CCS Federalism Scholar at UVU African Refugee Conference

By Hank McIntire

See photos of the conference.

Fall International Conference 2022Former prime minister of Buganda, Joseph Ssemwogerere, left, speaks at the African Student Refugee Leadership Conference at UVU Oct. 8, 2022, as CCS associate director Dr. Andrew Bibby, center, listens.

The Center for Constitutional Studies co-sponsored the African Student Refugee Leadership Conference Oct. 6–8, 2022, held on campus at Utah Valley University.

The conference, organized by David Ssejinja, coordinator of UVU’s Multicultural Center, “allowed UVU students and community leaders from Africa and the African diaspora to discuss issues pertaining to governance and access to higher education,” he said.

During the three-day gathering, attendees discussed and heard presentations on federalism, national development, democratic governance, constitutionalism, and conflict resolution. Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and Somalia were among the nations represented by students and invited guests.

Federal Constitutions

By invitation from the Office of Refugee Initiative task force and the African Diaspora Initiative at Utah Valley University, Dr. Andrew Bibby, associate director of the Center for 

Constitutional Studies, presented in the opening session of the conference, where he talked about federal constitutions and the conditions where they thrive and where they do not.

Bibby used a map of the world to show, according to World Population Review, that of all the nations of the earth, only a handful do not have a written constitution. This short list includes Sweden, New Zealand, Greenland, Canada, the United Kingdom, and French Guiana.

“While just over 40 percent of the world’s population live under a federal arrangement, more are considering federalism as a constitutional solution,” said Bibby. “In simple terms, federalism is a political system that combines self-rule for regions and shared rule for all.”

The U.S. continues to be the example that others look to for how federalism is intended to work. “It’s the best articulation of the attractiveness of the federal system,” said Bibby. “Different countries are looking at the United States and how it’s handling diversity and polarization. It is being seen as a test case and how Americans handle their political disagreements, and the question is whether such a large federal system can endure.”

“But federalism is not just a Western phenomenon,” he continued. Countries in Latin America and Asia—Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, India, and Pakistan, for example—also have federal systems. ”Since 1990, almost all countries to the south of the Sahara in Africa have become either federal or decentralized,” Bibby said. Despite the number of federal systems of government in Africa, however, there are still many hurdles faced there by leaders and citizens alike.

Federalism in Uganda

“In practice, federalism is not a neat and tidy concept,” added former prime minister of Buganda, Joseph Ssemwogerere, who also spoke at the conference. “Some systems describe themselves as federal, whereas they are just advanced levels of decentralization. And languages, behavior, characteristics, economic activities, traditions, desires, aspirations, and geographical features substantially differ from one area to another.”

Ssemwogerere highlighted the history of Buganda, the central province of Uganda. It began operating a federalist-type government about the year 1200 when King Kintu and clan leaders determined together which powers the king would wield and which would fall to the clan leaders at the local level. “This semifederal clan practice has persisted to the present,” he said.

However, British colonialism in the 1800s and 1900s severely restricted the functioning federal government, and it was not until 1962 that Uganda achieved independence and crafted its own constitution. The new government lasted but a few years, and dictators took and held power until 1979 when they were overthrown.

Afterward, Uganda limped along for nearly two decades until the constitution was rewritten in 1995 and later amended in the 2000s. “The demand and agitation for a federal system of governance by the people of Uganda remains relentless,” Ssemwogerere said. “The system remains the most suitable mode of government, especially in a country with 52 different tribes. The advantages of a federal state as compared to a unitary government far outweigh the disadvantages.”

A Matter of Survival

In retrospect, one thing that stood out for Bibby at the conference was a comment made by Rachel, a widow from Uganda, during a question-and-answer session.

“When she lived in Africa she saw her own land being taken, and she had a grandson die of complications from an immunization. ‘We have to talk to the mothers about this,’ she insisted. ‘Otherwise, how can you influence the children?’ So for her, federalism is a matter of survival,” Bibby said.

Conference Takeaways

Organizer Ssejinja was pleased with the dialogue and impact of the conference. “It represented a commitment to help raise awareness of the plight of our immigrant and refugee students from our historically underrepresented population,” he said.

Bibby’s own takeaways from hearing the stories of African students and leaders were many. “For most people who know what CCS does, they assume we only focus on the U.S. and state constitutions,” he said. “But there is a very real international dimension to the Center. This was a golden opportunity to learn firsthand from delegations from Africa about problems of constitutional design, and it opens the door for us to collaborate with the African Diaspora.”

“I was delighted with the energy of the audience, and presenting on these issues and learning from those who are living them was an honor,” reflected Bibby. “They connected with the idea that federalism is not perfect, but for many countries it is necessary. Federalism is a matter of survival for some of the largest and most divided African countries, and it offers a framework to successfully navigate the challenges of corruption, poverty, lack of education, and instability.”