A federal system of government is an institutional arrangement in which there is the formal division of governmental powers by the constitution between the constituent units (States, Provinces, or Cantons) and the larger state which they compose. The units have powers to pass laws on the subjects allotted to them and to administer and interpret it while the federal authority has similar powers on the subjects allotted to it. Both the units and the federal authority may exercise their legislative, administrative and judicial powers only within the limits set by the constitution.
The federal system of government is particularly well adopted by States embracing wide areas with well sectional diversity due to geography, climate, resources, economic factors and social conditions, as well as heterogeneity of race, nationality, language or religion.
Features of a Federal System of Government
1. It is made up of one central government which is called Federal and other states or regional governments.
2. The supremacy of the constitution: The operation of a federal system of government is backed up by a federal constitution.
3. It can operate both unicameral and bicameral legislatures, depending on what the constitution says.
4. It is commonly adopted by countries with very large geographical land areas e.g. the USA, the USSR, India and Nigeria.
5. Relationship is among the central (federal) government, the states and the local governments.
Advantages of a Federal System of Government
1. The division of powers and functions between the federal government and the component units permit national or international problems to be dealt with by the central government while matters of local concern are left to the States and local government.
2. It protects the interests of minority groups, especially in a country with many ethnic groups, e.g. Nigeria.
3. Federal states enjoy the advantages of decentralisation on a large scale by granting local self- government to the component units. In this way, the interest of the people in governmental affairs is stimulated and the government is easily brought to the grassroots.
4. In a federal state, the federal government protects the less powerful states, from the hostility of the stronger states or even external aggression from non-members of the federation.
5. The federal system of government provides opportunities for economic and social development of the nation as each unit is anxious to develop its own area.
6. It is a good government for a country with a very large geographical land mass as all parts of the country can be effectively well governed from the centre.
7. It provides opportunities for more people in the country to take part in the government of the federation.
Disadvantages of a Federal System of Government
1. There is lack of uniformity in administration, policy and law. For example, matters like education, marriage, social security and divorce are dealt with in separate manner and fashion.
2. A federal system of government is expensive. Due to the duplication of functions and administrative personnel, a huge sum of money and other resources need to run an effective administration.
3. In most federal states, national loyalty is weak because citizens tend to be more loyal to their respective states than the federal government.
4. There is problem over division of powers between the States and the centre. Most federal states in the world are becoming over centralised and as a result of this, there are constant clashes between the states and central government over their respective areas of influence.
5. It creates room for a state to attempt to break away from the federation, as for example, Nigeria in 1967 when the Eastern Region broke away and formed the defunct Republic of Biafra.
6. Disagreement can develop between the federal government and the state governments. This situation occurred in Nigeria in 1982 when the Anambra State Governor and the President of the Federation disagreed over the question of revenue allocation.