What is Confederal Administrative System? - Meaning, Features and Facts


What is Confederal Administrative System? -  Meaning, Features and Facts

We saw that power distribution is a sine qua non for the effective operation of modern states. Power is usually distributed among different parts and levels of the state.

The amount of power held by the central government determines the system of government a state has.

In this post, we will consider the meaning and characteristics of confederation as another form of political or administrative system. We will also discuss the factors that may encourage a country to take the path of confederation.

We will then wrap up the discussion with case studies of some states that have either tried the confederal option or where the model has been suggested or contemplated, at one time or the other.

Meaning of Confederation

A confederation has been defined as an administrative cum constitutional arrangement in which two or more sovereign and independent states agree to come together to have a central but weak government.

Put differently, the term confederation applies to the union of states, which is less binding in its character than a federation. A confederation is a union of states with a commonly recognized authority in certain matters affecting the whole, and in respect of external relations.

Confederation is a league or union of many sovereign states for a common purpose. 

In principle, the states in a confederal structure would not lose their separate identities but would retain the right of secession.

In practice, though this right might be difficult to exercise and the constituent units of a confederation might appear to be little different from those of any other federal states.

But confederation differs essentially from a federation in that it is a league of sovereign states, unlike the latter (federation) where the component states give up their sovereignty in favor of the new state, or even where the center can create more states, as it has been from the example of the Nigerian federation.

In a confederation, power resides more with the component states rather than the centre.

In other words, there is a weak centre and strong component parts.

The United States adopted a confederal structure in the early years of her independence. But the structure was later rejected by the conferees at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention on the ground that it was “weak at the centre and strong at the circumference”. 

Other examples of confederal states apart from the failed United States’ experience include the United Netherlands in 1579, the German constitutions of 1815 to 1867 and 1867 to 1871(before and after the unification of Prussia with other German states).

Features of Confederation

1) Right to Secede: In a confederation, the component units have the right to secede from the arrangement. This is not the case in a federation where any attempt by any or a combination of the federating states to secede is met with resistance. This was the case in the United States between 1861 and

2) The autonomy of the Federating States: Another feature of a confederation is that the states within the confederal structure would not lose their separate identities through the political arrangement but will still retain their distinct separate independence.

In other words, the component units are autonomous in all spheres of influence except in defense, external relations, currency and a few other subjects conceded to the central authority.

3) Supremacy lies with the confederates: The supreme power belongs to the co-ordinate states. Therefore, the coordinate States dominate the central government as the constitution is usually not rigid since most confederations are run based on agreements reached by the states.

4) Weak Central Authority: The central authority is usually weak in a confederation while the units are stronger and more powerful. The experience of countries like the United States, Senegal and Gambia under a confederation, and Nigeria where the model was also suggested, will be used to illustrate this point in the subsequent units.

1865 when the attempt by 13 southern states was militarily resisted by Abraham Lincoln. A similar case occurred in Nigeria when Yakubu Gowon, then Nigeria’s Military Head of State forced the then Eastern Region of the country back into the federation.


Selected Case Studies of Attempts at Confederation


United States’ Articles of Confederation

After it had recorded victory in the War of Independence with Britain the United States began self-government with the adoption of the Articles of Confederation by the Congress on 15th November 1777.

The Articles were actually written between 1776 and 1777 and was not actually ratified by all the 13 states until 1781. The Articles of Confederation established the Congress as the only central political institution for what was then called ‘Association of States’, but the congress was limited in its power since it lacked any binding or enforcement powers in its relations with the states.

The Articles did not even make any provision for the office of the president or an executive organ of any hue. It would appear that Americans opted for a confederation because of the bitter experience they had with Britain. A country they believed was suffocating under the weight of an overbearing central government.

In theory, the Articles of Confederation gave the Congress the powers to conduct foreign policy, appoint military officers and declare war, borrow money from the states, without the power to tax and regulate postal services.

But in reality, the Articles of Confederation did not give the Congress the power to enforce its requests to the states for money or troops. The first sign of trouble with the U.S. Confederal structure after the American War of Independence was that Congress could not pay back the states the debts it had accumulated to prosecute the war campaigns.

Quite unfortunate for the new American nation the ineffectiveness of the congress continued in the face of growing assertions by the 13 that were insisting on their rights to take independent decisions and actions.

By the end of1786, the Articles of confederation in the United States eventually collapsed due to the failure and incapacity of Congress to keep the states together. 

Despite its failure, the confederal framework gave the then newly independent American nation an unforgettable instructional experience in peaceful, self-government after the turbulence of the war period.

The American experience with confederation and especially its operation in the country for about close to twelve years revealed major lessons about the inherent weaknesses in confederation.

These were taken into account by the American founding fathers when they met at the

Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 and decided in favor of federalism as the most suitable model of political administration for their country.


Suggestions for Confederation in Nigeria

The former British colonial power seemed to have settled the controversy over the appropriate constitutional structure for Nigeria when it introduced the federal system of government for the country in 1954.

However, when the collapse of parliamentary democracy in the First Republic was partly blamed on excessive regionalism in the country, there was a renewed call that Nigerians should take a second look at the issue of appropriate administrative structure for the country. 

This was the major reason why Maj. Gen J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi promulgated the unification decree in 1966 which abolished the then four regions in the country and replaced them with group of provinces.

His action effectively transformed Nigeria from a federal to a unitary state. But what Ironsi thought would provide a solution to the developing constitutional crisis in the country further fueled it, and degenerated into a worse political stalemate, which later engulfed the whole

nation in a civil war.

Before the outbreak of the war, attempts were made from within and outside the country to find a more acceptable model of government for the country. The views among prominent leaders who spoke under the auspices of the ‘leaders of thought’ or consultative assemblies ranged from the outright dissolution of the country, a strong federal structure to a confederation.

The main thrust of the disagreement between Gowon and Ojukwu on the correct interpretation of the Aburi Accord, the outcome of a meeting of Nigeria’s Supreme Military Council, called at the instance of General Ankara, the then Ghanaian Military Head of State, was on whether the meeting agreed to a federal or a confederal structure for Nigeria.

Indeed, the Nigerian civil war which lasted for thirty months was fought largely to determine whether or not the country would remain a federation with a twelve-state structure as Col. Gowon wanted, or would be organized along the old regional, but under a new confederal arrangement, as advocated by Col Ojukwu, then military governor of Eastern State.

Since the end of the civil war in 1970, political leaders in Nigeria, military and civilian alike, seem to be more favorably disposed to the country remaining a federal state.

The only sticky point where opinions differ is on the nature and character of the Nigerian federal system. The desire to return the country to what has been variously described as ‘true federalism’, ‘fiscal

federalism’ or ‘resource control’ appears to be more popular than the isolated calls that Nigeria should try or experiment with the confederal idea, or the strident agitations for self-determination by some social movements within the minority ethnic groups in the country. Understandably, the long decades of military rule in the country can easily be identified and blamed for the centralized character of Nigeria’s federal structure.

Yet, there is optimism that the democratic system which is now being consolidated offers the best opportunity for the political leadership in Nigeria to restructure the country’s federal system to a more acceptable form.


Senegambia Confederation

Sir Dauda Jawara, then president of the Gambia was in Britain in late 1981 attending the wedding ceremony of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne to Diana, Princess of Wales, when the soldiers struck in Banjul, the country’s seat of power in an attempt to topple his government.

With the help of Senegalese troops, the military insurrection was put down. The urge for personal interest of self-preservation for himself, and his government, and the larger interest of defence for his country forced Jawara to forge a confederation tie between the smaller Gambia and relatively bigger Senegal.

Thus, the agreement of what became known as Senegambia Confederation was reached in November 1981, and it came into force three months later in1982.

Under the terms of the confederation agreement each country was to retain its independence, but they were required to take central steps towards a union with the objectives of integrating their military and security forces; form an economic and monetary bloc; co-ordinate their foreign policies and communications and establish confederal institutions.

Implementation of the confederal agreements began in July 1982 when a Senegambia executive and legislature were established. But before long Senegal began to dominate the major political institutions, since it controlled the confederal presidency, in addition to having two-thirds representation in the joint parliament.

The growing concern in the Gambia about its marginalization, coupled with the domineering position of Senegal in the confederation, led to cracks which eventually led to the dissolution of the Senegambia confederation in1989.

This form of disagreement is not uncommon in most attempts to form a union among former sovereign states, including those who styled their own as a federation of states.

A similar fate befell the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union in the early sixties, the East African Federation that was formed between Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya in the seventies, as well as the United Arab Republic, a union of Egypt, Libya and Sudan.

Other factors that usually work against former sovereign states coming together include the divisive impact of their colonial background, ideological differences among the leaders and states and neo-colonial intrigues.

In spite of many instances of its failure to become an enduring form of political administration in those states that have experimented it, in any discourse of models of government, the confederal form of government is and will continue to be mentioned.

It still holds attraction among leaders of states that are willing to come together but are still suspicious of the prospects of a stronger bond in future.

In this type of situation, confederation seems to have more appeal since its constitution usually gives room for a peaceful breakup or outright secession.

In this article, we have examined the confederal form of political administration, its major features and the factors that can make a country adopt the confederal political structure. After examining its major advantages and disadvantages.

we finally noted that history has painfully recorded that confederation has not particularly been a popular or successful model of political administration in the few countries that we used in this unit as case studies.

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