where the states as federating units derive their powers from the constitution, and are equal, exercising co-ordinate authority with the federal government in those powers allotted to them

Conclusion on Unitary System of Government: Meaning and Characteristics

Unitary system of administration is popular among states. Its major attraction is the simplicity of its structure and organization.

It is also not open to contestation that may arise due to disagreement over the sharing of powers because it provides for one level of authority thereby removing the danger of dual allegiance. Nonetheless, a unitary system of government does not apply to the circumstances of every state.

In this article, we began with the examination of a unitary form of administrative system, by giving its definition, meaning and characteristics. We also observed that a unitary system is most suitable for smaller states with fewer diversities of population, and for this reason, it enjoys wider acceptance in today’s world of mini, or even in certain cases, miniature states.

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