Borrowed from the US: How Nigeria corrupted presidentialism, federalism

The presidential system of government, which Nigeria adopted first in 1979, has been implicated as a contributory factor to the growing ethnic tension in the country, giving strength to the call for the restructuring of the country and the review of the model. DARE ADEKANMBI examines the inherent weaknesses of presidential as operated in the country with experts’ view on what model the country needs to run.

ONE of the colonial relics that gave way following military incursion into politics is the Westminster-type parliamentary democracy, which was in operation as a system of government, first at the regional level prior to and at Independence in 1960.

While it lasted, parliamentarism was appraised to have promoted a healthy rivalry among the three defunct regions the country was split into: the Western Region, the Eastern Region and the Northern Region. It was well nourished by the 1960 Independence Constitution which recognised the regional governments as being autonomous and the 1963 Republican Constitution which did away with the remaining imprimatur of colonial influence on Nigeria.

Upon the intervention of the military, a unitary system, which suited the draconian orientation of the jackboot, came into place. There were arguments from centripetal forces within and outside the military against parliamentarism. The heaviest charge was that it gave room for a weak centre and strong regions, a development they saw as unhealthy for the country. Each of the autonomous regions, they feared, could exploit its independence to dismember from the union.

Thus came the death of what has been adjudged by scholars and commentators as Nigeria’s most desirable template for rapid progress and economic prosperity. And thence began the search for another system of government by the military government of the late General Murtala Muhammed which set up a Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) saddled with evolving a constitutional framework for that purpose

According to a lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife and president, Chartered Institute of Local Government and Public Administration of Nigeria, Professor Kunle Awotokun, the military junta made it clear it wanted a system of government that would encourage a very strong centre under the guise of fostering national unity and stability.

Awotokun said the Murtala Muhammed government wanted a system that would “eliminate cut-throat political competition based on a system or rule of winners take all” [Encouragement of healthy rivalry among the regions as one of the merits of parliamentary system of government]; “discourage institutional opposition” [Disdain for opposition that is inherently part of the structure of the parliamentary system].

“…the then military showed its preference for a centralised governmental system anchored on a personality with executive power that can galvanise changes and development…hence the government [military] wanted a president that will command respect of a sizeable number of the citizens of Nigeria. It is for this reason that a presidential material must win at least 25 per cent in at least two-thirds of the states of the federation in addition to winning the highest votes in the total votes cast,” Awotokun said.

The birth of presidentialism, as a system of government, had its baptism in the transition from military to civilian government of the Second Republic, a transition that saw the enthronement of the late Alhaji Shehu Shagari as president. Since then, the country has operated on the presidential political theater for about three decades between 1979 and 1983 as well as 1999 till date.

The verdict of scholars, observers and even among a few of the political elites is that the presidential system has not fared any better than its ancestor. In fact, centrifugal tendencies argue that the parliamentary system is still desirable over the prohibitively expensive presidential system.

To Awotokun, “It must be empahsised with all sense of responsibility that the endurance of presidentialism since 1999 is not so much about its merits, but that military coup d’état  is no longer fashionable in the comity of nations.”

Despite the country genuflecting before the god of presidentialism, the citizens, in the views of many, are worse off. Overnight millionaires with no known enterprises other than their involvement in the political theatre have emerged. Whereas the vast majority if the citizenry have continued to wallow in abject want with the country overtaking India as the world poverty capital.

The glaring demerits of the system of government have sparked agitations such as restructuring, power devolution and others. A return to the parliamentary system has equally been canvassed, especially by those who premised their argument on its expensiveness and the multiplicity of unnecessary bureaucracies.

But is the fault in the star of the presidential system or structure of government? Is it in the political actors themselves?

Nigeria’s constitutional presidential democracy is largely fashioned after that of the United States. But what is it that has made it work in that clime and not in Nigeria?


The US versus Nigeria’s presidential systems

The fact that two countries operate a similar system of government theoretically does not mean that in reality, the operation of the system will be similar. The US presidentialism is based on a federal structure where the central government does not lord it over the federal units, that is, the states and the local government councils or counties as they are sometimes called.

The states have their own constitution and everything they need to function as states to provide for the wellbeing of their citizens and residents. Most Americans interface more with their local governments and states than they do the federal government.

The US Constitution only stipulates that states should embrace republicanism in their choice of leaders. In other words, leaders are elected by the people over whom they govern. The central law does not dictate to the federating units how they should live their lives. It allows states to generate revenue from the resources there are in their domains, puts no impediments in their revenue generation drive.

In the US Constitution, it is not compulsory that states replicate the three-branch structure of the federal, that is, Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. A bicameral legislative structure of a smaller upper and larger lower house is repeated in all the 50 states in the US, except Nebraska.

The US as a federal union started with just 13 states and later grew to the current 50. The US Congress is empowered by the constitution to admit new members into the fold after certain conditions must have been met by such states. States such as Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii are the last states to fuse into the United States. They joined the union between 1907 and 1959.

Despite the size as the biggest economy in the world, representation in the US Senate is two Senators per state, no matter the size of the states. House of Representatives seats are allocated based on population or proportional representation. But states like Alaska and Delaware have one member each in the House, while Hawaii and Idaho have two each.

One sharp contrast with Nigeria’s presidential system is in the structure of the states and composition of the executive arm of the government. While in the United States, the 50 states that make up the union enjoy enormous degrees of autonomy, with the president only assuming the role of a first among ‘equals’ with the state governors, Nigeria’s president wields enormous power that hovers dangerously around dictatorship.

The states in Nigeria’s federation exist and survive at the pleasure and desire of the president who plays the role of a messiah, doling out and/ or refusing favours to the states as he pleases. States in Nigeria have no will of their own; they exist based on the magnanimity and capacity of the president to breathe life into them.

Natural endowments in states can’t be exploited by them despite the recognition given to the states in the 1999 Constitution as joint federating units with the federal government. States must seek the permission of the central government to explore and exploit their God-given resources.

At the top of the executive arm, though both the US and Nigeria have a democratically elected president and vice-president who run on a joint ticket for a maximum of two four-year terms, the vice-president in Nigeria is regarded as a “spare tyre” which the president may or may not have use for, whereas the US vice-president doubles as the President of their Senate, although with no voting power except the need to break a tie arises.

In Nigeria’s presidentialism, each of the 36 states has three senators based on the principle of equality of states. The number of House of Representatives seats varies based on population and other criteria.

The US Constitution sets only three criteria for election into the Senate and the House. A person aspiring to be elected into the Senate must not be younger than 30 years, must be residing in the state where he is seeking election at the time of the polls and must be a US citizen for at least nine years. As for the House, a minimum of 25 years is set as age requirement, while citizenship duration is pegged at seven years. While a US senator can only serve six terms consecutively, there is no limit to the number of times a senator can be elected in Nigeria. A US Representative member can only serve two terms consecutively and is only re-electable every even year.


Prudence versus profligacy

In the area of remuneration, a congress member [Senator or Representative] is pegged at $174,000 annually. But in Nigeria, a lot of secrecy is woven around how much the federal lawmakers pocket at the end of every month. Although the official figures of N954, 096 and N794, 084 are released as the monthly takings of a Senator and a House of Representatives member respectively, the humongous allowances and other perks they enjoy are only known by those in the inner sanctum of power.


Not a case for presidentialism

Speaking further on the areas of difference between the similar model, an Associate Professor in the Department of History, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Adetunji Ogunyemi, posits that the presidential system of government is not suitable for Nigeria.

“Don’t forget that the US model is about 250 years, which means they have had time to also cut their teeth according to the circumstances of their environment. But regardless of the historionics of the presidential system of government and the comparative advantage between it and the parliamentary system, I posit that four different debilities, if you like, demerits of the model do not recommend presidentialism to the Nigerian environment.

“The first is that it is utterly expensive. I don’t need to stress that. The second one is that it makes the president almost like a dictator. He is in charge of virtually all the powers, particularly appointive power, by which if the president becomes nepotistic as we have today in Nigeria, the country can either go into implosion or atrophy as a result of that nepotistic disposition.

“I give you an example. Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution created 14 federal executive bodies. These bodies are the ones in charge of the country. There is no aspect of the Nigeria life that can escape these bodies. Without deference to anybody or even to the state from where they come, it is the president that appoints members of these bodies.  These bodies are: the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Council of State, the Federal Character Commission, the Federal Civil Service Commission, the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the Independent National Electoral Commission, the National Defence Council, the National Economic Council, the National Judicial Council (NJC) and so on.

“One single human being [the president] appoints people into these bodies. I have calculated it. When you put all the appointees of the president in the country alone together, they are 6,111.  Only the president alone appoints this much without anybody filtering. What happens when such awesome power falls into the hand of a nepotistic president as we have now? The country is going to go into an implosion or there will be such division and hate that the country will almost atrophy.

“The third thing about demerit of Nigeria’s presidential system is that it tends to emasculate the governors. The use of the Armed Forces and the suppressive apparatus of the state is also part of the reasons why the presidential system of government should not be used in Nigeria.

“I understand why they chose presidentialism in 1979. It was because the parliamentary system had the inherent disadvantage of making the country ungovernable if any part of the parliamentary coalition pulls out, then the government at the centre will fall.

“That weakness was noticed in [Benjamin]Netanyahu’s Israel where just a single person pulled out of a coalition with his government and the government fell such that within a space of two years, Israel did four elections. So, it is the coalition orientation and the instability properties of the parliamentary system that made the government then to think that the presidential system would be better.

“But J.S Cookey, one of Nigeria’s highly celebrated historians, in 1982, highlighted the disadvantages of the presidential system and warned that except the country practices rotational presidency, there was no was the idea of presidentialism won’t lead to nepotism in an ethnically charged country like Nigeria. When a single person seizes the jugular of the power centre in the country and he is a nepotistic person, God will help such a country.

The huge disparity in the texture of Nigeria’s presidential system and that of the US from which it draws inspiration has given rise to the call for a review of the system of government in line with the current socio-economic and socio-political realities in the country. In fact, the current rise in ethnic tension is believed to be informed by perceived tacit support of the president for the herders of the Fulani stock in their confrontation with farmers on whose crops they have been accused of grazing their cattle.

Over the years, an analysis of the huge annual budget figures has shown an average of about 60 per cent of the budget being devoted to servicing consumption and overheads of the needlessly duplicated bureaucracies. Even the meager 40 per cent left for capital expenditure is not implemented full-scale.




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