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Why Nigeria should return to parliamentary democracy

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By  Adémólá Òrúnbon

IT is almost 22 years of democratic rule in Nigeria. There is no better time than now to assess the suitability of the 1999 Constitution. It is even more compelling in the light of recent happenings in the country, especially the wanton killings by the Boko Haram, kidnapping of innocent people by bandits, and insecurity of lives and property that have become norms and part of the people. Indeed, Nigerians are now living in fear, many of them are now scampering for safety instead of searching for means of livelihood.

Sadly, the 2021 budget is more on recurrent expenditure than capital projects. The recurrent expenditure is to maintain political office holders and their numerous aides. In fact, since the return to civil rule the cost of running government has been on steady rise. This only goes to show that there is a need to implement the 2014 Conference report and do away with the 1999 Constitution which is the guardian angel of this republic; or better still, we should go back to the parliamentary system of government.

Indeed, the 1999 Constitution is filled with abnormalities and biases which have continued to undermine the living conditions of the common man in this country. The model of government under the 1999 Constitution is called the presidential system of government. It is a system of government where the president has strong powers to function as head of government independent of the legislature. Here, the president has executive powers which he can exercise directly or indirectly through his ministers.

The sweeping powers of the president is limited by section 5(4)(a)&(b). By the aforesaid sections, the president cannot declare a state of war between the federation and another country except by the sanction of a resolution of both houses of the National Assembly. He can deploy any member of the Armed Forces of the federation for combat duty outside Nigeria without the sanction of the National Assembly in the form of a resolution.

The president is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the federation. By section 218 of the 1999 Constitution, he is to determine the operational use of the armed forces of the federation. These are sweeping powers indeed! Although section 218 (4) provides that the National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the regulation of the powers exercisable by the president as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the federation.

This is not enough to limit the enormous powers conferred on the president by the said section. Acts or laws cannot envisage every human scenario that might crop up; so effective regulation of that power is really out of it. An active National Assembly can check the enormous powers of the president but there is a limit to what the National Assembly can do in the face of these enormous powers.

Our experience has often brought this to the front-burner and raises the question: Can we afford to give enormous powers to one man? The framers of the 1979 Constitution which introduced the presidential system of government for the first time in our political history which later changed to the 1999 Constitution did not anticipate a president that could transform into a civilian dictator.

We have since been woken up from that ignorance! The proponents of strong powers for the president, a main feature of the presidential system of government, believe that such powers are needed for strong and united leadership, especially in times of crisis and because of the diverse ethnic composition of the country. These are good reasons, but it is the reverse that we have seen.

We are living witnesses to what transpired in a previous administration. We had a president who was surreptitiously removing governors, Senate presidents through the instrumentality of state; a president who was disobeying court orders and a president who rigged many of his party-men into office. Obviously these are the dangers inherent in a presidential system of government.

Every constitution, however good it might be, is premised on one fact: that the operators would be gentlemen, men of honour. Our experience has shown that we might not always have men of honour in office and we should not wait till another autocratic leader springs up before we realise our mistake. We need to switch gears.

A country where political patronage is the major source of livelihood and a president who controls the disbursement of funds and all governmental structures, extremes that should not exist side by side, there is no way everybody will not be at the beck and call of the president. We need to go back to the parliamentary system of government that we operated in the First Republic under the 1960 and 1963 constitutions.

The parliamentary system of government that we practiced then offered some bright lessons for a time such as this. The parliamentary system of government under the 1960 and 1963 constitutions was characterised by four main features: (1) The separation of the head of state and head of government. (2) The plurality of the executive. (3) Parliamentary character of the executive, (4) The responsibility of the ministers to the legislature.

In the cabinet, all other members stand on equal footing – one man, one vote. It is the prime minister that is primus inter pares. The council of ministers derives its authority from the prime minister because they leave office when his tenure ceases. He chooses his ministers from among his colleagues in the parliament. The separation of head of state from head of government: The head of state was the governor-general which later turned into the president (under the 1963 constitution) while the head of government was the prime minister.

It is the prime minister, with his cabinet members, who coordinates the government while the governor-general plays a titular role. Parliamentary character of the executive: Members of the executive are also members of parliament. It is the political party that has the largest number of votes that forms the cabinet.

The responsibility of the executive to the legislature. Here, the legislature has greater control of the cabinet. They are actually fused. The legislature could pass a vote of no confidence on any of the ministers, including the prime minister. Now, let us go to the relevance of the above features of 1960 and 1963 constitutions to our present situation. One recurring complaint from the National Assembly in the present republic is the non-implementation of the budget which has led to infrastructural decay and the absence of the dividends of democracy. This cannot happen in a parliamentary system of government where the legislature has greater control of the executive.

The executive of the First Republic was described thus: “The major task of the cabinet is not to lead the party, to manage the parliament or think out policy, but to coordinate administration, ensure that legislative proposals are acceptable to the departments concerned, to keep senior minister in touch with the various lines of activity and to give the work of government a measure of unity.”

Proponents of the presidential system of government might argue that under the 1999 Constitution the legislature has the power to investigate government ministries and parastatals(section 88 of the 1999 constitution). That it is because the National Assembly has not been able to live up to its responsibility, and that is why we have had that ugly experience.

The power to investigate is curative in nature but the parliamentary system of government will avail us a proactive approach to the issue; it will prevent it from happening. The point is well summed up in this aphorism: “Prevention is better than cure.” Also, the collective responsibility under the parliamentary system of government will make long-term planning easier and will effectively check any slide to civilian autocracy or dictatorship.


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