A unitary state is a state governed as a single power in which the central government is ultimately supreme and any administrative divisions (sub-national units) exercise only the powers that the central government chooses to delegate. The majority of states in the world have a unitary system of government. Of the 193 UN member states, 165 are governed as unitary states.
In a unitary state, sub-national units are created and abolished (an example being the 22 mainland regions of France being merged into 13), and their powers may be broadened and narrowed, by the central government. Although political power may be delegated through devolution to local governments by statute, the central government remains supreme; it may abrogate the acts of devolved governments or curtail their powers.
A unitary system of government can be defined as that system of government in which the powers of government are concentrated in a central government and that there are no other levels of government except it derived from the centre.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an example of a unitary state. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a degree of autonomous devolved power, but such power is delegated by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which may enact laws unilaterally altering or abolishing devolution (England does not have any devolved power). Many unitary states have no areas possessing a degree of autonomy. In such countries, sub-national regions cannot decide their own laws. Examples are the Republic of Ireland and the Kingdom of Norway.
Unitary states are contrasted with federations, or federal states. In such states, the sub-national governments share powers with the central government as equal actors through a written constitution, to which the consent of both is required to make amendments. This means that the sub-national units have a right of existence and powers that cannot be unilaterally changed by the central government.
In summary, when the central government possesses much authority and decision-making power, it is called the unitary government. The local governing bodies simply serve as administrative arms of the central government.
How Ghana Adopted the Unitary System
At the threshold of independence, in 1957, Ghana had reached a cross-road. While the National Liberation Movement (N.L.M.) was agitating for a federal system of government, the Convention People’s Party (C.P.P.) was in support of a unitary form of government. The Frederick Bourne Commission was appointed to among other things determine whether Ghana should adopt a unitary or federal system of government. The Commission recommended that Ghana should adopt a unitary system of government instead of a federal system.
Ghana is a geographically and demographically small country. At the time of independence, Ghana’s population was very small and therefore the choice of a federal system was not advisable. There were also no sharp differences between the various ethnic groups in Ghana, especially, in terms of language, religion and culture. These factors made a unitary government seem like a better fit for the country
In the lead up to the attainment of independence, there were violent clashes between the supporters of the National Liberation Movement and the Convention People’s Party. It was feared that if the federal system was adopted, it would have created chaos with the National Liberation Movement taking control of their strongholds, such as the Ashanti and Eastern regions. Eventually, Ghana chose the unitary system of government.