Differences between a federal and a unitary state



Differences between a federal and a unitary state are quite numerous. Recently I have had to move around city towns in Cameroon like Buea, Douala, Bamenda, and Yaounde and as a political blogger with my ears on the ground I have come across people arguing on this common topic: federal and unitary government which one is preferable, l’état federal et l’état unitaire quell est le meillure.

Based on these arguments, africaninfolook.com concluded that many do not really know the differences between these two forms of government. We have compiled the differences between a federal state and a unitary state for your reading pleasure. Let’s go!

Federal Government

A federal government refers to a system of government where there is an institutionalized division of authority between national (federal) and subnational units (state).In federation provinces or territories enjoy some rights as are available to the independent states excluding international diplomacy, national security, foreign affairs and other kinds of international dealings which fall under the competence of the federal government.

It can be in the form of a federal republic and a federal monarchy government. Currently, there are 27 federations in the world. Pakistan, India, Brazil, Switzerland, Sudan, Nigeria etc. are examples of federal republic government while Australia, Belgium, Canada, etc., are examples of a federal monarchy government. Mostly the federal government system is referred to the United States government.

Unitary Government

A unitary government is a kind of government system in which a single power, which is known as the central government, controls the whole government. Today most of the government systems in the world are based on the unitary system. It can be in the form of unitary republic or a unitary monarchy. Afghanistan, Italy, Zambia, Ukraine, Cameroon, Senegal, Kenya etc. are examples of unitary republic government while Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Barbados, Morocco, Spain, etc. are examples of unitary monarchy government.

Main differences

    • A federal government system allows for inter-state competition in political reforms and economic development ( Nigeria, USA, India, Brazil, Switzerland) whereas in a unitary government system such competition cannot be possible especially where provinces or regions have little or no autonomy ( Cameroon, Chad, Liberia, Togo)
    • A unitary government may or may not have a constitution (like England has no constitution while France has and both are unitary governments). While a federal government must have a constitution
    • In case of disputes between institutions in a federal government or any bill passed by parliament, the judiciary will interfere. On the other hand in a unitary government, even the highest court cannot give judgment or remarks on the law or bill passed by parliament.



In a federal government, there is a hierarchy of power from federal, state and to local levels. In a unitary government, the powers and authorities are shared with the lower level government when needed.

There are a common set of rules and regulations in the entire country under a unitary system of government. In a federal government system, there can be variations in rules and regulations at central and state levels.

  • In a federal government, the central government and the independent states government can form a collation or agreement to operate jointly. While it is not common practice in a unitary government where the autonomous regions or states with limited powers exist by the permission of the central government. This permission can be revoked anytime by the unitary government.
  • The federal government is the name of democracy, diversity, freedom of choice and expression. The unitary government is the name of unity, identity, and consistency.
  • To some extent, the federal government is the form of democratic government that believes in the devolution and decentralization of power/authorities and giving more freedom to the people. A unitary system is much similar to the dictatorial government where there is a concept of centralization and de-concentration of power/authorities with limited or no choice and freedom of expression for the people.
  • In the case of an emergency where timely decisions are required, a unitary government is more responsive as compared to the federal government that believes more in the formalities and legal proceedings.
  • United States government system is a typical example of a federal government while the United Kingdom government system represents that of a unitary government system.

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