Federalism may be defined as a system of government in which governmental powers of a state are constitutionally shared or divided between the central government and component units that may exist in the state. It is one in which there is constitutional division of powers among different levels or tiers of government ( federal, state/regional and local government)

It should be observed that in this system, the supremacy of the constitution is not only observed or upheld but also responsible for the division of powers among the tiers of government. Examples of federal states are Nigeria, the United States of America, Brazil, India, Mexico, etc.


  1. Diverse ethnic groups: In federal states, there are many tribes with diverse historical, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Therefore, federalism becomes a means by which these differences are preserved.
  2. Size of the state: When the land area and population are very large, federalism is adopted so as to allow for an effective administration.
  3. Geographical contiguity/nearness: It is advantageous for states which are to form a federation not to be widely separated geographically. The nearness of such states to one another can bring about a desire for a union.
  4. Fear of domination: The fear of domination can lead to the adoption of federalism. The minor ethnic groups may feel dominated by the major ones and to allay their fears, federalism is adopted. This would allow them to develop their local potentials.
  5. Economic and social advantages: It is on record that units that make up a federation are not evenly endowed with human and material resources. As a result, they have to harness or pool these resources together for the general good.
  6. Defence and security: The need to form a very solid defence and security network so as to wade-off enemies can lead to the formation of federalism. This would afford the weak communities the opportunity of enjoying the benefits of the union.
  7. Desire to unite: The desire to unite the different ethnic groups or communities in society can lead to the formation of federalism. If the people are unwilling to be united, federalism can not be formed even by force.
  8. Existence of many natural resources: When human and material resources are in abundance, the people often go federal. Federalism requires a lot of men and material to fund because there are many important levels of government.
  9. Colonial desire: A state can adopt federalism because of colonial interests. Nigeria for example, from 1914 to 1953 operated a unitary system of government but adopted federalism in the Lyttleton constitution of 1954.


  1. Supremacy of the constitution: The constitution of a federal state is supreme. It is the fundamental law of the state and so the organs of government and citizens derive their power from it. The constitution supersedes every other law of the state.
  2. Constitutional division of power: Power are constitutionally shared between the central authority and the subordinate units, that is, the state and local government.
  3. Written and rigid constitution: The constitution of most federal states is usually written and rigid. This helps to minimize conflicts among the organs of government and prevent hasty alteration of the constitution.
  4. Bicameral legislature: There is the existence of a bicameral legislature. These are the upper house and the lower house. The second chamber is necessary because it prevents hasty decisions.
  5. The Supreme Court: There is always a supreme court which is the highest court of law in the state and settles disputes arising from the conflict of power between the centre and the constituent units.
  6. Separation of power: The constitution separates the functions and power among the three organs of government namely; the executive, legislature and judiciary.
  7. Autonomy of units: The autonomy of each tier of government is guaranteed by the constitution.
  8. Right to secede: Usually, secession is not allowed or denied of the units in a federation.
  9. There is the existence of dual public services in a federation. There are federal public service and state public services. The state public services are patterned after the federal public service.


In a federal system of government, the constitution explains how the different tiers of government can avoid conflict by defining their powers which are referred to as the Exclusive, Concurrent and Residual legislative lists.

  1. Exclusive legislative list: This list includes all items listed in the constitution which are meant for the central government. In other words, it is only the central government that can legislate on these exclusive items through the National Assembly. Some of these items include Police, foreign (external) affairs, defence and internal security, aviation, railways, currency and coinage, telecommunication, international passport and visas, etc.
  2. Concurrent legislative list: Functions listed under this list are to be exercised by both the central and state governments. However, in the event of disagreement or conflict between the federal laws and state laws on any of those items, the federal law is final and will prevail over the state law. Some of the items under this list includes agriculture, higher education, insurance, health, roads, internal trade, tourism, etc.
  3. Residual legislative list: Functions listed here are for the local government to exercise. Some of the functions or duties are in the area of primary education, maternity centres, library, motor parks, market, etc.


  1. It promotes unity in diversity. The system makes it possible to unite people of different historical and cultural background without any losing its identity.
  2. The rights of the minorities and other interest groups arerecognised and guaranteed in a federal state.
  3. Federalism brings government closer to the local people and it increases their sense of belonging and political participation. Government programmes and activities are made more relevant to the people.
  4. There is the creation of jobs. Since government departments are duplicated, employment opportunities are created for more people to be employed in the system.
  5. It allows each unit to be autonomous and affords them the opportunity to develop at their own pace.
  6. The system reduces administrative and financial burden on the central government.
  7. Greater opportunities are accorded the people of the local areas to participate in the political affairs of the country.
  8. It eliminates arbitrary rule. This is made possible because the constitution is easy to amend to satisfy the wishes of a few wealthy and influential citizens.
  9. The supremacy of the constitution in a federal system makes for adherence to democratic principles, rule of law and respect for fundamental human right.


  1. The system costs much money, time and personnel to administer. Large number of departments and personnel are needed or created in a federal state, thereby making it a costly venture.
  2. Government activities and decisions on issues of national importance are very slow because the subordinate units have to be consulted. This inhibits decisive and effective government.
  3. There is the existence of tension between the centre and unit governments on power allocation and sharing of resources.
  4. Federalism accommodates the freedom of each unit to develop at its own pace which leads to uneven development as the units are not evenly endowed with natural and human resources.
  5. The system leads to the division of allegiance among the citizens. They owe allegiance to both the central and unit governments as there are two sets of legislatures and two sets of law. The citizens are therefore in a web of confusion as to who to obey her laws and why.
  6. Federal constitutions are usually rigid. This means the constitution can not easily be amended toreflect the changing time.
  7. There could be distrust among the various ethnic groups in a federal state. This can affect the unity and the very corporate existence of the country.
  8. There is the possibility of the minorities being neglected in the areas of appointment to key positions in government, provision of amenities, etc.
  9. Federalism is characterized with the problem of secession or breaking away. This may happen when a particular ethnic group or section of the country feels marginalized.
  10. There is the constant demand for more states by communities who feel alienated and do not enjoy the “national cake”.