Hon. Eziuche Ubani
The just-concluded general elections in the United States of America offered Nigerians an opportunity to assess the political system in that country vis-a-vis what obtains here at home. In this interview with Onwuka Nzeshi, Chairman House Committee on Climate Change, Hon. Eziuche Ubani, says there is no basis for comparison as the presidential system practiced in the two countries are poles apart
The United States of America has just concluded its presidential elections and achieved a smooth transition and this has been greeted by popular acclaim of the American democracy across the world. What lessons can Nigeria learn from that exercise?
The lesson lies in the presence in the United States of a democratic structure and political culture where the power to elect anybody resides in the people. There were no manipulations and no underhand deals; there was nothing but very scientific process that places power in the hands of the electorate who make their decisions and those decisions are respected by the system. There is something it says about the foundation of democracy that they have - that at the end of the day, it is the people who should be at the centre of every process. The people are supposed to elect their leaders; they are supposed to select them by whatever criteria or sentiments and also remove them as they please because that is the essence of democracy. But in our own case here, it is not the same. The parameters by which our leaders emerge are very different, convoluted and sometimes convoluted such that sometimes those who are not supposed to emerge as leaders do emerge as political leaders. Sometimes those who are reluctant and unprepared are chosen as leaders. There was no good luck in the Obama thing (re-election), rather it was scientific; he worked for it; he made himself available; the people assessed him and he was prepared to accept the verdict of the people because at the end of the day the people are at the centre of every governance process. Governance is about the welfare and well being of the people. It is what they want that should happen so that is why the American people put their sentiments and preferences in the choice of their leaders. Unless we have that kind of foundation, the proper leaders will never emerge here.
Nigeria claims to have copied its presidential system of government from the United States model but with the differences you have seen in both systems, do you think we can still lay claim to that position?
We didn’t copy anything from America. It is just a claim, which we make because it soothes our ego and fancy to say that we copied from America as if that is the only licence for best practice. We didn’t copy anything from them because if you look at the American Constitution, they are running a federal system of government where powers are devolved; where the arms of government are properly separated and where states are independent as proper federating units. This kind of system puts people at the centre of the electoral process and decides what they want at any point in time. As you saw during the campaigns, they were dominated by issues relating to the people such as abortion, job creation, taxation, etc. The people made their decision based on what the candidates had to offer on these issues but we don’t have anything in our process and procedure that really gives the people the power to decide who governs them. Here a leader is elected on an empty platform and thereafter he just stands up to make a pronouncement and it becomes a policy. We didn’t copy anything from America rather we are running a parody of the American system. The truth is that what we have here is a caricature of the system we claim to have copied.
If what we have is not the right model would you advocate that we go for the US model system in full now that Nigeria is embarking on a review of the 1999 Constitution?
No, I will not borrow the American system even though it has worked for them for over two hundred years now. I will recommend that we run a parliamentary system. The parliamentary system is much more accountable. We do not have the temperament to be able to run the American system. Remember that the decision to unite and form one country called the United States of America was fought for and the people wrote their Constitution to suit their particular circumstance. It wasn’t the case here. What can put us back on track is to return to the parliamentary system we had where ministers are members of the parliament and have to win elections before they become ministers so that there is a proper government. For instance, in the National Assembly here, you don’t know which party is in opposition and which is the majority or the ruling party. Everything is so mixed up and convoluted to the extent that the individual ends up serving himself. You are not involved in what your party is doing and your representation here does not translate to your party’s ideology or manifesto and yet you can win elections. I prefer a situation where we have a parliamentary system; ministers will win elections and there is an ordered process of succession of party leadership so that the parties will become stronger not in the sense of a party being the largest in Africa but by what they in terms of the programmes they sell to the public. I don’t particularly like the idea of transplanting the presidential system to our shores. Over the years, I have learnt that you don’t give a black man so much discretion.
The presidential system gives room for so much discretion that people when they get elected become emperors and monarchs. But in the parliamentary system, it is easy to pass a vote of no confidence on a head of government that is not alive to its responsibilities. If the Prime Minister fails, the government falls and they form another one so at the end of the day it puts government on its toes and puts the party in the right frame of things. Here governance is personalised and you often hear things like “my government, my administration” but in the parliamentary system you don’t hear such things because governance is a collective responsibility. I think it will make us much more accountable. That is also what would have helped South Africa but if you look at what people like Zuma are doing there you will see that tendency of the black man to turn an otherwise good and democratic system into something else. When we were running the parliamentary system our democracy was much more stable; everybody was accountable because you come to parliament and answer questions.
If we want to do a public hearing here and we ask a minister to provide some documents, he will not. That does not happen in a parliamentary system because the minister sits in parliament and if any question arises in his area of mandate, he will have to answer it. It is much more accountable, much more manageable and much more easy for the party to regulate the conduct of its members and ensure that a government run by them does not derail from its mandate.
Now that the National Assembly is working towards amending the 1999 Constitution, are we expecting major changes such as going back to the parliamentary system?
I don’t know; I can’t say... I am just a member of the Constitution Review Committee but I can’t say that now because I don’t know in which direction the process would eventually go. It depends on what Nigerians want and how far reaching we are willing to go. So I can’t make that kind of prediction until we start the process and see what Nigerian really want and how we can manage it without creating chaos and anarchy. But I think that if we want to make any structural change in the polity, what we need is the parliamentary system. Look at the way the present system is being run- there is a provision in the law for a State and Local Government Joint Account and we said the states should also put ten per cent in the account of the local government but what has happened is that even the allocations from the federal government to the local governments have disappeared into the coffers of the states. That is not the way to go and achieve the goals of development in a country.
The whole world is jubilating over the successful conclusion of the elections in the United States but what is it that Africa and Nigeria stand to gain from the re-election of Obama?
Well, in the electioneering campaigns and debates, Africa didn’t feature at all. Also, the majority of Asia too did not feature in those debates. It was largely their domestic economy and the conflicts in the Arab world. So that is to tell you something about the shift in the focus of the American government, which was again determined by what their people want. It was Israel, Palestine and other flash points in the Middle East such as Iran and Syria.
So the point is that Africa doesn’t quite feature in some of these things except something happens. If we go by the election debates, Africa didn’t quite feature even though Obama is of African descent. I know he has visited one or two places in Africa since he became President but since Africa didn’t feature in the debate it is difficult to know what we in Africa should expect in his second term. We want to see a programme that involves Africa and puts the continent in focus because there are problems in Africa. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have become emerging markets and the United States need to have some engagement with some of these countries.
There are also some security issues like in Mali and Somalia where you have Al- Qaeda and its affiliates operating and terrorising the people. This kind of conflict situations also has something to do with the global war on terror and should have featured in the US election debates. I know that the United Nations has given a nod to a military intervention led by ECOWAS to flush out the rebels in Mali but the fact is that this is something that will benefit the global war on terror if America steps in by providing resources and training to the troops. The mission in Mali is important so that the security and development interests of countries such Nigeria, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Libya and even Algeria are not compromised.
In the early days of Obama’s first term, he talked a lot about the US switching to the green economy and the need to mitigate the impacts of climate change but these issues were also not captured in the campaigns. Are you surprised about this silence?
Yes, it didn’t feature and I am not surprised because the Republicans deny climate change and do not want to be engaged on the issue. There is a bill that has been sitting in the US Congress for a very long time on climate change and nobody has touched it because the Republicans are in control there. But you can see how the issue of climate change was injected into the campaigns by an act of God very close to the elections. Hurricane Sandy blew across the United States and the people’s eyes were opened and became convinced that this may have been caused by climate change. I can tell you that Obama will do more to put climate change on the front burner in this second coming. But nonetheless there are so many things he did about energy independence and investment in clean energy during the first term and he should be able to expand them in this fresh term. I think that the issues of climate change and global warming will be ignited again particularly now when he will not be encumbered by the need to seek another term. However, I urge Obama to use the opportunity of the Doha Climate Change Conference coming up in December to re-inject America into the process. If he does that it will also rub off on African countries.
If America embraces green energy and dumps fossil fuel does that not spell doom for economies such as ours that is solely dependent on oil?
I don’t think so. Everybody and every country must begin to think about life after oil. We must deliberately wean ourselves from oil. That is what some of these Middle East countries namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are doing. Brazil too. These countries even when they have oil are moving away from oil. They now sell their oil and use the proceeds to augment market investments and develop alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind energy. But in our own case, we don’t even mention it here and that is what we all should be concerned about as citizens of Nigeria.
In the course of the debates preceding the elections, Obama came under heavy criticisms by the Republicans who felt his government was weak and soft on some regimes perceived to be pro-terrorism and a threat to world peace. Now with this renewed mandate given to him, do you think the world would be safer than before?
There is something they don’t understand. They think Obama is a weak President but they are wrong. The American system is abiding and its interests are still the same but the point is that Romney was making those statements because he wanted to win. The Republicans don’t seem to understand what has changed about the world and why the US cannot just wake up now and attack a country like Iran or North Korea. They talk about using America’s strength to lead but they don’t know that the new world order calls for partnership among countries rather than the leadership of one country.
Every country has become autonomous and very strong and the issues of conflict in international politics have undergone some form of metamorphosis. The current dynamic of international politics is such that you don’t dictate to countries but you consult with them to build consensus on how to tackle conflicts.
After several years of war, Americans do not want to go into another war and that was why Romney had problems in his campaigns, which many saw as a harbinger of another war. Obama understands the true situation that the way out is not to embark on wars at the slightest excuse but to engage the various countries that may be inter connected with a conflict and see how it can be resolved without deploying troops.
We just hope that with Obama’s deep understanding of how the world has changed militarily and how countries are intertwined economically, conflicts will be minimised. It is now more of consultation and cooperation rather than dictation and confrontation.