Federal System of Government: Definition, Powers & Benefits

The federal system of government is a type of political system where power is divided between two or more levels of government, such as states. This system creates a balance of power between the national and state governments, allowing each to exercise their jurisdiction and powers.

Federalism is one of the systems of government which came to stay as the society became so large to handle. As a type of government, it has its own peculiar features, which is one of the reasons different countries of the world have adopted it.

In this article, we shall examine the meaning, features, advantages, disadvantages and workings of the Federal constitution.


Parliamentary System of Government

The Presidential System of Government

What is Federalism?

Federalism is a type of government that shares powers between the central government and the subordinating units. The subordinating units include the state and local governments.

A federal state adopts a federal constitution that allows her (the country) to run its affairs accordingly. The Constitution now creates the levels of government and also shares their different functions with them according to their capacities. None of the levels of government acts beyond its powers. And wherever there’s a dispute between the levels of government, the Constitution steps in to settle it. (I treated the workings of the federal Constitution below. Scroll down and read it)

Where the law of the State government and the law made by the federal government conflicts, that of the federal government prevails.

Important: The State House of Assembly makes law at the state level. Law made by it is called “law of the state”. The National Assembly makes laws at the federal level. Laws made by them are called “Act of parliament”.

The federal system of government observes a hierarchy of government. In other words, it recognizes the different government levels and treats them differently. However, it all happens according to how the Constitution wants it.

As it shares powers with the tiers of government, it also regulates it using the arms of government.

Features of Federal System of government

  • The major feature of Federalism is that it shares powers between the levels of government.
  • It allows representatives to stand in for the people at different levels of government. It, in some cases, recognizes government at the grassroots. In other words, it allows those in the villages, the interior part of a country, to participate in the decision-making of the country through representatives.
  • There are two or more levels of government.
  • It regulates the powers of the government using the Constitution and the arms of government.
  • Federalism allows equality in a multi-ethnic society. It allows the interest of both the minor and major ethnic groups to be represented. That is why the National Assembly has a majority leader and the minority leader.
  • It is the best form of government in a heterogeneous state. That is a state with linguistic, cultural and socio-economic differences.

Reasons why countries adopt Federal system of government 

These are some factors or reasons why a country may like to adopt a federal system of government.


Several small weak nations may agree to pull their forces together to protect themselves against any form of external aggression from more powerful States. For instance, some weak States came together to form a country that we know today as the United States of America.

Economic consideration

Another reason is the economic reason. Different States, massive ones, have some economic advantages over small ones. So, the small states will unite to form a federation to boost their economy.

Existence of diversities

Suppose the people of the parts are diverse in culture, language and religion. In that case, a federation will be the best form of government. The Federation will adequately cater to the needs of the diversity.

Fear of domination

In a country with multiple ethnic groups, there is a need for Federalism. The need for Federalism mostly arises when the minor ethnic groups may start being afraid of the major ones dominating them. So, to alleviate such fear, there is a need to give them a sense of belonging by representing their interest in the government.

See also: Problems of the federal system of government

Type of constitution in a federal system of government

The type of constitution used in Federalism is the federal constitution. It plays a vital role. It is the Constitution that shares power between the federal government and the state governments. The Constitution clearly shows the subjects on which the federal government can exercise powers. In the same way, it also states the matters on which the State government can exercise powers. The Constitution also indicates the subjects on which federal and state governments can exercise powers.

The powers of the federal government are contained in the exclusive list. The Powers of the State government is in the residual list. In contrast, that of both federal and state governments are in the concurrent list.

The Constitution regulates the relationship between the levels of government. None can interfere in the functions of the other. In the same way, none can over-exercise its powers.

Another important characteristic of the federal constitution is that it is usually supreme. In that, no citizen is above it. Everybody is under it, including the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary. It punishes any arm of government which breaks the law.

In addition, it is above all other subsidiary laws. All other laws in the country must be in line with the Constitution. All company laws, organizational laws, laws of corporations and the rest must be in line with the Constitution. Any law inconsistent with the Constitution shall be void to the extent of its inconsistency.

The supremacy of the Constitution comes to manifestation through the Judicial arm of government. The Judiciary interprets the law, and validates or invalidates all other laws.

Advantages of Federalism

These are the pros of Federalism. They include the following:

  • Unity
  • Lack of fear of domination
  • Effective Governance
  • Healthy competition
  • Awareness of rights and duties by citizens.

We shall briefly explain each of the advantages.


Despite the great diversity that may exist in a State, it tries to unify all of them. It makes them see themselves as one nation and people. That is why countries like India, Nigeria, and USA maintain peace amidst diversities.

Diversities are majorly in terms of religion, culture, and language. By adopting the federal constitution, they can stand as one entity.

Effective governance

Since governance involves different ways bodies like the arms of government will be efficient. The federal constitution establishes different bodies and agents of government. In the same way, it gave them different functions. All these functions are just for one purpose: to achieve good governance.

Minority groups are free from domination

Once a federation is formed, no ethnic group can dominate another. In other words, no ethnic group can take over the land and rights of another.

States can be created for the minority group, which allows them to enjoy autonomy. Once there is autonomy, they can run their affairs.

Awareness of rights and duties

There are more participants in the art of governing in a federation. This makes the people aware of their duties and rights.

Healthy competition among the states

Since different states exist, there will be competition as to who develops better. There will also be competition at the production level. And in all, it brings healthy economic conditions to a country.

See Also: Meaning and Major Characteristics of a State

Disadvantages of Federalism

  • It is costly
  • Hard to determine method of revenue sharing.
  • Dual loyalty
  • Rigid Constitution.

Let’s briefly explain each of the disadvantages.

Federalism is costly

Due to the levels of government which form a federation, it becomes expensive to run. All the levels of government need fund to maintain itself. So, it will now cause the federal government to share any revenue they generate to ensure efficiency.

Uncertain method of revenue sharing

A federation usually needs help in sharing of revenue among the component states. If revenue is allocated based on derivation, some states may have too much at the expense of others. On the other hand, if it is based on equality and population, the exercise will be very unfair to the major yielding States. This has been one of the major problems in Nigeria.

Dual loyalty

The citizens’ first loyalty tends to be for their States of origin instead of the country as a whole.

Rigid Constitution

Federal Constitution always takes work to amend. It has a complex law-making process. So, it requires rigorous steps for any changes or new things to be introduced into the Constitution.

It usually needs the agreement of two-thirds of each state’s Legislature before certain amendments can be made.

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