Why presidential system is not working in Nigeria —Adeyemi

In this interview with IMOLEAYO OYEDEYI, a Professor of Comparative Politics, Development Administration and Governance, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko (AAUA), ’Lanre Olu-Adeyemi speaks on issues bedeviling Nigeria’s political structure and factors impeding the country’s development among others.


FOR several years, Nigeria has practised a presidential system of government patterned after the United States. Can you explain the flaws in Nigeria’s presidential system of government?

As the consequence of being a former British colony, Nigeria started out with a parliamentary system of government at independence in 1960, but it switched to a presidential system modelled after that of the United States in 1979. A presidential system is a form of government in which a head of government (president) leads an executive branch that is separate from the legislative branch. This is a government that is based on the separation and sharing of powers among three independent and coordinate branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judiciary. It is characterised by a bicameral legislature and both the executive and legislative arms of government are replicated across the federating units. It is also important to state that countries that feature a presidential system of government are not the exclusive users of the title of president. Heads of state of parliamentary republics, largely ceremonial in most cases, are called presidents. Similarly, dictators or leaders of one-party states are also often called presidents. The truth remains that in adopting the presidential system, the military did not consider the peculiar nature of the country. The practice of presidentialism in Nigeria has been largely hampered by an unchecked and imbalanced power relation that has thrown up a very powerful executive branch of government that the legislature and judiciary kowtow to. Also, power is trapped in the person and office of the president, thus making the occupant of the office just too powerful. Constitutionally, there are limits to the powers of the president, yet in reality; the lack of effective checks has led to assumed and appropriated influence. So, with the wrong person in office, we might as well be electing a temporal dictator. Again, the near absence of constitutionalism and the rule of law coupled with the exorbitant cost of operating the presidential system are huge challenges. The bitter truth is that the background and history of United States of America do not justify the application of presidential system of government to Nigeria. The adoption and wholesale application of the American presidential model is a colossal mistake in the first place. The importation of the system has not done the country any good at all.


In view of Nigeria’s political structure, some have argued that the country’s federal arrangement is alien to all tenets of true federalism. What’s your take on this?

For me, it is either you practise federalism or not, no caricature model can be described as federalism. In a plain language, federalism means a governance model in which there is a division of powers between two levels of government of equal status. Professor Kenneth C. Wheare, the globally acknowledged father of contemporary federal theories, defined federalism or federal government in his famous book entitled Federal Government, as the method of dividing power so that general and regional governments are each within a sphere co-ordinate and independent. Some of the irreducible minimum that federalism provides for are that (i) There must be at least two levels of governments and there must be constitutional division of powers among them. (ii) Each level of government must be co-ordinate and independent. (iii)  Each level of government must be financially independent. (iv) There must be Supreme Court of the independent judiciary and in terms of the amendment of the constitution; no levels of government should have undue power over the process. The emphasis of the federal arrangement is decentralisation, through the devolution of powers to different geographical levels within the federal arrangement. Across the globe, federalism has emerged as one of the most preferred form of government based on its integrative capability to approximate the heterogeneous political life of multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic societies. However, in the Nigerian situation, the practice of federalism has remained a foreboding nightmare due to the skewed nature of federal practice which has led to serious contestations among the constituent nationalities thus resulting in endless tinkering and attempts at dissolution. The problem Nigeria has had to grapple is how to secure an efficient central government that would help preserve national unity while allowing free scope for the diversities of the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual constituent units. Despite the expansion from the colonial federal legacy of three political regions to a union of 36 states and 774 Local Governments, pressures for fundamental federal reforms have remained a persistent, intense and divisive feature of contemporary Nigerian politics. Interestingly, six decades after independence, federalism’s minimalist promissory note to permit the people of the union their own nationalism and self-determination is highly endangered in Nigeria. This is fundamental because of the absence of the civic political culture that is germane to the workings of conceptual phrases that scaffold a federal system such as the existence of relatively independent centres of power, inter-governmental relations driven by partnership, local people deciding on local priorities, e.t.c thus fuelling ceaseless agitations for restructuring of the present skewed model to what an ideal federal model should be.


In the US, states enjoy enormous autonomy over their territories and resources. But those in Nigeria exist at the mercy of the central government. Many have cited this as one of the factors stifling the development of the country and its people. How true is this?

Nigeria has always operated federalism in an awkward manner and this has made frictions and clashes inevitable while at the same time, not only stifling development but also, hampering nation building and national unity.  The amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorate made Nigeria a multi- ethnic and multi lingual country. The point must be made that what is today referred to as Nigeria was not a question of a country that was originally unitary, being broken into federating units, but of formerly totally independent kingdoms, empires, nations and autonomous communities being brought together, and ending up in a federal union. In line with this historical evolution of Nigerian federalism, it should be noted that, the choice of federalism as the preferred system of government for Nigeria was not accidental. The fact is that the founding fathers took cognizance of the situation of the country as development progressed and opted for a system of government that would neutralise political threats and accommodate the divergent interest of the various ethno-cultural and minority groups. This desire, which eventually found expression in the federal system of government as a diversity management technique, is still struggling hard to accomplish anticipated goals. The fiscal relationship among the tiers of government in Nigeria has never been fair. The 36 states go to the central government to collect monthly allocation from the federation account whereas, it is the states that should pay ‘taxes/royalties’ to the federal government.  Under the 1999 constitutional arrangement, the powers of the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission as provided under the Third Schedule Part 1 N-item 32 (b & c) which made room for time to time review of the revenue allocation formulae and principles in operation to ensure conformity with changing realities and which also provided that any revenue formula which has been accepted by an Act of the National Assembly shall remain in force for a period of not less than five years from the date of commencement of the Act; has been flagrantly disregarded. Thus, states exist at the mercy of the federal government despite the huge responsibilities on their shoulders.


In Nigeria, the vice-president is regarded as a ‘spare tyre’ which the president may or may not have any use for. But in the US, he doubles as the Senate president. Are these two conflicting roles enshrined in a presidential system?

Honestly, I do not like the description of that exalted office as ‘spare tyre’. A vice-president is elected on a joint ticket to assist the president. The framers of the American constitution created the vice-presidency almost as an afterthought after the constitutional system for electing presidents broke down, as both Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes in the 1800 election which led to the Twelfth Amendment of the American constitution, thus, instituting the present system wherein electors cast separate ballots for president and for vice-president. Even in the United States, the constitution only provided in Article I, section 3 that the vice-president shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless members of the Senate are evenly divided.  For me, that constitutional clause which gave the United States’ vice-president a legislative role appears as a violation of the separation of powers doctrine. In Nigeria, the executive functions of the Nigerian vice-president includes participation in all cabinet meetings and, by statute, membership in the Federal Executive Council, National Security Council, the National Defence Council,  and the Chairman of National Economic Council. I agree that the relative power of the Nigerian vice-president’s office depends upon the duties delegated by the president but that does not infer that the office is a redundant one.


Separation of power and checks and balances are central to presidentialism. But these democratic doctrines are not being observed in Nigeria. What can you say are the causes of this?

Like the principle of “division of labour” in Adam Smith’s economics, the doctrine of Separation of Powers is geared towards efficiency but also more importantly, towards guarding against abuse of authority. Hence, it is a liberty-sensitive concept. Baron de Montesquieu wrote L’Esprit des Lois and articulated the doctrine of the Separation of Powers which states in summary that not only should the three arms of government namely executive, legislature and judiciary be separated but also their functions should be performed by different persons or a different body of persons. This is to, among other things, protect individual freedom and liberty, prevent tyranny, check abuse of power, prevent a person from presiding over his case and also guarantee both effectiveness and efficiency. Also, the doctrine of checks and balances creates an arrangement whereby an arm of government serves as a check on another arm of government to prevent abuse of power so that none become too powerful or misuse one’s power. The separation of powers is important because it provides a vital system of ‘checks and balances’ so as to prevent the abuse of power.

The reality in Nigeria and in some other places is that the arms of government cannot be in watertight compartments. Separation of powers did not expressly posit that there shall be no influence by the Legislature and the Executive over each other’s activities. Rather, emphasis is that neither should usurp the power of the other. However, one cannot gloss over the fact that the personalisation of authority and overbearing attitude of the executive arm of government is increasingly disturbing in Nigeria.


It has been verified that at the base of every political system of any nation is a constitution which should reflect the aspirations of the people. Is this the case with the Nigerian constitution and what are some of its provisions alien to true federalism?

Nigeria is arguably Africa’s leading experiment in the building and remodelling of federalist institutions to manage the challenges of unity, democracy and development. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has been widely criticised as a document hurriedly put together by the military in preparation for handing over to the civilian government at the inception of the Fourth Republic. Right from its inception on May 29, 1999, the constitution has been laced with problems and controversies. In particular, the federalist feature of the constitution as it relates to certain sensitive national issues has been a subject of various debates and arguments. That probably is the reason for the unending call for the restructuring of the polity as constitutional amendment alone may not remedy the challenges that stare us in the face as a country. Some of the issues begging for remedy are the constitutional provisions on Federal Character, Land Use, derivation formula, revenue allocation, fiscal federation, state creation, resource control, power sharing, power rotation, local government creation by states, state police, and the perceived long-standing marginalisation of the ethnic minorities and a few regions of the country. Interestingly, the solution to many of these issues is captured in the report of the 2014 National Conference. I say this with every sense of responsibility because I served as the Technical Resource Head of the Secretariat of Yoruba Delegates at the 2014 CONFAB. The over 600 Resolutions of the CONFAB which were reached by the 492 delegates through consensus touched most, if not all the, critical issues that have been listed as encumbrances to Nigeria’s rapid development and attainment of nationhood. I wish the powers-that-be will just look at the document and start the critical renovation of our national architecture.


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