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The president’s power is tyrannical power in Nigeria

By Obi Nwakanma

You would think that Nigerians would, having observed the exercise of presidential power in Nigeria’s so-called democracy, have arrived at their by golly! Moment. But no, not even the members of the National Assembly seem aware of, or concerned about the tyrannical powers ceded to the president under the current constitution.

Some of the power conceded to the president frankly usurps the powers of the legislature, by a constitution which was designed quite clearly to create, not the president of a democratic republic, but the president of a “noyau” republic.

By the powers ceded to him, and which that office wields with enormous effect, the president of Nigeria functions more as a monarch rather than the president in a republic. Under constitutional rule, as I have very often tried to assert in these columns, the power of the republic should normally be established in Parliament.

In the principle of separation of powers, given Nigeria’s presidential system of government, legislative function resides in the National Assembly, the Judicial function of interpretation lies with the Judiciary, while the executive power of the federation is vested on the president.

The executive authority which the president embodies at the Federal Government, and the governor’s at the level of the states seem however to be uncontainable. In a federal system, the president and the governor are conceptually, “primus inter pares,” that is, they are often regarded as equals, with the president as “first among equals” since the states are autonomous federating systems. But this is not the reality in the Nigerian system. The years of military rule which distorted Nigeria’s constitutional rule imposed the president of Nigeria as some kind of overlord and supreme caretaker of all that breathes in Nigeria.

Over the years, critics of Nigeria’s federalism have often pointed out these contradictions in the enormous power of the center and of the president. But much the same enormous power is ceded to the state governors also in the execution of the powers of their governments. They too are mini emperors.

The consequence is that the occupants of these offices create powerful cults of personalities, and for as long as they occupy these executive offices, act with the power of life and death, with little recourse for accountable government. In Imo State for instance, Rochas Okorocha has demonstrated very distinctly, the dangers of investing such enormous powers on a single office.

He has virtually destroyed all the legacies established in the past of Imo State as a thriving and hopeful state, whose first industry, from time immemorial was education. For all the years that it was established, Imo State maintained its place as the number one most educated state, beating its next competitor by very wide and embarrassing numbers, of students registered in schools and in national exams like JAMB and WAEC.

But in the last four years, and this is really, really significant, a marked and radical turn has happened. Imo State for the first time in its history slipped from its time-honoured first place for the first time, to number eight among the states! This year, its WAEC records improved slightly, as it moved to number five on the table of performance. This was the spot that Abia state used to occupy. But in the last four years, Abia has edged up, and with Anambra has now moved between first and second on the performance table.

The point of this is to reflect how a society, like Imo State, with a “sleeping Assembly” allowed an individual with enormous executive powers and with scant parliamentary oversight, to turn the state, first into a personal fiefdom in appropriating all the powers and functions of government, and then into a tragic mess.

In turning one of the most endowed states of the South East into a tragic failure more so in the last six years, Okorocha has achieved the impossible in quite an ironic way! The Imo electorate – teachers and civil servants who have been denied their salaries; local governments and communities who have not received part of their federal and state grants, and prevented from electing their legitimate governments, and pensioners who have been squeezed out of their legitimate pensions should rise and run their representatives out of town, and organize to occupy the buildings of the State Assembly.

That is what an aggrieved people do in a democracy. They occupy parliament buildings, and recall their non-performing legislators, because parliaments are the source of law and governance. Without the parliament to issue financial directives and oversight, to pass budgets, and authorize expenditure, and confirm appointments, the executive cannot function.

It becomes legally powerless. I draw this example with Imo State to drill down the fact that executive function must be mediated by parliamentary oversight. But not much of that is going on. Nigerians are wild about corruption, and the impact of corruption in public life. The first, and most significant example of the institutional and systemic corruption that has twisted the fate of this nation is in the enormous powers vested on the president of the federation which corrupts the system.

Corruption is not only about the embezzlement of public funds. It is about the distortion of systems of control that would make public corruption impossible. An executive office with the kind of power it has in Nigeria is a recipe for corruption. It gives authority to the premise of the infallibility of the executive power of the president. The president is a god, and issue decrees.

Such decrees may be self-serving nonetheless, and it would not matter. And such a power gives coverage to the kind of disregard functionaries appointed by the president accord the National Assembly, by routinely ignoring invitations to explain themselves before the National Assembly because they presumably, “answer only to the president.” It is gratifying that this 8th Assembly is changing all that in the examples of Babachir Lawal and Hameed Ali, Secretary to the Federal Government and Comptroller-General of the Customs, respectively, who attempted this disregard until they probably got counsel otherwise.

The National Assembly, as the keeper of the purse of the nation, and the sole authority of constitutional establishment, can defund both offices and render them obtuse. It is with this in mind that I’d like the National Assembly to therefore note this: President Buhari, this past week issued directives to the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission to “sack” a Federal Permanent Secretary. I think that is a misuse of the office of the president.

There has been longstanding procedure in the means by which a Permanent Secretary is appointed, or should be appointed in the Federal Civil Service. There is a reason why the office is called “Permanent.” It is apolitical, and is covered under the establishment rules in the Civil Service Act. The Permanent Secretary normally is the “Chief Accounting Officer” and Head of a Ministry, and should thus be accountable, not to the president, but to the National Assembly.

The politicization of the appointment of the Permanent Secretary, starting under Military rule, has created a distortion in the operational capacity of the service, and it is imperative that this National Assembly must reverse this and return Nigeria to the tradition of the Civil Service based on merit and buffered, as a permanent institution, from political control. I, of course, understand that President Buhari issued the order because of the alleged corruption of the Civil Servant in question. But there are traditional ground rules that must first investigate this officer, and then turn him over to the police, and to the courts for prosecution. The president should never have the power to issue sack orders as though he were some emperor acting above and outside the law.

The second is the president’s recent recommendation of 27 Resident Electoral Commissioners, RECs, for the states to be confirmed by the National Assembly. This power, given the enormity of the function of INEC in the conduct of Nigerian elections, is hoary and subject to misuse.

For as long as the president has a skin in the game, his powers to solely appoint RECs to conduct elections in which he would be a possible candidate places other contenders in profound disadvantage. There would never be free and fair elections where the conduct of elections are already corrupted with potential self-interest.

In that light, as part of the electoral reform that must happen in this 8th Assembly, the president’s power to appoint officials to supervise elections must be removed, and a multi-party commission created to represent the interests of all contending parties. In fact, the power of INEC must be restricted, as happens in the United States, where we have copied much of our game, to a regulatory agency in the conduct only of Federal elections.

The National and State Assemblies must establish laws that would empower local or grassroots election Committees that would be made up of local interests to conduct elections, and limit the overweening power of the President to determine, by his power to appoint election officials, the outcome of elections long before elections are actually conducted.

It is imperative that we begin through the legislative process, to limit the power of the office of the President and of course of the governors, because they are the real and fundamental sources of public corruption. Without these, all that talk about fighting corruption will be mostly academic and meaningless. The president’s tyrannical power, in other words, by its very nature is itself, corrupt.


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