A Vote for Parliamentary System

SimonKolawolelive! By Simon-Kolawole, Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

SimonKolawolelive! By Simon-Kolawole, Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com, sms: 0805 500 1961

In case you missed it, 71 reps have tabled a bill before the house proposing the adoption of a parliamentary system of government in Nigeria. For some reason, this major development is not trending. But I find the proposal very interesting, in fact exciting. As a staunch advocate of restructuring (not to be confused with the disguised campaign to “punish” some parts of Nigeria on the basis of ethnicity and religion), I have always believed that returning to a parliamentary system would offer us an opportunity to practise a more robust form of democracy. I like presidentialism, which we currently practise, but I love the parliamentary system.

Before I proceed, a caveat is critical: I do not believe parliamentarianism is the magic solution to Nigeria’s problems. When I say Nigeria’s problems, of course, I refer to the poor standard of living, the corruption and the ethno-religious strife which pervade every segment and every section of the country in varying degrees. I have always argued that competent and patriotic leadership is what we need to address these problems. I am, therefore, not suggesting in any way or by any means that adopting the parliamentary system of government would turn Nigeria to Japan the day after the prime minister assumes power. No. I do not have such evidence in my file.

I am also aware that many intellectuals, activists and commentators have offered proposals that they think would automatically solve our problems and catapult us to development. Some think it is “true federalism” (which is basically about the sharing of powers between the national and sub-national governments), while there are those who believe the magic formula is “fiscal federalism” (I don’t know the Nigerian meaning of this concept, but I always guess the advocates want states to keep the revenue generated in their territories). Many have also suggested that state police, resource control, Shar’ia, and such like, would take Nigeria to the Olympian heights of glory.

For those who don’t know, let me do a brief introduction to the parliamentary system of government, specifically the Westminster type we inherited from the UK in 1960 before discarding it in the 1979 constitution. Under the system, parties contest for seats in the national parliament. The party with most seats usually forms government.

(If the party does not have enough seats, it goes into a coalition.) Thereafter, the leader of the party becomes the prime minister, who is the head of government — like a bank CEO. There will still be a president, who is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but it is a ceremonial position — like a bank chairman.
While the president will be busy receiving visiting heads of state, declaring new buildings open and commemorating Armed Forces Remembrance Day as well as the National Independence Day, the real person running the show is the prime minister, who appoints ministers and takes charge of the budgetary and policy direction of the government. By comparison, the president, in a presidential system, is the head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In the opinion of many political analysts, Nigeria’s president has virtually absolute powers and is the most powerful president in the world. He can do and undo — with little or no restrain.

Why, then, am I so in love with the parliamentary system? To start with, for those who think the presidential system is expensive, this is one way to cut the cost. Unlike under our presidential system which practically forces a presidential candidate to campaign in the 36 states of the federation and score at least 25% of votes cast in no fewer than 24 states, the parliamentary system only requires the would-be prime minister, usually the leader of the party, to win a seat into parliament. So long the party forms the majority either by itself or through a coalition, the party leader becomes the prime minister.

That, for instance, means if President Muhammadu Buhari wants to be the prime minister of Nigeria and he is the leader of APC, he only has to win the parliamentary seat from his Daura federal constituency. If APC wins the majority of seats in parliament, Buhari will become the prime minister, except, of course, he is not interested — as we saw in 1960 when Sir Ahmadu Bello, despite being the leader of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), preferred to be premier of Northern Nigeria and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was chosen as prime minister instead. However, it is usually those who want to be prime minister that lead their parties to the general election.

How does this save cost? Buhari would not need posters, billboards, rallies and jingles in Lagos or Kogi. He would not need polling agents in Afikpo or Eket. He only needs them in Daura — just like your senator only needs to win a seat in parliament to have a chance of becoming senate president. Buhari would not need to spend N500 billion — he is not going for an election! The other benefit of this is that he would not owe too many people. The cost of running national and state elections in Nigeria is so humongous you would need to be financed by those you would end up owing heavy political IOUs. They will take your government captive.

But the real cost-saving comes from forming a cabinet. In parliamentarianism, cabinet ministers are picked from among the elected parliamentarians. That means all the 36 or 42 ministers will come from the national assembly. Under presidentialism, we duplicate the costs of running government. Look at the number of aides and the cost of maintaining the senate president and the speaker and ministers. More so, under parliamentarianism, there is no big distinction between the legislature and the executive. The cabinet minister is also a legislator. That should help reduce the perennial friction over budgetary processes and oversight functions in Nigeria.

Another attraction, for me, is that the nonsense about technocrats versus politicians will stop. Under presidentialism, some good people can stay out of partisan politics and call themselves “technocrats” — waiting to be appointed ministers after the politicians have done all the hard job. Under parliamentarianism, you must go and contest win a seat in parliament before you can dream of becoming a cabinet minister. The likely benefit of this is that we would take parliamentary elections more seriously and not abandon them to clowns and opportunists. Parliamentarianism can, indeed, improve the quality of representation.

By far my biggest attraction to parliamentarianism is the Prime Minister’s Question Time. God, I love it! This is the time during which the prime minister is questioned in parliament on policy decisions and actions by the leader of the opposition. Any prime minister that is not sure of himself/herself will melt. If we were operating a parliamentary system, for instance, the president would have had to answer hard questions about so many issues, from security to the economy. The intense scrutiny before TV cameras is a real test of character and competence. Under our variant of presidential system, the president answers to nobody, in practical terms.

But truth be told, our politicians have been behaving as if we operate a parliamentary system. An example is when the senate or house of reps issues orders to ministries, departments and agencies to stop a recruitment process or reverse a policy. This is pure nonsense. In presidentialism, the powers are separated — the legislature makes laws, appropriates public funds and performs oversight functions (mainly to ascertain implementation of laws and budgets) while the executive is in charge of policies, preparing budgets and implementing the laws. But in Nigeria, lawmakers run a parallel government. They mutilate the budget so much the president can no longer recognise it.
In some states, I have heard about opposition parties forming “shadow cabinets” — which is what obtains in a parliamentary system. Shadow cabinets are formed by opposition parties to promote alternative ideas and policies as a counterforce to the ruling parties. They use this to market themselves as better alternatives ahead of the next general election. Also, many state houses of assembly in Nigeria have been passing “vote of confidence” on their governors. This is a practice under parliamentarianism, not presidentialism. Therefore, we are apparently in love with the parliamentary system without professing it. Why not simply switch over?

Finally, I am not as naïve as to suggest that it is parliamentarianism that will banish poverty from Nigeria. What is obstructing our path to progress is not the structure of the federation or the constitution. As a student of development, I have studied how many countries have made giant strides under all kinds of political conditions: dictatorship, democracy, quasi-democracy, mono-ethnicity, multi-ethnicity, unitary system, true federalism, fake federalism, parliamentarianism, presidentialism, state police, federal police and whatnot. There is just no alternative to competent and patriotic leadership. Non-negotiable.


Controversy has broken out over the exclusion of certain candidates from the 2019 presidential TV debate organised by the Nigeria Elections Debate Group (NEDG). Only five presidential candidates were picked out of the 79. I hold a completely different opinion. For a major TV debate to be effective, it should involve only candidates whose parties have won anything of significance in previous elections. There can be other debates for all candidates. Even if you watched the vice-presidential debate on Friday, it was glaring that it should have been between two candidates. Most presidential elections always boil down to two top candidates. Fact.

There is nothing I like when someone throws a challenge at his accusers. Mr. Ibrahim Magu, the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), testifying on Thursday in a libel he filed against a newspaper, said emphatically: “I live a modest life. My wife is a civil servant. We have only one house in Karu, Abuja, and when I retire, I will go back there.” While the onus is now on his accusers to prove that he owns the various mansions attributed to him, I am thinking aloud: how many of our career public officers can publicly declare how many houses they own without any fear of contradictions? Challenge.

So good they named him twice. Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, the Premium Times journalist who exposed Mrs Kemi Adeosun’s NYSC certificate scandal which led to her resignation as minister of finance, has been honoured by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism as the Investigative Journalist of the Year 2018. I would think Abdulaziz even deserves a presidential handshake for helping President Buhari in his well-proclaimed fight against corruption. That would be wishful thinking, though, given that Buhari did not act on the exposé. Even Mr. Adebayo Shittu, a national service dodger, firmly remains a minister months after he was exposed. Dissonance.

Controversy broke out recently over contradictory police statements on the legality of having sex in a car. Mr. Abayomi Shogunle, head of the public complaint rapid response unit (PCRRU) of the police, said as long as the sex is consensual and not done in a place of worship, no crime has been committed. But Mr. Edgal Imohimi, the Lagos state commissioner of police, countered that the Lagos state criminal law prohibits engaging in “indecent” activities in public space. Sex, Imohimi said, falls under “indecent activities”. For those who are seriously determined to have sex in a car, can they please tint their windows so that the rest of us who are children can mind our business? Suggestion.

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