Unitary System of Government: Merits and Demerits


Unitary System of Government: Merits and Demerits

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 important 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.

Merits of Unitary System of Government

i) Since the logic and mechanism of a unitary government avoids the division of a country into autonomous regions or states, it can help to preserve and promote national unity. Unlike a federal system that promotes regionalism and tribalism, which further engender dual citizenship and double allegiance, one supreme central government under a unitary framework will put an end to all these divisive and centrifugal forces.

ii) In the unitary system, there is the absence of duplication of centre powers as it is in the federal states. Since decisions on all important issues are made at the centre, it reduces the cost of governance.

iii) The concentration of power rather than its dispersion ensures a strong government. This is because there is minimal diversity in a unitary state. In a unitary system of government due to much identical culture, economic and social composition of the people in the state, there is usually the absence of friction, tension or rancor, that often characterise the federal system in the struggle for “unity in diversity.”

iv) The principle ensures that even development is realized in a state that operates a unitary system of government.

v) There is uniformity of laws and administration in a unitary state. This ensures that there is no overlapping or conflict of jurisdiction throughout the state. This makes the allegiance of the citizens remain undivided. Unlike in the federal system of government where citizens owe allegiance both to the centre and the region to which they belong, such a situation that can breed separatist tendencies is avoided in a unitary state.

Read On: Presidential System of Government: Meaning and Features

Demerits of Unitary System of Government

i) In a unitary system of government, power is highly centralized and concentrated in one sovereign. This can lead to totalitarianism, oligarchy or even autocracy in the running of the affairs of the state. The unitary system as a result of the point mentioned above often makes it difficult for the masses to take an active part in civic affairs of their state.

ii) There is also no local initiative in a unitary system of government. This is because the little or residual power delegated to the local authorities can be taken away from them at the whims and caprices of the centre. In France, for example, ‘the Minister of

Interior presses the button and the prefects, the sub prefects; the Mayors and the Deputy Mayors do the rest.’

iii) The central government is not always aware of local problems since it is not closer to the grassroots.

iv) The unitary system can also easily collapse. A single central authority may easily collapse under stress from within and without. Multiplication of centres of power serves as a safeguard against such a danger.


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: Merits and Demerits 

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 contestant 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. 

We discussed the advantages and disadvantages of a unitary system of government.

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