Ethnic Conflict Management: Federalism and Alternative Models for the Regulation of Conflict

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Second Assembly
Ethnic Conflict Management: Federalism and Alternative Models for the Regulation of Conflict

Forum of Federations (Canada)

Christina Murray (South Africa)
University of Cape Town

George Mathew (India)
Institute of Social Sciences

Isawa Elaigwu (Nigeria)
Institute for Social Research and Governance
Anand Singh (Fiji)
Fiji Trade Union Congress

This workshop responded to an increasing international tendency to look to forms of regionalism or federalism in response to ethnic conflict. Individuals from more than 15 countries (with particularly strong representation from Nigeria) participated in the workshop, which focused on possible responses to ethnic conflict in countries as diverse as Sudan, Burma, Fiji and India. Proposed models ranged from secession to a rights-based, rather than a territorially-based, approach to ethnic conflict.


Despite the wide range of problems raised by the examples discussed in the workshop, and despite the very specific limitations and possibilities that each different social, economic, and political context creates, there were three main points of agreement:

  • Federalism or "regionalization" is not a solution to all ethnic conflicts. Rather, federal models provide a medium that may allow for the management of some conflicts.
  • A fair and effective distribution of resources is essential to effective decentralization.
  • A federal solution to ethnic conflict is highly unlikely to be successful if the people of a country are not themselves involved in developing or adopting the model of decentralization. Negotiation and reform making cannot be left to political elites.
  • This, of course, is the democratic point, and the participants stressed the need for democracy both in crafting constitutional structures to address problems and in implementing regionalism. Devolution of power is not acceptable if that power is exercised in an undemocratic way by the regions to which power is devolved.
  • Disagreement in the workshop emerged on the degree of autonomy, or "democracy and recognition," as some participants described it, to which ethnic groups are entitled. While there seemed to be relatively broad agreement that some situations might demand secession, many participants would generally demand a balance between the rights of the central government and those of the sub-national units.


Workshops like this one should continue to be held with two related goals:

  • to provide opportunities for the exchange of ideas; and
  • to ensure that federal or regional approaches to ethnic conflict do not lose sight of democracy as the proper basis for any system of government.