4 August 2008

Nigeria: Presidentialism Vs Parliamentary System


Lagos — In a recent newspaper interview, the renowned elder-statesman and former Federal Minister of Information, Chief Anthony Enahoro, revisited the age long debate in the country on the suitability or otherwise of either presidential or parliamentary system of governance for the Nigerian condition.

His pronouncement could not have come at a better time than now when the Yar'Adua-led Federal Government has demonstrated its resolve to undertake electoral and political reforms with a view to strengthening our democracy.

On assumption of office on May 29, 2007, President Yar'Adua had acknowledged that the 2007 General elections which brought him and his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to power were generally flawed. He promised to set up a panel that would look into the issue and make recommendations to government accordingly.

Shortly after, the President, in keeping with his pledge, set up an Electoral Reform Committee, consisting of many eminent Nigerians and chaired by the former Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais with the mandate to carry out thorough studies and make appropriate recommendations. That committee should, about now, be putting its report together after holding public hearings in all the six geo-political zones of the country to obtain the inputs of the citizenry.

Enahoro, who was a major actor in the First Republic when the country operated the Parliamentary system of government, in the said interview, expressed preference for the parliamentary model over the presidential system which we currently operate with very strong reasons.

His words: "I studied that system (parliamentary) at its best and also studied the other system (presidential) in the United States for some months and I think that basically the parliamentary system is superior. That is my judgment any way; having seen them both at work in foreign countries, I don't think it is an accident that if people are fed up with a Prime Minister, the head of government in England or other places where it is practiced, they vote against him and throw him out, but if you are really fed up with a President in the United States, you kill him, that is what they do, so all those are things we must bear in mind".

He continued: " the Prime Minister is answerable every day; he goes to that place (parliament) and issues will be raised and he responds, but the other man (President), no, he doesn't even go there (parliament). Look at what we just passed through under Obasanjo; anytime he visited the House, he could not be subjected to any questioning. Then, how do you now ask somebody to be accountable for what he does? Even a Minister here is not a Member of the House, so, where will you ask him and who is going to ask him? I think it is wrong. I don't think the presidential system is very suitable for us".

In matters like the one under discussion, the views of Chief Enahoro can hardly be ignored. Having seen both systems in operation both at home and abroad, and having also been a key player in the two systems in Nigeria, the respected elder-statesman is eminently qualified to offer a dispassionate appraisal of the two political models.

In the light of the views expressed by Enahoro, it has become necessary to look at the merits and demerits of the two political models with a view to assisting the Electoral Reform Committee to make the right recommendations to the government.

It is true that, upon the attainment of political independence from Great Britain in 1960, the nation's founding fathers settled for the parliamentary system. The choice obviously was influenced by the retreating colonial power as that was and still remains the system in practice in the United Kingdom.

The parliamentary system was in place in Nigeria till 1966 when the military intervened in the political process, leading to the collapse of the First Republic. With the return to partisan politics in 1979, after 13 years of unbroken military rule, the nation switched over to the presidential system which is an American model. Except for the period of military interregnum from 1983 to 1999, the country has remained stuck with the American model.

Given our varied experiences under the two political models, we are now in a better position to compare and contrast and know which one is better for the Nigerian condition.

Without mincing words, one major advantage which the parliamentary system enjoys over the presidential system is its strong emphasis on accountability. The Head of government who is the Prime Minister sits in parliament along with his Federal Ministers who are equally elected members of parliament. And they are accountable to the people through the parliament where the issue of their stewardship is regularly subjected to public scrutiny.

Under the presidential system, the President is all powerful as the buck stops on his table as it were. He is neither accountable to the people that elected him nor to the parliament. From the Nigerian experience, he is accountable only to himself and nobody else, not even the party on whose platform he is elected.

Under the presidential system, a non-performing government cannot be easily removed except through an impeachment process, a far-fetched option, which, in the Nigerian situation, is employed more often than not as an instrument of blackmail.

But in the case of parliamentary system, the government resigns and re-submits itself for a fresh public mandate if a vote of no confidence is passed on it by the parliament. Such a realization that it could be removed on the account of no confidence vote helps to put pressure on the government to live above board and up to the expectations of the electorate at all times.

The key argument in favour of the American model is that it is anchored on the principle of separation of powers which provides for checks and balances. Under this theory, the parliament exists to make laws for the good governance of the Federation, the Executive represented by the President implements the laws and formulates policies while the Judiciary exists to interpret the laws and adjudicate in cases of conflicts between the Executive and the Legislature. This sounds very ideal.

But in the Nigerian experience it has never worked out so well. Given the nature of our constitution which gives too much power to the President, the parliament has more often been under the emasculation and dominance of the President. At least, we saw this happen under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo.

Much more importantly, however, the presidential system is very expensive to operate, given the bloated nature of the cabinet. Apart from the mandatory requirement of appointing Ministers from every State of the Federation, the President has no constitutional limitations as to the number of personal aides he could engage. Under Obasanjo, there were an avalanche of Personal, Special and Senior Special Assistants, many of them without any clear-cut portfolios. This coterie of staff constitutes a huge drain on scarce national resources. Even under, Yar'Adua, the trend has not changed.

One of the arguments against the parliamentary model is that "a government is always formed based on coalitions which sometimes might involve parties with incompatible political agendas as was the case during the First Republic". As Bolade Eyinla noted in the book, 'Fedralism and Political Restructuring in Nigeria', "this is due to the fact that no single political party in Nigeria can win enough vote to give it an outright majority in parliament". With events in the country, starting from the SDP's days and current showing of the ruling PDP, that argument is no longer sustainable. The SDP and PDP, with their outright control of the National Assembly, at different times, have been able to prove the argument wrong.

The Electoral Reform Committee should therefore take a serious look at the parliamentary system and see how it can be fine tuned to take care of our peculiar political circumstances.

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