Decentralized Unitary Governance: A Poison Model Or A Panacea


The terms “centralization” and “decentralization” as new political phenomenon for governmental structures came into usage in France in 1794 and 1820 respectively. After the French revolution, in the mid 1800, Alexis De Tocqueville wrote an article about “a push towards decentralization” but at the end it becomes the extension of centralization [1]. Tocqueville as an advocate of decentralization stressed in his writing that decentralization has not only administrative value but also civic dimension. Similarly Maurice Block a French bureaucrat wrote an article in 1863 under the title “decentralization” to review the dynamics of government and bureaucratic centralization and the efforts of French at decentralization of government functions [2].

It is quintessential then, that we have to make a historical review in order to provide new theoretical insights into the changing nature of decentralized unitary governance. Vivien Schmidt in her book “Democratizing France: The political and administrative history of decentralization” has made a detailed account and interpretations to the historical patterns of decentralization in France. Usually decentralization is a response to the problem of “centralized unitary government,” that is to the abuse of power and undemocratic behavior of the ruling body, to the weakening of the private sectors, to the undermining civil liberties, and to blocking the demands of minorities for a greater says in local governance. Decentralization responds to the concept and demand of participation in decision making, democracy, equality, liberty, and distributive justice. Decentralization not only allows the devolvement of political and administrative power, but also ensures local efficiency, equity and development, and encourages civil society in the management of their affairs. In modern governance decentralization is described as a response to the demands of diversity [3]. Therefore, decentralization tackles to reduce conflicts and inequities on various diversities and regions that are caused by centralized unitary governance. As a process, decentralization always redefines continuously the structure and practice of government in order to bring citizenry and entities closer to the overall decision making of the political process of their nation.

This essay will examine the basic grievances expressed by the Eritrean diversities and how these grievances become the drive to the current centrifugal pulling of our social groups. By doing that, this author will assess the different governmental structure available in the literature and all decentralized unitary system in order to find the most suitable “governmental model” – the flexible toolkit that can keep our country united. Besides that, I will try to show the evolution and transformation of the old political dichotomy “Unitary verses Federalism” to the new political dichotomy “centralized unitary governance verses decentralized unitary governance” and how the central and local governments simultaneously and peacefully enacted – thereby we can make policy analysis and political judgments.

Historical Evolution of Decentralization

Although scholarly analysis of multi-level systems seem to have began with a few paragraphs in Aristotle’s politics [Treisman, 1996], old scholarships had always focused on the institutions of “centralized unitary government”. They had little or no to the idea of vertical structured government – with the devolution of powers into tiers along the distribution of responsibilities among the local governments and central government. “It doesn’t appear to strike them as interesting and relevant question as to how functions should be divided among central and local organs” [Finer, 1997 vol-1, pp 380]. Actually, “the state officials are mere mechanical devices resembling the nerves and tendons that move the several limbs of body naturally [Hobbes, 1968]. The co-ordination of the central and local governments moves the state machine harmoniously.

Despite the impulses of decentralization has come from different directions, the International Development Agencies has become also the proponent and co-agent as driving force for promoting decentralization. Between 1961 and 2005, the Inter-American Development Bank spent 671 million in loans for supporting decentralization and sub-national governments in Latin America [4]. Also from 1997 to 2003, the World Bank allocated up to 500 million a year on loan to decentralization projects [5]. While, “the International Community driven by empowerment and efficiency narratives has been an important driving force pushing for decentralization” [6] the United Nations’ capital development fund and food and agriculture organizations are both financing decentralization and local governments for African countries [ Morell, 2oo4]; especially those with cultural diversities.

Clairvoyance of “DUG” As A Concept: Old politics, New Arrivals

I am not in the business of plumbing terms and concepts, but I am here to increase the ability of the public to perceive matters and concepts beyond the range of ordinary perception to have a clear vision, or the clairvoyance on governmental structures and various concepts applicable to it. Without conventional concepts and terms, debates on governance are meaningless with no center of gravity to our actions and no structural discourse to our moves, we strive to accomplish. Certainly and of course, terms, concepts, and models will reflect in our arguments, as instruments in our debate, as beauty to our vision, and as clarity to our ideology and communications. Concepts are always evolved with time and space, so also their political dichotomy and political frames. For instance, those frames that were “unitary verses federal” are changed to “centralized unitary governance verses decentralized unitary governance.”

Decentralization unitary government (DUG) extends from the weakest decentralization “de-concentration” of power, that includes many Asian and South American countries to a highly “decentralized federalism” (Switzerland) and many in between including the US federalism. Some data-charts and flow-charts that depicts the frames and dichotomy can be observed in Fig-1 and Fig-2.

Interestingly enough, Azfar and Smith argued that “the federal state is not necessary more decentralized than that of the unitary government” in order to challenge the conceptual framing of Unitary verses federal on the degree of decentralization. In other words as “the line between decentralization, federalism, unitary states, centralized system become blurred” [Work, 2002], the concept of decentralized unitary governance become relevant in the new paradigm of structural definition of governance. Paradigmatically federal governments are categorized as “unitary decentralized government” on the debate of old politics, new arrivals, and new framing [see Fig-1 above left].

See above figure (on the left): it Depicts Federal states are also Decentralized Unitary states (Paul T. Levin, Institute of Turkish study, Stockholm University (see link in the references note)

“Federalism” and “decentralized unitary governance” are not dichotomy in nature (as substitute in principles) but indeed are continuum of a unitary state weakening the power of the central government (as complementary in principles). Consequently, in a broader concept “federal states” are included in to the structural concept of “decentralized unitary states” – that depict the dynamics in the development of decentralized unitary governance and the matrix of relationships.

From the chart, we can notice that there is no relevance in contrasting unitary and federal states. Both unitary and federal states have the same opportunity to promote either symmetrical or asymmetrical decentralization. And therefore, “the question of centralization and decentralization is simply a matter of proportion (or) a matter of finding the optimum degree (of proportion) for particular concern” [Cummings, 1995] in the coexistence of a governing system.

Equally though, Work (2002: 11) summed up in his discussion and provided us an interesting conclusion about the correlation between federal or unitary state with the degree of decentralization as follows:

“There is no broad generalization that can be made about the correlation of Federal/Unitary states and decentralization. Some federal states are  highly centralized – such as Malaysia, while some unitary states have high degree of decentralization – such as China.”

Indeed, that is why Buchanan has named the equilibrium point between unitary and federal state as the “competitive federalism.” Therefore, political systems and structures is a never ending process, always evolving to find an ideal form of governmental system that fits to every reality.

Decentralization has two primary forms: (a) democratic decentralization also called political decentralization or devolution (b) de-concentration also known as administrative decentralization [Ribot, 2004]. Further, Sherwood also described in terms of organizational patterns. According Sherwood, decentralization is described as an “intra-organizational” pattern of power relationships (power distribution in the central government); while devolution is described as “inter-organizational” patterns (power distribution between the central and the periphery) [Sherwood, 1969].

Hence what mode of governance is decentralized unitary governance? What does it propose in coping cultural pluralism and grievances? Decentralization is a mode of public governance that “proposes ways to cope with contextual diversities and cultural pluralism through division of the work of public governing among different levels of government” [Ruth & Gilles, 2010]. Despite decentralization has different interpretations and implementations, their common essence always remain the same and that is, strengthening local authorities through transfer of power and resources from the central government.

Paradigm And Typology of Decentralization

Rondinelli (1999) on his working paper “what is decentralization?” identified four types of decentralization, namely as (a) Political decentralization (b) administrative decentralization (c) fiscal decentralization (d) market decentralization. He further classified the administrative decentralization into (i) de-concentration (ii) delegation (iii) devolution. For purposes of simplicity, I will put myself into a flow chart to show the matrix of their relationships, omitting market decentralization this time for obvious reasons – and that is, it doesn’t fit to the economic development of our reality [fig-2].

This writer however, will advocate to an idea of political and administrative decentralization with the “devolution of power” to the provinces as administrative units and a “bicameral legislative” at the center with the power of fiscal responsibilities – all guaranteed by the constitution.

Indeed, Social groups suffered from marginalization necessitate organizing themselves in order to communicate their grievances and advocate for their rights. In our diversity, social interest becomes the driving force, where the ruling class of the majority dictates the minorities on national issue, whereby creating barriers for social intercourse. There is no a struggle for justice in Eritrea, if we don’t call for social justice to address the grievances of our social groups. This writer therefore advocate for a bicameral legislative body, one by equal representation of our social groups (akin to the resolution to the impasse of small and big states in the US constitution) and the other on proportional representation based on the population, as a remedy to their grievances.

See above Flow chart of decentralization of power ( on the right): From the flow chart, the Eritrean reality demands (a) political decentralization (b)administrative decentralization, and (c) devolution” to balance the centrifugal forces and centripetal forces that are at odd in our current reality.

Disentangling the Relationship of Federalism and Decentralization

The conceptual difference between decentralization and federalism is identified on how the power of the local governments is guaranteed. In federalism the power of the local government (states or otherwise) are constitutionally guaranteed and protected from the encroachment of the central government. Constitutional amendments are very stiff and require supermajority. In decentralization, the power of the local governments is not constitutionally guaranteed but rather they are protected by statutory laws. Statutory laws are superseded by similar statutory laws easily by the legislative body – thereby an erosion of power at anytime. In other words, decentralization addresses similar issue and similar promises by devolving power by the act of the center. In practice however, decentralization and federalism blend each other.

In African countries, federalism and decentralism arrive together as part of the same reform and democratic change. Federalism in Africa, therefore is not an act of separate unites coming together to form a federal union; rather it is part of the same reform, top down structural creation of a new constituted units with certain power enshrined in the their constitutions (Examples – Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya). The degree of decentralization, whether it is federal states, or mixed (federal states and autonomy units) or other type of decentralization, are always decided, based on two factors (a) population size of the artificially partitioned regional governments (b) economic resources of the administrative units.

Federalism can be achieved into ways (i) Coming-together-federations and (ii) Holding-together-federations. Coming-together-federation refers when sovereign states decided to form a federation voluntarily due to various reasons (security, administrative efficiency). Holding-together-federations are usually emerged after consensual parliamentary decisions to maintain unitary state by establishing multi-ethnic federal system, (to avoid or settle) ethnic, regional or other types of group conflict [Staphan, 2001:320-324]. Most multi-cultural societies prefer the holding-together-federal-system or decentralized unitary governance to address the grievances of multi-cultural groups.

In our Eritrean case, since most of our social groups are not sufficiently concentrated and lacks of compact settlement, the argument “ethnic-based administrative units” is not logical way for our reality. A bicameral legislative (as explained above) with co-equal power at the center will address the grievances and maintain the equilibrium of the parts [Hidrat, 2014].

Observable Advantages of DUG

Decentralized unitary governance gives the following assurances:

  • It makes government closer to the people
  • It makes local government to compete like investors
  • It makes easier for citizen to hold their representatives accountable
  • It encourages citizen’s participation
  • It protects individual liberty as a result of devolving political power to local governments.
  • It nurtures civic virtues and civic societies
  • It alleviates ethnic grievances
  • It makes “decentralized units” a laboratory of democracy.
  • It avoids Idiosyncratic hybrid institutions
  • It guarantees the representations of all social groups (proportional and equal representation in the bicameral legislative body).
  • It provides segmental or regional autonomies
  • Last but not least it balances the centrifugal forces and the centripetal forces (the power at center and the power at the periphery).

Fighting Against Idiosyncratic Hybrid Regimes And Institutions

Interestingly enough, post 1989 is considered a period of constitutional liberation, where democracy is marketed rigorously as a valuable product to every nation in the world by the western constitutional law experts. Even if nations tried to purchase across International boundaries, a “tailor-made-specificity” are the most preferable outcome when they made a choice from the various models of governance, as a learning comparative for addressing the grievances of the stakeholders within a particular nation. When they made a choice on the model of governance (on either “centralized unitary” or “decentralized unitary”), the only thing to be careful is then, not to design a hybrid institutions in their constitutional clauses like that of ours that was drafted in 1997.

Hybrid constitutions always reflect inconsistent institutions that are good for hybrid regimes which are not accountable to their legislative body. “The desire to graft one institution onto another, rather to design an ensemble of institutions is visible with hybrid systems” [Horowitz, 1999]. If constitutional design were thought reasonably enough “ to produce some standard solutions, locally modified to recurrent problems, with more discernible patterns to the general public at large and visible to International Institutions” it will create conducive environment to the democratic institutions to function and evolve.

As US constitutional framers have envisioned a bicameral legislature to resolve an impasse between small states and large state, the Eritrean constitutional structure should also include a bicameral legislature to resolve the impasse between the minorities and majorities to address the grievances on marginalization. Assuring legislative representation for minorities are crucial step in holding our nation intact and our social groups living in harmonious co-existence. Social Group division cannot be washed away. And that is why Lijphart identifies “statesmanship” as the reason elites will form a cartel across (social) group lines, to resolve inter-ethnic differences [Lijphart, 1977: 53, 165]. He further contends that the motive is not statesmanship but the desire to enter into a coalition [Lijphart, 1999: 7-8] to mitigate the centrifugal competition of group allegiance.

The Paucity of qualified Leadership

Besides the lack of constitutional order in our nation, there is this what we call human factor – the paucity of qualified leadership for governing who can understand the social conflict of our societies, the grievances of our social groups, the understanding of the mechanics of governance, the knowledge of balancing the central governments and local governments to mimic peace and developments, with the vision of maintaining vertical power sharing. In short, a leadership who understands the factors that unite the Eritrean people, not by the power of coercion, but by the vertical and horizontal power sharing. Eritrea lacks qualified manpower and skills in resolving social conflicts and governing our people peacefully without war footing.

To scrutinize the qualification of leaderships, there are four leadership criteria to effectively lead for change: They are, dialogue, vision, discipline, and ability to work with his/her colleagues. A leader who believes on dialogue, who has the vision how to solve conflicts and dilemmas, who understand the role of his colleagues, and who understand the ethics of governing, is very critical at this juncture of our history. Bryman in his book reviewing leadership wrote this: the common elements in the definitions of leadership imply that leadership involves a social influence process in which a person steers members of the group (and the public at large) towards a goal [Bryman, 1986, pp-2]. For Bryman the “theme of influence” by non coercive means is the central to the definition of leadership. We surely lack leaders who could have influences and inspires the public with vision and ideas.


Eritrea’s difficult political history has created a sense of permanent crises. Since 1993 the ruling party (PFDJ) assumes a strong national executive power by excluding possible contending parties. The executive’s prerogatives are enshrined in the hybrid constitution of 1997 (though currently shelved behind the president) which gives a dominant power to the office of the presidency and undermine the development of parliamentary institutions. The office of the presidency was ostensibly designed to coordinate the political programs sponsored by the Issayas regime with an aim of involving the construction of vertical relationship with the Eritrean people, to resist any shocks of structural adjustment.

Despite the lack of public survey, which is difficult to conduct in our current circumstances, my random conversations with the two sections of our society suggest the prevailing trust-deficit among Eritrean communities are caused by the current centralized unitary government. Consequently, the Eritrean elites are now openly divided along highland/lowland on the option of model of governance. While the lowlanders are opting decentralized-unitary-governance that allows two tier of governance (central and regional power distribution), the highlanders advocate for centralized-unitary-governance as depicted in the 1997 constitutions. It is high time that both sections of our society come to term and sit in a round table to resolve this crucial subject that determines the unity of our people and the direction of economic development of our nation.


[1] Vivien A. Schmidt, “democracy France: The political and administration history of decentralization, 2007, PP-10

[2] Robert Leroux, “French liberalism in the 19th century: An anthology, chap-6: Maurice Block on decentralization, Routledge, 2012 PP-225

[3] Theresa A. McCarthy, “Demographic diversity and the size of public sector” Kyklos, Int. review for social science Vol 4-6.

[4] Inter-American Development Bank website,, “approval loans by sector/subsector,” downloaded d March 9, 2005.

[5] World Bank website. See at, down loaded March 9, 2005.

[6] Linda Cabral, “Decentralization in Africa: Scope, motivation, and impact on service delivery and poverty,” overseas development Institutions working paper, 2011, PP-6

– Azar, S. 1999, “Decentralization, governance, and public services: The impact of institutional arrangements.”

– Brayman, Alan 1986 “Leadership and organizations” published by Routledge Kegan & Paul.

– Cummings, S. 1995, “Centralization and decentralization: The never ending story of separation and betrayal,” Scandinavian Journal of management, vol. 11 No-2

– Finer,S.E, 1997 “The history of government from the earliest times: Ancient monarchies and empires,” vol-1

– Hidrat, A., “Hard talk: The contours of change and the equilibrium of its parts”, awate-com. Jan 17, 2014.

– Hobbes, T. “Leviathan” a scholar press facsimile, volume-2 of pelican classes published by Penguim books, University of Michigan, editor –Crowford Borough.

– Horwitz, D., 1999, “constitutional design: proposal versus processes,” Duke University, professor of law and Political science.

– Lijphart, A. “Democracy in plural societies,” 1977, pp 53, 165. And “Multi-ethnic democracy” 1999, pp- 7-8.

– Morell, M. 2004, “FAO experience in decentralization”

– Ruth Hubbard & Gilles Paquett, 2010, “federation as a philosophy of governance,” University of Ottawa press.

– Ribot, J. 2004 “waiting for democracy: The politics of choice in natural resources of decentralization, world resource Institute, Washington D.C.

– Rondinelli, D. 1999 “what is decentralization?” in World Bank, decentralization briefing note, WBI working paper.

– Smith, B. 1985, “Decentralization: The territorial dimension of the state”.

– Treisman, D. 1996, “The architecture of government: Rethinking political decentralization” referring Plato’s ideal polity, Magnesia, described in the laws [1970 (350-340 B.C)] Book-5

Links of reference

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