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Nigeria needs a collegial prime minister, not a buccaneering president

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President Muhammadu Buhari

By Olu Fasan

Nigeria: WHY do most countries have prime ministers and not executive presidents? Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, only about 46 have a presidential system, where full executive powers are vested in one person.

Out of the 50 sovereign states in Europe, 34 are parliamentarian; so are nearly 40 of the 54 member states of the Commonwealth, including the most successful ones, such as Canada, Australia, India and Singapore. So, which one is better for Nigeria: executive president or prime minister?

Of course, at independence in 1960, Nigeria practised the parliamentary system until the military terminated it after a coup d’état in 1966. About thirteen years later, when General Olusegun Obasanjo decided to return Nigeria to civil rule, he set up a constitutional drafting committee to fashion a new Constitution for the country. But he so loathed the oppositional politics associated with the parliamentary system that he effectively instructed the “49 Wise Men” tasked with drafting the 1979 Constitution to shun the system.

In truth, the committee itself was minded to adopt the presidential system. One of its key reasons was that Nigeria needed a strong and powerful president to bring the country together and act as the symbol of national unity. But that was utterly naïve. You can’t govern a multi-ethnic country with a strongman mentality by vesting excessive powers in one person. That’s why most ethnically-divided countries favour the parliamentary system, which is representative, consultative and collegial.

Let’s face it, which president has united this country or really been the symbol of national unity? Instead of authoritarian utopia, where strong leaders bring people happily together, what we’ve had is totalitarian dystopia, where supposedly unifying leaders use excessive military force to suppress ethnic agitations, as with the Odi massacre under President Obasanjo and “Operation python dance” under President Buhari.

But that’s what happens where there is a mismatch of power and identity. Where excessive powers are vested in one person at the centre, while identities reside at the sub-national levels, you are bound to have such tensions. Which is why, the parliamentary system, based on its collegiality and distribution of power, is the commonest form of government in multi-ethnic states.

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In The Republic, Socrates proposed that in the ideal city-state, executive power should rest solely in the hands of a philosopher-ruler. But there are two things to note about Socrates’ proposal. The first is that his ideal city-state was a self-contained and ethnically monochrome society, not a heterogenous multi-ethnic state. The second is that the philosopher-ruler must have a specialised form of knowledge (gnosis); in other words, a captain with adequate knowledge of navigation to steer the ship of state!

So, at the risk of belabouring the point, an all-powerful executive president, that sees himself as the embodiment of the national interest, is not suitable for ethnically-polarised nations like Nigeria. Secondly, even if Nigeria were to have a strong executive president, this country has never produced, and is incapable of producing, visionary and competent leaders.

Tell me, which Nigerian president can be described as a captain with adequate knowledge to steer this country’s ship-of-state? Why would you vest so much executive power in someone who can’t govern the country well, but is likely to abuse the power?

Yet, that’s how the Nigerian Constitution, by implication, prescribes that this country should be governed. Section 5(5) gives that president “executive powers”, which he can exercise either “directly or through the vice president and ministers”. Section 148 reiterates that the President “may, in his discretion”, assign any state responsibility to the vice president or any minister. So, even though under section 148 (2), the president is obliged to form a cabinet, he may, if he wishes, not allow any minister or even the vice president to exercise any executive power.

Indeed, last year, President Buhari stripped Vice President Yemi Osinbajo of virtually all the key responsibilities he had during their first term. So, despite his relative youth, intellect and energy, Osinbajo functions almost entirely at the behest of the president and the cabal around him.

The ideal constitutional arrangement is for President Buhari to be the ceremonial head of state, which suits his well, while Osinbajo is the prime minister and head of government. With that arrangement, Buhari can make the overseas trips, which he seems to enjoy, and be as laid-back as he wants, while Osinbajo, as prime minister, gets on with running the government, as he did effectively on the two occasions President Buhari was on long medical vacations.

At the moment, even though the president is at home, no one seems to be running the country. The situation in Nigeria is adrift, confused, chaotic. A mess! So, let’s face it, an executive presidency is not good for this country. Academics talk about the “perils of presidentialism” in terms of political gridlock due to competing claims for legitimacy by the president and the legislature.

That’s true. But the biggest problems are the tendency towards authoritarianism and the lack of accountability or effective checks and balances.

I mean, who can really hold President Buhari to account? A few years ago, even a minister refused to appear before a committee of the National Assembly, saying that she was only answerable to the president! That’s unthinkable in a parliamentary system.

In their empirical study, based on data from 119 countries across the period 1950 to 2015, economists Gulcin Ozkan and Richard McManns found that parliamentary systems’ consistency feature higher scores of democracy, more extensive media freedoms, a stronger rule of law and better economic performance. What’s more, according to the IMF, parliamentarism is less prone to corruption and, of course, less expensive than presidentialism!

The parliamentary system is a better route to political stability, government effectiveness and economic progress for this country than the current flawed system. Which is why part of restructuring Nigeria must include returning it to the parliamentary system.


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