Devolution – The ‘Ticklish’ Subject: The ‘Northern Problem’ and the National Question in Zimbabwe

Brillant Mhlanga

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This article argues that there is no post-colonial African state without its own ‘northern problem’, which like a bad birth-mark remains a threat to the national project. The ‘northern problem’ as a metaphor refers to the existence of a disgruntled group claiming a particular history and a particular identity that is different from that of the dominant ‘ethnie’ in a state. It does not necessarily refer to the geographic location of those forms of disenchantment with a nation-state. Rather, it indicates the attendant challenges to the national question that give impetus to calls for a revision of systems of governance or secession. The article will therefore engage the genesis of the calls for a change of system of governance in Zimbabwe; from a centralised project (unitary system) to devolution of power. It will argue that the ‘northern problem’ is linked to contemporary politics crystallising around feelings of being dominated, suppressed, excluded and marginalised from various national development projects, resource distribution, policy formulation and implementation. While in Zimbabwe this has not caused violent conflict in terms of war, the attendant discontent has continued to undermine the national project by dividing the state along ethnic and regional lines between Matebeleland and Mashonaland; with the latter perceived as the region of the ‘rulers’, while the region of Matebeleland is presented as the abode of the ‘ruled.’ The concept of devolution as a form of decentralisation will be engaged as part of a federal agenda. Further, in advocating for a people driven system of governance in Zimbabwe the ‘northern problem’ will be presented within the prism of seeking to avoid possible future conflict scenarios in Zimbabwe.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)206-232
Number of pages26
JournalUbuntu: Journal of Conflict Transformation
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • Devolution, Decentralisation, Ethnicity, Matebeleland, Mashonaland, Northern Problem


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