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The case for parliamentary government

NOT a few eyebrows were raised among political pundits last week when some 71 legislators moved a motion in support of re-introduction of the parliamentary system of government in our country. We understand that the all-parties bill has gone through its first reading already. Prominent among its sponsors are Abdussamad Dasuki (PDP, Sokoto), Tahir Monguno (APC, Borno), Nicholas Ossai (PDP, Delta), Ossey Prestige (APGA, Abia) and Kingsley Chinda (PDP, Rivers).

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In their statement, the members declared: “We are 71 bi-partisan members of the House of Representatives, who feel that the parliamentary system of government promulgated by the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 is the best for Nigeria since the presidential system has reduced us to the poverty capital of the world.”

A spokesman for the group was quoted as saying that parliamentary systems foster more accelerated economic growth and development than presidential systems: “Studies have shown that countries run by presidential systems produce lower output growth and more volatile inflation. Political and economic instability also pervades…”

In a related development, the pan-Yoruba group, Afenifere and the Igbo cultural group, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, have both come out in support of the proposal. I myself recall that the Middle Belt Forum, in their Makurdi Declaration earlier this year, made a strong case for a unicameral parliamentary federalism.

We need to go back to first principles. A parliamentary system of government is one in which the executive, or Prime Minister, is elected from within parliament rather than directly through universal franchise. The executive and cabinet are often chosen directly from parliament. In such a system, there is a sort of “fusion” between legislative and executive power, given that the executive and cabinet are all drawn from within parliament.

Parliamentary systems are often characterised by a “dual executive.” The Prime Minister is usually the head of government. But there is often also a President or Head of State who is the symbol of the country. In Britain, Sweden, Netherlands and Norway, the monarch is the Head of State. In India, Singapore, Malaysia and Germany, they have ceremonial Presidents. In some cases such a ceremonial president also reserves some constitutional powers to dissolve parliament under certain clearly defined circumstances.

The principal advantage of the parliamentary system is that it facilitates the ease with which legislation can be passed. Whereas presidential systems can lead to legislative stasis if not outright confrontation, between the executive and parliament; in parliamentary systems, the fact that the Prime Minister and Cabinet are also legislators makes it relatively easier to pass legislation.

Another advantage is accountability. Whereas the executive is directly accountable to the electorate in presidential systems; in parliamentary system, he is directly accountable to parliament. In most parliamentary systems the Prime Minister has to attend a weekly Question Time in parliament. Government policies are rigorously scrutinised. The Prime Minister cannot run government by stealth, such as taking the country into a military alliance with Saudi Arabia or some other backward feudal enclave. He or she must give full, cogent and convincing explanations to parliament. And it is often the case that even legislators from the smallest parties get to ask questions and demand answers for government policies and actions and/or inactions. Such legislative scrutiny is far less possible in presidential systems.

It is an established fact that presidential systems tend to have more powerful, centralised executives than parliamentary systems. The historian Arthur Schlesinger famously described the executive in American government as “the imperial presidency” by virtue of his expansive powers in the 20th Century. The American presidency is, without the shadow of a doubt, the most powerful political office on earth. He holds the keys of the country’s nuclear arsenals. He can send troops to any country at any time, for any purpose. By contrast, executives in parliamentary systems cannot arrogate to themselves such imperial powers.

During a state visit by the President of Poland, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was reported to have sent an emissary from 10 Downing Street, a message to Queen Elizabeth II to find out what colours she was wearing to the state banquet. The Prime Minister claimed she was trying to avoid any embarrassing colour riots. Windsor Palace replied rather tersely: “Her Majesty does not seek the opinion of anyone regarding what she wears.” It would not be the only occasion in which the Prime Minister would be put in her place.

Another important difference is the fact that, in a parliamentary system, a government can be brought down by the simple mechanism of a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Whereas in presidentialism the executive operates on a fixed term basis and can only be removed by an elaborate constitutional process of impeachment.

Since the praetorian intervention by the military in 1966, the Nigerian executive has been traditionally presidential in letter and spirit. A former senior cabinet official during the years of military rule, Eric Eniola, has reminded us that when the Constitution Drafting Committee was being inaugurated by General Murtala Mohammed on October 18, 1975, the Head of State declared that: “the Supreme Military Council has carefully discussed and agreed on an executive presidential system of Government.” The military had tacitly taken a position that foreclosed further debate on presidentialism.

During the ensuing constitutional debates, I was an undergraduate at Ahmadu Bello University. I recall an impassioned submission in favour of the presidential system by the late Yaya Abubakar, a professor of public administration in ABU. He argued essentially on the need for a developing country such as ours to have a strong executive who would not be overly hamstrung to exercise powers to ensure rapid economic growth. He waxed lyrical on the virtues of presidentialism over parliamentarianism. Even with my sophomoric mind, the professor rang hollow; his rhetoric rather unconvincing.

With the benefit of experience, Eniola laments: “The system has given the key of the treasury to the executives, legislators and their aides to loot the treasury as they wish. The poor of yesterday have become instant billionaires all in the name of democracy… Our type of democracy has made mockery of hard work, honesty and procedure. Humble men of yesterday now in power in this country have suddenly turned to monsters, tyrants with abundance of wealth stolen from the treasury all in the name of presidential system of government….this system of government is killing us. It is so wasteful and too expensive to operate.”

The proposition that the parliamentary system is amenable to faster economic growth is rather debatable. It is an established fact that presidential systems are generally more stable than parliamentary ones. For example, Italy’s parliamentary system has seen 40 different governments in a single decade. The country was going down economically and the lira was worthless until rescued by the Euro. Some economists have pointed that communist China outgrew India precisely because of its centralised presidentialism in contrast to India’s cumbersome parliamentary government.

The case for parliamentarianism cannot be pitched on economic arguments alone. We must begin by asking: If the parliamentary system was the best for us, why did we bungle it in the first place?

First of all, the federal structure we inherited from the British in 1960 was lopsided, with the North accounting for about three-quarters of the land size. It negated one of the fundamental principles of federalism, namely, that no one region should be of such an overwhelming size as to threaten the other federating units. Secondly, as the leading Oxford scholar on colonial administration Dame Margery Perham stated, our three-region model was essentially a tripod, which, by definition, is an unstable structure.

We also had an odd situation whereby the leader of the ruling Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), Sir Ahmadu Bello Sardauna of Sokoto, sent his underling Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, to serve as Prime Minister. They were people who innately did not believe in Nigeria and her manifest destiny. To make matters worse, the Willink Minorities Commission 1957 failed to create an autonomous Middle Belt, thereby subordinating the northern minorities under a heavy yoke of oppression and marginalisation in perpetuity.

The case for parliamentarianism is a compelling one. But it must be anchored on restructuring of our federation so as to remove some of the egregious inequities that have prevailed. If we were to go for a parliamentary system while leaving intact the 36 states, 774 local governments and the motley constituencies, it would actually generate even more pernicious consequences for the future. Reintroduction of parliamentarianism must be part and parcel of a whole restructuring process anchored on nation building, solidarity and social justice. We need a New Nigeria that is democratic and that fosters the rule of law, political stability and economic progress for the good of all.

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