A displaced woman waits for food to be distributed at the Mugunga 3 camp outside the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo town of Goma on Sunday. Rebels say they will take back Goma if the government did not agree to negotiate with them by yesterday. The M23 rebels completed their withdrawal from Goma on Saturday, in compliance with an agreement reached between the rebel group and a regional body.

Africa today seems to be crying out for federalism even though it doesn’t know it; conflicts ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through to Sudan would probably be at least reduced if not solved by devolution of considerable power from the national government to the lowest level of government practicable.

Instead, the solutions mostly offered are total control or partition. For the continent’s many failed, or failing, states, where the central government cannot extend its power over the whole region, that stark choice seems logical.

But the compromise of federalism may often, in fact, be a better option than either.

The problem with total control is how to curb its abuse. The problem with secession is often: where do you draw the new boundaries? And do you prevent civil war becoming international war?

Take the DRC. Two weeks ago, the M23 rebels seized Goma, capital of North Kivu province, and threatened to march all the way to Kinshasa.

Many analysts have long proposed that the international community should stop trying to build the sprawling, chronically failed state into a nation and instead let it disintegrate into “smaller organic units whose members share broad agreement or at least have common interests in personal and community security”.

That’s how Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, puts it in a recent article; “To Save Congo, Let it Fall Apart”, arguing that the M23 rebellion is strong evidence for this solution.

Actually the M23 rebellion is precisely not an argument for secession. It was formed by ethnic Tutsis of Rwandan origin who constitute a minority, even in the two Kivu provinces where they are concentrated.

However, if you carved out a new state or states in the eastern DRC, the Tutsis would remain a minority and might feel even more exposed if left to the exclusive mercy of locals, many of whom resent them as alien interlopers.

But devolving more powers to provinces, districts and municipalities, along with other measures, could relieve some of the Tutsis’ grievances; especially if that included giving more say to them directly as a distinct community (rather than geographically), as Nelson Mandela’s constitution did for their fellow Tutsis in Burundi.

Pham notes that President Joseph Kabila has instead delayed holding local elections since 2005, instead personally appointing every mayor or other local leader.

Objectively, this is perverse. If you can’t manage the entire country, it seems logical to delegate or devolve some of the responsibility to those who can share the burden with you.

And consider Sudan, the south of which seceded in July 2009 to form the new state of South Sudan.

That partition has not ended the conflict between the north and the south – they are still fighting over the sharing of oil and other issues and tensions are rising even further over a looming referendum about whether the Abyei region of Sudan should hive off to become part of South Sudan.

The late John Garang, then leader of the south, hoped in 2005, when the north and the South agreed to hold a referendum in 2009 on whether or not the South should secede, that Khartoum would make it attractive in the meantime for the south to remain in Sudan instead.

But that would have required Khartoum to devolve significant powers and responsibilities to the south, which it failed to do, so secession became inevitable.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, now the AU’s mediator between the two Sudans, has identified the key cause of the many regional conflicts in Sudan as Khartoum’s marginalisation of the outlying regions.

If Khartoum wishes to prevent Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and other regions from fighting until they secede, it should surely devolve powers and resources to them.

Ultimately federalism is based on a simple proposition, paradoxical but true, that if you want to retain some power, give some away; if you insist on keeping it all, you risk losing it all.