Returning to a Parliamentary system? Haba!

Returning to a Parliamentary system? Haba!

Friday, March 11, 2016 9:29 pm


Awolowo, Balewa, Bello and Azikiwe

Awolowo, Balewa, Bello and Azikiwe


By Odia Ofeimun

​Except for the PRONACO model constitution, all the other model constitutions that may well be put in the basket for appraisal, are based on the lights of the current Presidential Constitution which was chosen in 1979 against the experience of the Parliamentary system that took Nigeria into independence and the wishy Republican Constitution of 1963. They latter was jettisoned on the strength of the arguments powerfully presented by Obafemi Awolowo in his books, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, and The People’s Republic. The arguments were straightforward enough: that a multi-ethnic society that wishes to remain a united country needed to have a leadership that represents the whole country rather than a miniscule part of the Federation; also, that a leader striving to represent the whole country would be more attuned to crafting policies and programs with a national coverage. To this point may be added the fact that the smallness of the constituencies that leaders represent under the parliamentary system, tend to parochialize their perceptions and their goals. The experience of the First Republic in Nigeria showed how this occurred; it encouraged leaders to feel that they owed more to the little back-wood which determined their candidacy. In a country without a strong tradition of centralized decision-making, it was so much an indulgence. Anyone seeking to create a sense of commonality across the country simply ought to be counseled therefore against getting stuck with such a system. It is divisive in a way that makes the Presidential system quite a millennial advance.

​This, in my view, is why, moving from the Parliamentary to the Presidential system was rather so uncontroversial and did not get the thumbs down until recent decades when the mismanagement of the Presidential system began to be equated with the very nature of the Presidential system itself. I might as well add, very quickly, that due to the blurring of memory about the failures of the parliamentary system in the First Republic, there has been a mounting demand for a return to the old, very decidedly, abandoned system. The surprise is that politicians and intellectuals from the Southwest of the country, who should be most wary from the bad experience of the Western Region in the first Republic, are the most vocal in championing a return to the Parliamentary system. Let us say that the towering stature of Obafemi Awolowo who provided the arguments that led to the movement away from the Parliamentary system may have doused the dissidence of today’s champions. At any rate, the non-controversy of 1978 has since been re-ignited into a virtual uproar because of the immense powers that Presidents and Governors under the Presidential system have been wielding to the chagrin of those who prefer what they consider a more collegiate system of leadership. But what does it really mean to say that the form of leadership that the parliamentary system offers to the countries in which it is practiced today is collegiate, cheaper and therefore more conducive to democratic promptings?

Odia Ofeimun

Odia Ofeimun

To answer this question properly, I would like to note that the immensity of the powers exercised by chief executives in the current Presidential system actually loom oh so large only because of the poor structuring of Nigeria’s Federal system which allows so much powers to the Federal Government and puts the local government system as not just a handmaiden of, but a function of the whim of the Governor who may or may not allow elections into local governments to take place. The point is that, correcting such disjunctions is not so much a matter of looking at the Presidential system. It is a factor of a Federal system that is underdeveloped and harried by unitary features looming from an old parliamentary sense. The powers that other tiers of government ought to exercise are hoarded by Nigeria’s Federal Government. Rather fecklessly, this is counted against the Presidential system whereas a poorly structured Federal system is responsible. To be asking for the Presidential system to be changed when the real culprit is our mis-structured Federal system is like worrying about the stick instead of the wielder of the stick. A parliamentary system that has a poorly fashioned Federal system is actually bound to be worse for everybody because it is based on a candidate, voted for by only a small constituency, who must exercise exceedingly humungous powers over the whole Federation.

The appropriate corrective is not to ask for more of the disease but to ensure that the stability of all levels of government, local, state and Federal, whether each is taken as a tier or not, is properly defended. What appears to be the huge powers of a President in a Presidential system are necessarily revised by the fact that in a fairly properly structured Federal system, in which devolution of powers has taken place in favour of constituent units, those powers are down-sized and hedged by checks. So long as there is devolution of powers to functioning state governments, with meaningful local governments whose functions are not being tampered with and whose funds are not being looted by state governments, the chief executives at each level will be under due checks. The checks and balances that the legislatures are supposed to constitute and provide for in a Presidential system must be counted into this picture. They are tougher than the face to face tackles that take place in a Parliamentary system in which the verbal rhetoric and eurhythmy or body language of a leader may be more important than the serious constraints of law. All the same, it does need to be acknowledged that, these days, global reality is not in tune with the supposition that a parliamentary system necessarily gives less powers to a chief executive, or that it is less expensive and therefore more suitable to a development-oriented society.

If it ever was, it is no longer quite so, except in the nostalgia of first Republic romantics still ogling the reasonableness of the Royal personage.
​The truth is that, in virtually all modern governments, even in so-called parliamentary systems, including All-Royal Britain, the pattern of the American-type Presidency has become the dominant pattern; not just due to the influence of the United States but because all societies tend to be plural and the idea of a leader that holds the diversity together is coveted as norm. Federalism is helping to protect the plural, multi-ethnic, societies in need of local self-governance. But, to promote a sense of unity, all societies seek the image of a facilitator of oneness, a leader. In Britain, Prime Ministers merely hide behind royalty in order to behave like Presidents. In our own parliamentary system of the first Republic, it was quickly revealed that a ceremonial Presidency, as modeled on the Crown, could be quite confusing regarding the locus of power. In the Western Region in 1962 and and at the Federal level, especially after the Federal election of 1964, it took high-flying legal opinions to create a semblance of decorum after Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe realized that, not him as ceremonial Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, but only the Prime Minister, could command the obedience of the Head of the Army. The resort to a lily white parliamentary system that thrives on such informality and sweet reasonableness simply could not match a properly developed system of separation of powers which a Presidential system implicates. Besides, the crisis revealed the oddity of splitting a ceremonial President from an executive Prime Minister. In Nigeria, a country where the President and the Prime Minister are likely to come from different geo-political zones, it is simply unwise to allow the temptation of a split image of the leadership to emerge. It was one among the many fault lines that ruined the first experiment in a parliamentary system. There were too many ceremonial quibbling about who was in charge. It led to ugly conspiracies and many coup attempts, including Welby Everard’s perfectly executed one that forced Zik, after a powerful speech of refusal, to call Balewa to form a government in the skirmishes following the 1964 Federal Elections.

Let’s face it, one good bet for the Presidential system that proves its superiority in our kind of circumstance is that it allows talent to be sourced, not in the sense in which the Fourth Republic has been following the partisan streak of the parliamentary system, but by deploying genuinely objective criteria to source the best hands for the job under a chief executive who, because he must take responsibility, ensures that the job gets done, within the oversight functions of the legislature. On this particular score, it does seem to me that a personal distaste for too much ceremony, and the necessity that he felt for accommodating the personage of a grand old nationalist like Dr, Nnamdi Azikiwe, over-decided Awolowo in favour of a split in leadership. A man who had great ambitions to be the chief executive and who, in his party did not allow a split between Chairman of party and flag-bearer, and was generally being wrongly heckled by opponents for being a dictator in his party, needed to lower the tension of the heckling by advocating a system that made the executive officer elected by the whole country to be subordinate in nomenclature, but not in actual authority, to the ceremonial President. I think it was time to do away with Awolowo’s uncharacteristic nod in favour of the ceremonial leader and face the task of governance squarely. Otherwise, a split in leadership is too easy a plea for allowing a crack that could be exploited in a society that is already quite divided. Rather than helping the marginalized to feel a sense of belonging, it actually can provide a basis for a share-out of powers between two heads, executive/ceremonial thus creating a basis for conflict. Surely, a Presidential system which is tamed by a Federal, plural situation permits itself some possibility of quickness through the singularity of the leadership. A society that has already accepted diversity as a base by having a Federal Constitution would be courting more fundamental divisions by going for a split-headed parliamentary system.

Let it be quickly noted in this regard that members of the Committee on the Executive and the Legislature in the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) for the 1979 Constitution (page 67-68, Vol. II) did not quite succeed in their bid either to “de-commercialize politics” or “provide for an effective leadership that expresses our aspirations for national unity without at the same time building up a Leviathan whose power may be difficult to curb”. But their ambitions were good and could well have been aimed at either the Presidential and the Parliamentary system. The reasons given by the Committee for not providing for a split in leadership, is that they wanted a co-pilot, not a Vice President or maybe a Prime Minister, who would be a counterpoise. This reasoning is as good yesterday today as tomorrow: the evident scuffle, just referred to, between Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Governor General/turned ceremonial President Nnamdi Azikiwe after the election of 1964, was not merely unseemly; it told something about the rashness in allowing the leadership to be split. The need to have the President, as a leader, who would be symbol of national unity, honour and prestige, – a national figure, a leader in his own right, and a respected giver of a sense of direction, is simply too attractive to let go. This says in essence that, to be a President, a citizen would have to strive, from childhood, to be a national figure or let the would-be leader see the national spread for the election of the President as a means of “nationalizing” self. The cost of such ‘nationalizing’, if taken as the major demerit of the Presidential system, ought also to be taken as a necessary payment for moving a society that was once described as a mere geographical expression into one with a common political culture and hence moving towards a common cultural expression.

From the standpoint of the need for national spread to justify the mandate of the leader in a Presidential system, and for the purposes of a large multi ethnic state in search of a nation-wide culture of leadership, the smallness of the constituencies that enable recruitment of leaders under the parliamentary system must be seen as simply inadequate. Without seeking to pile it up against the parliamentary system, or hyper-inflate the value of the Presidential system, it is important to recall that this was one of the reasons for jettisoning the former in 1978. It was demoted because of the narrow, partisan outlook that it tends to foster. In general, it was compounded by the fact that legislators get quite beholding to the Executive in parliament under its aegis. As it happens, the Executive in a parliamentary work-out operates a system of patronage with a tendency to fuse the functions of formulating proposals for a law, making the law, as well as executing it. This was one of several demerits that Awolowo punches in his The People’s Republic. According to him: “the checks and balances which are brought into play by vesting the legislative and the executive functions in separate hands tend to be absent under this system….. somehow, even the British Lord Chancellor manages to live in a separate water-tight compartment whenever he performs each of the three functions of the Legislature, Executive, and Judicature vested in him”.

Awolowo’s conclusion remains unassailable: that “only a Briton can do this with honourable and outstanding success”. Meaning that: the proficient performance of such a fusion of roles was not in the Nigerian character as proved by the failure of the parliamentary system that operated in the First Republic.

Evidently, too much can be made of the presumed collegiate core of the parliamentary model. The reality is that it has always been modulated by a system of patronage in which a party insider would be courting insignificance in the process of decision making by veering away from the position of the leadership. Leaders in parliamentary systems have always been known to exert so much influence on their parties as to be able to change the ideology or direction of the party and, as well, the direction of the country. The examples of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair are such telling cases. As they prove, the Prime Minister-ship of Britain has been looking more and more like the Presidency of the United States in the past half century. Since Margaret Thatcher, the Prime minister’s office has been looking more like something modeled, with merely formalistic differences, upon that of the President of the United States. Both systems are equally expensive although the vastness of the interests that the United States takes on, as a result of her special roles in the global political space, curries unusual toll and bite. Indeed, almost on all counts, there is a virtual convergence of features that makes it trite to choose one pattern above the other in terms of the issues being raised by champions of the parliamentary system. The truth is: bidding for a parliamentary system in Nigeria today looks more a matter of nostalgia, not a matter concerning its intrinsic efficacy; and certainly not about its capacity to reduce costs or unite the country.

The question of costs which is placed up front by advocates of the parliamentary system is actually where the debate about the Presidential or Parliamentary system is least relevant because it is not the system but the planlessness of the Nigerian political class, unable to work out a proper employment code and work study in the face of vast joblessness in the political economy, that carries the can. The virtual self-multiplication of offices, with too many assistants to special assistants, is the result of a loot-syndrome that the parliamentary system could actually exacerbate if the virtual traditional culture of idle hangers on, a laisser faire approach over-determined by mass unemployment, is still in place. The hangers-on were always there in the old parliamentary system; only that, now, they have name tags and office space, to justify their closeness to the powers that be. Consider the hunger for long interminable motorcades, hugging every journey by a Nigerian leader in office! It has nothing to do with the system of government. It comes from a Bigman syndrome, a presumptuous royalism, that makes Nigerian leaders, even in the modern setting, to want to be prostrated to, and serenaded by talking drummers and horn-blowers as if they wished they were sultans and obas and obis, feudal patriarchs. It suggests a lack of seriousness in relating means to ends in our organization of the bureaucracy.

Welby Everard

Welby Everard

From the standpoint of building a strong nation out of a multiplicity of ethnic groups, the imperative of the Presidential system is simply, to use the proper word, unassailable. The necessity for a leader to be elected by, and to feel responsible to, the whole constituency over which the leader wishes to exercise power and authority is difficult to beat. This is why the difficulties to be encountered in choosing such leaders, the hard work of aggregating a diverse society, is actually viewed as a means of nation-building. It is too evidently superior to allowing the leadership to rise from a small fraction of the constituency to govern the whole country. What is more, from the standpoint of the stability that a government needs in order to perform well, the fixed tenure of the Presidential system is more than a match for the parliamentary system. The fear of a vote of no confidence is supposed to exert restraint on the leader in a parliamentary system; and the leader’s power to call an election and force a return to the electorate before the end of a parliamentary term is usually supposed to be an effective restraint on the indiscipline of legislators. But this is old hat. The Italian and Japanese systems have shown that governments may come and go every other six or even three months if a semblance of the parliamentary system is put on the road without the requisite checks and balances of the Presidential system. Imagine heads of government being changed with the bewildering rapidity that legislators across Nigeria applied to Speakers in the early years of the Fourth Republic!

National Assembly. Photo Femi Ipaye

National Assembly. Photo Femi Ipaye

The changing of speakers of the Houses of Assembly by fellow legislators and the impeachment of Presidents of the Senate gave indication of what it could have been like if a vote of no confidence on the floor of the House could change the Governor or President. Indeed, if it were possible to sack Governors and Presidents by using “no confidence” votes, the carnage of chief executives under the Presidential system would have been too gory for words. I may well add that the change in the culture of sacking speakers with sometimes embarrassing rapidity early in the Fourth Republic, was changed only when the whetting of the ground with Ghana Must Go Bags was consummated as a counter-culture. Ghana must go bags would not only be quite common in a parliamentary system; it would be the core culture of decision-making. Actually, the superiority of the Presidential system in maintaining stability in governance simply cannot be gainsaid. The champions of the parliamentary system do need to be asked to factor the culture of ‘No confidence votes’ into the Nigeria of today in order to see what picture emerges. How much worse would they not go if the chief executives could be put under the same pressure as the speakers in parliament!

One reality to be faced is that the attempt to run the Presidential system as if it was a parliamentary system has been the real bane of current political practice in Nigeria. First of all, without the kind of positive civil service that some countries have, frequent changes would sentence governments to instability that could be quite harmful to genuine development. Nigeria’s civil service, after the mayhem of the military era, cannot be expected to sustain a parliamentary system with grace and decorum especially when a No confidence vote could intervene. Much worse is that the idea of crossing carpet from one party to the other, as was frequent in the old parliamentary system, ritually unsettles a sense of decorum and stability in governance. Although Nigeria’s Presidential system was designed to eliminate the indiscipline that led to carpet crossing, emulators of the parliamentary system, especially when they belong to the ruling parties, have usually not allowed the exaction of the rules. Thus, the demand that those who change their parties should go back to the electorate to re-validate and re-dedicate their mandates, gets trumped. The ease of carpet-crossing, buying of legislators to move against their own parties, the fickleness of ideological commitments, and the marked insolvency of dissent in a parliamentary system, have been so overdone that the real issue is not how to return to the parliamentary system but to ensure that the terms of the Presidential system are met and adhered to. Those who believe that discipline in government must begin by incumbents in office abiding by the contract with the electorate simply must move from the antics of the parliamentary, as it is still being insinuated into the Presidential.

On the much-vaunted issue of the responsibility of Ministers to parliament, it is important to note that although Ministers in a Presidential system are not members of parliament, their responsibility to the National Assembly is not thereby degraded or turned a matter of trivia. The distance of Ministers from legislative authority is not even skin-deep as Ministers are obliged to work with committees of the National Assembly which oversee the Ministers’ portfolios. This need for work rather than ceremony, and the necessity to have Ministers whose competence is priced above their membership of a partisan code really should be allowed to stand firm rather than be a function of an electoral fray. Nor is it really any better when the supposed distance between the legislature and the Executive is bridged by allowing the Vice President to be chosen from among the legislators. Or be allowed to sit in parliament. The latter merely turns the Vice President into a Presidential Liaison Officer. It compromises the unitary principle of leadership that we have considered of high value in a Federal System without truly correcting the problem of distance. The compromise implies that a Vice President is no longer just a Vice but has access to a base that is, notionally denied to the President. It is simply an unwise complication of a system whose simplicity and neatness lies in the President and the Vice President being never at a constitutional variance from one another. In principle, they should always be on the same wicket. The presence of the Vice President in the legislature puts the work of the Executive under two different functional principles each of which is a checkmate of the other.

The truth of the matter is that conflicts between the legislature and the executive are not necessarily resolved, but compounded, when the Vice President labours on the one hand with his/her boss and on the other as the nemesis of the President in parliament. Should any of the two, the President or his Vice have character problems concerning the use of power, the Legislature will be linked to the Executive without deriving any genuine benefits from the snoopy role that the Vice President would have been forced into. Ideally, therefore, the Executive should leave law-making to the legislature in the same manner that it ought to be stated clearly that the legislature should leave executive roles to the executive. The obvious corruption of the system that has become the norm in the Fourth Republic which allows legislators to play executive roles as in the case of being allowed to execute so-called constituency projects is simply a ruling class trick of self-aggrandizement.

Legislatures that perform such executive roles are improper monitors of the executive. They are being helped to down-grade or stand up to their party within and outside parliament without leaving room for the exercise of principle. Law-makers, who may be principled or unprincipled, within a party system that is not encumbered by the deliberate placement of individual legislators in a position to disavow the decisions of the party, are obliged to be more concerned about monitoring the executive. The design of programmes and projects across the constituencies should be allowed to fit into the tiered nature of the governmental system. Instead of having Senators and members of the House of Representatives goading themselves to be of personal relevance at their constituency levels, Federal cover ought, properly speaking, to be asserted through institutional arrangements at the level of the relevant tier. Why should a Senator insist on building culverts and pitching for refuse clearance roles at the local government levels instead of empowering the relevant tier to do better at the problem that needs solution?

The assumption that a member of the Federal legislature or a member of the state Assembly has to drive into the local government system to make personal derring-dos in the name of development belongs to a corruption of the system which, these days, allows Governors to steal the clothes off the local government system in order to make a fashion of dressing gaudy, presumably, to attract attention to the incumbent’s ‘imperial’ role. It is a sin against democracy which legislators as legislators, who will not covet the power of the executive as a matter of principle, ought to tick off and sanction.

On this note, I would like to suggest that rather than pursue the wispy advantages credited to the parliamentary system, the better deal is to consider how to escape its many oddities being cavalierly imported into Nigeria’s Presidential system. At any rate, it is not the Presidential system but the unitarized federalism imposed upon the Nigerian firmament by the gone-but-still-extant militariat in our midst that is really at issue. Lets face it squarely instead of turning poorly examined nostalgia into a wild dream and pursuing it to its inevitable dead-end before realizing what the real problem has been.
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This article is a revised extract from the book, THIS CONFERENCE MUST BE DIFFERENT, written by Odia Ofeimun, in the wake of the National Conference in 2014.

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