By Olu Fasan
IMAGINE this scenario. President Muhammadu Buhari is a ceremonial president, a titular head of state. Professor Yemi Osinbajo is the prime minister and head of government, with powers to appoint ministers and constitutionally in charge of running the country.
So, what would happen? Well, Nigeria would still have the aloof and laid-back president it currently has, but it would probably have a dynamic, reformist and go-getting prime minister. That won’t solve all of Nigeria’s problems, but it would address one critical weakness: the lack of government efficacy.
That governance arrangement, known as parliamentary system of government or a hybrid between presidential and parliamentary systems, exists in 147 of the 193 member states of the United Nations. Furthermore, studies have shown that countries that practise the parliamentary or hybrid system of government are, on average, more successful than those where power is concentrated in, and flows solely from, an executive presidency.
The anomaly of the all-powerful executive presidency is laid bare in Nigeria. This country has an executive president who lacks any sense of urgency and ambition, and who either doesn’t know what to do or won’t do the right thing. Yet, Nigeria also has a smart and dynamic vice-president, who wants to get things done but lacks executive authority, and functions entirely at the president’s behest.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo once described the vice-president as a “spare tyre”, who’s only there to step in if the president is incapacitated, impeached or dead. Where none of these happens, the vice-president, however clever and able, is only as effective as the president wants or allows him to be. This is because all executive powers reside exclusively with the president, however utterly clueless or inept that president may be!
The Constitution puts it unequivocally. Section 5 says that “executive powers of the Federation” are “vested in the President”. Section 148 then says that the President “may, in his discretion”, assign any state responsibility to the Vice President or any Minister.
But the above provisions also mean that the president may, “in his discretion”, not assign any state responsibility to the vice president. Although the president cannot sack the vice president because they both ran on a joint ticket, he can render him idle. We saw this during Obasanjo’s second term when he fell out with his vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, and stripped him of virtually all state responsibilities, making him almost redundant. Atiku was just receiving salaries and allowances as vice-president but, essentially, doing nothing!
The vice president’s only constitutional role, apart from being a “spare tyre” or serving as “Acting President” during the President’s absence, is as chairman of the National Economic Council, NEC, comprising state governors and the central bank governor. But the NEC’s role is only “to advise” the President on economic matters. So, the vice-president’s executive powers are at the president’s discretion; thus, he is only as effective as the president allows.
But the relationship between President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo is, on a personal level, cordial. Indeed, Osinbajo once said: “Buhari is like a father to me!” And in terms of responsibility, he has more scope than previous vice presidents.
For instance, the vice-president led the design and implementation of the Buhari government’s “National Social Investment Programme, NSIP.” More successfully, together with Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, Buhari’s first-term minister of industry, trade and investment, arguably the most technocratic and able minister in that cabinet, Osinbajo spearheaded the “Ease of Doing Business” agenda, which led to Nigeria rising 39 places in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index.
Yet, despite all this, Osinbajo lacks real influence in Buhari’s executive presidency. Certainly, he has not persuaded President Buhari to undertake much-needed structural reforms – economic, political and institutional. Yet, Osinbajo is a man of ideas, a man of action and a reformer. Of course, out of loyalty, he echoes Buhari’s banal policies. But if he were president or, as I suggest here, prime minister, wouldn’t he do a lot of things differently from President Buhari? Surely, he would. Consider his recent public interventions or, more importantly, what he did during the periods he was acting president in Buhari’s absence.
In 2017, when Professor Osinbajo was acting president, during President Buhari’s 50-day medical vacation, he took a number of key decisions, including on the economy, that Buhari had adamantly refused to take. Osinbajo was so popular during Buhari’s absence that a BBC journalist, Ishaf Khalid, called him “Nigeria’s favourite leader”. Similarly, in 2018, when he was again acting president, he was widely hailed at home and abroad. David Pilling, Africa Editor of the Financial Times, said he “injected real energy into policymaking”.
Truth is, Osinbajo is respected internationally. He is seen as a reformer in the Buhari government, who nevertheless faces stiff resistance from anti-reform forces and doesn’t always have the president’s ear. The vice-president’s reputation as a technocratic reformer was hugely boosted recently when he publicly disagreed with the Central Bank’s ban on cryptocurrencies, saying: “We must act with knowledge and not fear!”
In 2017, when President Buhari returned from his long medical vacation, he commended Professor Osinbajo for holding fort well. “Youth and intellect are squarely behind Osinbajo,” he said, adding: “Age and purely military experience are behind me.” Buhari may have said that in jest, but let’s face it, that’s the truth!
Yet, under Nigeria’s executive presidency, the person who has only “age and purely military experience” commands all executive powers, while the one with “youth and intellect” lacks executive authority. When Buhari returned from his long medical leave, many urged him to leave economic governance to his deputy; yet, in his second term, he stripped Osinbajo of some powers. Thus, a brilliant, action-focused, vice-president functions only at the behest of a powerful yet clueless and insouciant president.
But imagine if, constitutionally, Buhari is a ceremonial president and Osinbajo the prime minister and head of government. Wouldn’t Nigeria be better run? I think it would!
Happy Easter everyone!