The huge cost of Nigeria’s presidential system

Certainly, Nigeria’s problems did not start with the adoption of the presidential system of government. And neither has the presidential system of government solved our problems. In retrospect, it has created more problems for us, leaving only the executive, legislators and their aides to operate the system. If you look at the presidential system that we have operated since 1979 closely, you will discover a lot of deficiencies, leading us to conclude that the disadvantages of the system far outweigh the advantages. The system allows the people to vote every four years and that is the only role they can ply. From there, the executives, legislators and their aides take over and they become major actors leaving the people as mere spectators in the conduct of their affairs.

We are being reminded every day thatthis is democracy. Occasionally, we make our voices known through the media but that is where it ends. And that is why, in desperation, words like restructuring and regionalism are now taking the front seat in our agitation for a better nation. In other countries of the world, plebiscite and referendum are commonly practiced to invite the people to decide on major issues affecting their destiny but not in Nigeria. Everything is just forced on us and in most times, as docile as we are, we have no choice.

A constitution is simply the body of rules in accordance with which the powers of government are distributed and exercised. A sort of commandment under which a government operates. Let us go back on the origin of the adoption of the presidential system of government.

On assuming power, the first thing Major General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi (1924-1966) did on January 17 1966 was to suspend the 1963 constitution under decree No 1. From that time till 1975 we had no constitution under General DanYumaYakubu Gowon (82).We were ruled by decrees.

On October 1 1975, there was a ray of hope on the issue when General Murtala Mohammed (1938-1976), announced in a broadcast that he would hand over power in 1979. And true to his words, he set up a 50 man constitution drafting committee under the leadership of Chief Rotimi Williams, SAN, CS (1920-2005). A member of the committee, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, GCFR (1909-1987) opted not to serve in the committee, insisting that having written and participated in the making of past Nigeria constitutions, there was no more to add. On October 18 1975, General Murtala Mohammed inaugurated the committee at the Institute of International Affairs in Lagos. He said on that day that ‘the supreme military council has carefully discussed and agreed on an executive presidential system of government’.

On October 6 1977, General Olusegun Obasanjo, GCFR inaugurated the Constituent Assembly and re-echoed the stand of General Murtala Muhammed on the adoption of the presidential system of government, insisting that members of that assembly were not to change on what the Supreme Military Council has decided on the presidential system. He declared: “May I emphasise that the purpose of your being here is to discuss the draft constitution already by the constitution drafting committee and to come out with your recommendations. These will then be taken to the Supreme Military Council. Thereafter, a decree on the subject of Constitution for the Federal Republic of Nigeria will be considered and promulgated to usher in the new Constitution.”

On January 10 1978, the Constituent Assembly then went to the committee stage to deliberate properly on the presidential system presided over by Justice Egbert Udo-Udoma (1917-1998) , then a serving judge of the Supreme Court from Ikot-Abasi in the present day Akwa Ibom state.

Dr. Ibrahim Tahir representing Bauchi/Alkaleri, who later became the Talban Bauchi, raised a motion objecting to the presidential system and pleading that we should revert back to the parliamentary system. He said: “I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper as follows: That this House resolves to amend Chapter VI, Title and Section 109, Sub-section (1)-(3) as proposed and to accept the consequential Amendment to the relevant sections of the same Chapter; and further resolves that the Constitution of Nigeria shall reflect a Parliamentary form of government with such other modifications as the House may decide”.

Dr Tahir said the presidential system was too expensive to operate and that the contradictions within that system will cripple the act of governance. His only supporter on that day was Alhaji Umaru Dikko (1936-2014) from Kaduna/ Birnin Gwari constituency.  Dr Tahir (1938-2009) was an in-law to the present Chief of Staff to the President, Mallam Abba Kyari.

In opposing Dr. Tahir, Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN (84) from Lagelu/Oluyole/Akinyele Constituency, said Dr Tahir was wrong. Chief Akinjide declared: “With the greatest respect, there is nothing new in the arguments of the hon. Member for Bauchi/Alkaleri(Dr. Tahir) I had the privilege of exchanging correspondence with him in a foreign journal in respect of whether Nigeria should go Presidential or Prime Ministerial. At the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), he was roundly defeated, and although I would not be a judge in my own cause, on the balance of probability in the correspondence in the foreign journal, he was also defeated. The issue before this House is quite simple. Should this country go Prime Ministerial or Presidential? It is as simple as that. We should not take umbrage in the British history, in the Russian history, or in the American history. The test we have to apply is quite simple. It is a subjective test. It is not an objective test, and that subject test is this. Having regard to our history for the past 17 or 20 years, what form of government is best for this country?

“All the arguments advanced by the Hon. Member for Bauchi/Alkaleri (Dr. Tahir) against the presidential system could also be advanced against prime ministerial System and we must consider that there is no form of government in this world that is fool-proof. There is no form of government in which a dictator cannot emerge. All we can do is to try our best and rely on the best judgment of this country. On the balance of probability, my submission is that a prime ministerial system of government for this country is a recipe for chaos. At the chief executive level, you will have what is called bifurcation of authority.

“You will have the Head of Government, and you will have the Head of State. The Parliamentary type of government does not augur well for stability. The Prime Minister can fall on a vote of no confidence, whereas a president has four years’ term of office.”

It was at this stage that Professor Ben Nwabueze (85) and Mr. Paul Wataregh Unongo (80) requested that the issue should be put to vote and when the question was put to vote by Justice Udo Udoma, Dr Tahir’s amendment was overwhelmingly rejected.

The Constituent Assembly adjourned sine die on June 5, 1978, without finishing its work and that assembly was never reconvened.

However, on September 21 1978, General Obasanjo came out with Decree No 25 promulgating the 1979 constitution. The decree states that: “Whereas the Constituent Assembly established by the Constituent Assembly Decree 1977 and as empowered by that Decree has deliberated upon the draft Constitution drawn up by the Constitution Drafting Committee and presented the result of it deliberations to the Supreme Military Council and the Supreme Council has approved the same subject to such changes as it has deemed necessary in the public interest and for purposes of fostering the promotion of the welfare of the people of Nigeria and whereas it is necessary for the Constitution to be vested with the force of law. This Decree may be cited as the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Enactment) Decree 1978”.

In short that was how the Presidential System of Government came to be in Nigeria. In the light of present events, it is being suggested that we should go back to the parliamentary system of government which gave full powers to the regions.

I don’t know how possible it is but I think the parliamentary system of government is more democratic, more representative and less costly than the presidential system of government.

Teniola, a former director at the presidency, stays in Lagos.