From Presidential to Parliamentary System in Nigeria: Will that End Africa’s War on Democracy?

From Presidential to Parliamentary System in Nigeria: Will that End Africa’s War on Democracy?

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

On Wednesday, 14th February, 2024, Honourable Wale Raji, an All Progressives Congress legislator representing Epe Federal Constituency, Lagos State, at the House of Representatives in Abuja, proposed a bill entitled, ‘The Bills Proposing Constitutional Alterations for a Transition to Parliamentary System of Government.’ The bill, sponsored by the House Minority Leader, Kingsley Chinda and 59 others from different political parties, was first read on the same Wednesday. The bill is seeking a transition from the current presidential system to a parliamentary system of government at the three layers of government in Nigeria. Reasons given for the proposal include the need to reduce the costs of presidential governance and the need to have more robust policy debates.

More important, Hon. Abdulssamad Dasuki, spokesperson of the sponsors of the bill, and representative of the Kebbe Tambuwal Constituency in Sokoto State, gave an interesting rationale for the bill: ‘our founders in their wisdom and in a political atmosphere devoid of compulsion, and having considered the interests of their native peoples and their desire to live together in a country where truth and justice reign, where no man is oppressed, and where all citizens live in peace and plenty, adopted the parliamentary system of government.’ 

And perhaps most importantly, Hon. Dasuki said, ‘that was the governance system of the First Republic, a period when legislative and executive powers were exercised by the representatives of the people in parliament and in the executive, and by the nature of the system, these representatives were accountable to the people. For six years, while it was in operation, the system worked for the country… The collapse of the First Republic and the long stretch of military rule culminated in the adoption of a new system of government, theoretically fashioned after the presidential system of the United States, but in practice, imbibed the uttermost  attributes of military rule.’ Without any whiff of doubt, seeking a transition from a presidential, to a parliamentary, system is a very welcome development. However, can the transition stop the soft killing of democracy in Africa, and particularly in West Africa? Not likely.

Presidential and Parliamentary Systems 

There are three schools of thought on whether the current presidential system in Nigeria should be discontinued or sustained. The proponents of presidential system, at its inception, looked at it as a possible antidote to the challenges posed by parliamentarianism under the First Republic. Presidential governance was not, and is still not, seen as a systemic problem, but as a mismanagement and leadership question. They often ask why it is working well in the United States from where it is borrowed and not functioning well in Nigeria. 

And true enough, presidentialism has its merits and demerits: it has the advantage of separation of powers, little influence of the political party system, political stability because of the fixed term of office, and the possibility to appoint experts into government. In terms of demerits. The executive is considered less responsible. There are always deadlocks between the executive and legislative arms of government. Besides, government can be rigid. It is also considered as a spoils system because the president has sweeping powers of patronage. 

And perhaps more interestingly, opponents of presidential system consider that the presidential system is unnecessarily too costly to maintain. The president wields excessive powers to the detriment of other arms of government. Besides, the president is generally elected by universal suffrage by the people, thus making it difficult to control the excesses of the president. In a situation where the president is at loggerhead with the legislature, he can easily address himself directly to the people.

In the context of a parliamentary system, there are also merits and demerits. It is believed that the executive and the legislature are better coordinated, that there is no room for authoritarianism. Not only is the government responsible and diverse groups are represented in the legislature, there is also flexibility in the system as the Prime Minister can easily be changed whenever the situation warrants it. 

Its demerits are also many: parliamentary system does not enable the legislature to hold the executive responsible simply because there is no separation of powers. It enables unqualified legislators and political instability. This is because governments are only sustained for as long as they have the majority in the house, especially when there is no single-largest party following an election. Of more concern is the lack of pressure to act always promptly as the cabinet members do not have any fixed tenure in office. Party, more than national, interest drives politicians under a parliamentary system. It is the bureaucrats and technocrats that are more engaged in overseeing governmental affairs

In a presidential system, the head of the government leads an executive, that is distinct from the legislature. In this case, the head of the state and head of government are the same. Also, a key feature is that the executive is not responsible to the legislature. An executive president can veto acts by the legislature and cannot be removed by a simple vote of no-confidence in the legislature. Apart from the power to pardon and commute judicial sentences given to criminals, the president is elected directly by the people or by an electoral college. An executive president is either elected directly by the people or by an electoral college.

On the contrary, in a parliamentary system, the strict separation of power under a presidential system is seen to cause conflicts between the executive and the legislative arms of government. There is always a close relationship between the legislature and the executive in light of the fact that the Prime Minister and the other ministers are elected by the members of parliament. The executive is not only responsible to the legislature, there is also a collective responsibility. As noted by, each minister’s responsibility is also the responsibility of the whole Council. Other features of the parliamentary system include dual executive, secrecy of procedure leadership character, bicameral legislature, and lack of fixed tenure. 

As put by the regarding dual executive, ‘there are two executives, the real executive and the titular executive. The nominal executive is the Head of State (president/monarch) while the real executive is the Prime Minister, who is the head of government.’

Parliamentary system is characterized by secrecy of procedure. Cabinet proceedings are generally secret and not meant to be divulged to the public. More important is the leadership of the Prime Minister. As further noted, ‘the leader of this form of government is the Prime Minister. The leader of the party that wins a majority in the lower house is appointed as the PM.’ It is a bicameral legislature and there is no fixed tenure. ‘The term of the government depends on its majority support in the lower house. If the government does not win a vote of no confidence, the council of ministers has to resign. Elections will be held and a new government is formed.’

Speaking grosso modo, the separation of power between the Executive arm of government and the legislature is not distinct, as ministers can also be appointed by the parliament. As seen by the people of Nigeria, and as Hon. Dasuki also rightly pointed out above, the parliamentary system functioned well under Nigeria’s First Republic. This is one major rationale for the many calls by seasoned old politicians to return to parliamentary system, especially to ensure national unity. Many observers have been drawing attention to the likely disintegration of Nigeria, because of the very inclement conditions of living in Nigeria. 

In fact, people are quietly talking about the possibility of a coup d’état in Nigeria. The Maradona of coups himself, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, has reportedly cautioned  President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT)’s about unending suffering of the Nigerian people which may precipitate coup making. The Media Assistant to General Babangida has dismissed the report as another figment of imagination that should be quickly thrown into the garbage of history. Likely coup or not, the conduct and management of democracy in Nigeria has become problematic to the extent that many conscientious observers are beginning to think that coups d’état may soon return to Nigeria. This is in spite of PBAT’s struggle for true federalism in Nigeria (vide my edited book on Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s Struggle for True Federalism: Perspectives, Problems, and Prospects (Vantage Publishers, 2000).

In this regard, will it not be too shameful for Nigeria to play host to a military coup after having been preaching the gospel of non-constitutional change of government and even straining ties with Niger Republic because of military coup in the country? Neither coups-making nor lack of it solves the problem of democracy. The conduct and management of liberal democracy has prompted Chief Olusegun Okikiola Obasanjo to note that it has become imperative to review the question of democracy in Africa’s political governance. 

The problem of democracy has become more problematic in Africa, especially in the West African region. Proponents of democracy have always posited that it is the best form of government. Emphasis is always placed on promotion and protection of human rights, public accountability, regular elections, freedom of press, democratic pluralism, and in fact, freedom to do and undo. In fact, democracy is freely defined as the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. But whose democracy is in question when discussing the bastardisation of democracy in Africa? Is the problem of democracy that of the system or that of the leadership? Explained differently, is the complaint about presidentialism that of unworkability in Nigeria or that of its poor conduct and management? Will there be any change in attitudinal disposition in light of the political chicanery to which the modern-day politicians in Nigeria are used? In short, will the transition from a presidential to parliamentary system put a stop to the current war on democracy in Africa?

Ending Africa’s War on Democracy

In order to compel the world, and particularly the peoples of Africa, to evolve democratic culture in the mania of the West, President François Mitterrand of France made it clear during the 1990 Franco-African summit held in the coastal city of La Baule in France, that the adoption of democracy by African leaders would henceforth be the conditionality for the grant of development aid by France. Other Western countries quickly bought into the idea of conditionality. In fact, this conditionality later informed the ECOWAS Protocol A/SP1/12/01 on Democracy and Good Governance.

The ECOWAS Protocol noted in the preamble its concern ‘about the increasing incidence of conflicts caused by religious intolerance, political marginalization and non-transparent elections,’ and provides in its Article 1(b) that ‘every accession to power must be made through free, fair, and transparent election.’ And more interestingly, Article 1(c) stipulates ‘zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means.’  The relevant question now is the determination of the extent to which non-acceptance of unconstitutional changes of government can be sustained. Based on the dynamics of the war on democracy, as identified by Madeleine Albright, a human rights advocate and former US ambassador to the United Nations, there is nothing to suggest that there can be quick end to Africa’s war on democracy.

In her write-up published in 2018 in the Encyclopedia Britannica Anniversary Edition: 250 Years of Excellence, 1768-2018, Ambassador Albright identified many dynamics of the unending war on democracy: deepening doubts about the capacity of democracy to deliver on its promises which are feeding much anger; increasing gaps between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural areas, between the well-educated and those still lacking 21st Century skills.

As she put it, ‘democratically elected leaders swept into power on the promise of change find themselves unable to meet expectations and so begin losing popularity the day they take office. Globalisation – a fact of life – has become for many an evil to be resisted at all costs. In a rising number of countries, citizens profess a lack of faith in parliaments, the media, police courts, and governing and opposition parties alike.’ And perhaps most importantly, Ambassador Albright also had it that ‘the lack of trust is exacerbated by the sustained propaganda campaigns orchestrated by Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who has emerged as the leading opponent of liberal democracy in our time.’ 

The implication of this is that there is a permanent threat from the Russians and the threat apparently goes beyond the question of democracy. First, there is the war of containment. Writing in 2018, Ambassador Albright had it that ‘seventy years ago, the United States developed a containment strategy to push back against Soviet expansionism and counter the spread of Communist ideology, confident that if we put up enough economic, military, and political pressure the Soviet system would ultimately collapse. Today, Russia is pursuing its own containment strategy against liberal democracy – using high-tech tools, such as computational propaganda and disinformation campaigns, to penetrate and undermine Western institutions, while destabilizing fragile democracies on their periphery, such as Georgia and Ukraine.’ 

In the thinking of Vladimir Putin, Ambassador Albright has argued, ‘if he applies enough pressure, liberal democratic institutions will collapse and the spread of democratic ideals will stop. But those who wish to tear democracy down can succeed only if democracy’s guardians are too complacent, too divided, too timid, or too stuck in the past to stop them.’ Thus, US containment strategy versus the Sovieto-Russian counter-containment strategy is a catalytic agent of the war on democracy worldwide. What is the extent of preventability of the Russian threats? 

Three suggestions have been offered by Ambassador Albright: collective opposition to the repression of free institutions; support for critical thinking, education, and the truth; as well as recognizing that democracy’s unique value is its ability – through reason and open debate – to find remedies for its own shortcoming.’ In this regard, the solution to democratic setbacks cannot be by bowing to the false gods of nationalism and tyranny, but by building better, more flexible, and responsive societies. That job is within our power to do, and we had better get on with it before it is too late.’ It is against this background that the false gods of nationalism and tyranny that ending the war on democracy in Africa should be discussed.

The most critical war on democracy is the manipulation of the constitution or other legal instruments, such as the electoral rules. It is about the use of democracy to destroy democracy. The war on democracy has shifted in style from use of brute force to use of constitutional irrationality and changing the constitution to allow for sit-tight governance. In Chad, the Constitution provides that the President of the National Assembly should succeed the president in the event of his demise or absence and that he should organize elections within six months. The constitutional provisions were jettisoned. Mahamat Déby, the son of the late President Idris Déby Itno, was installed the president of Chad by the military. The African Union kept mute about it. France happily condoned it under the guise that the son of Idris Derby was part of the government of his father who was considered the most dependable ally of the West before his death.

The same is true of the attitude of France and the African Union concerning the third term of President Alassane Dramane Ouattara of the Côte d’Ivoire. Alassane Ouattara, who had many eligibility setbacks when he was to contest for the presidency, especially on the basis that he did not have an Ivoirian parentage, was helped to power in 2010 by the international community and the ECOWAS. By then, Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept that he lost the election to Ouattara, who is currently on his third term now. Without doubt, this is a constitutional coup that is worse than a pen-robbery. 

The most recent constitutional coup is that of the Senegalese president, whose country is reputed to have been very politically stable. Senegal does not have any record of coup-making. The presidential election was scheduled to hold on February 25, 2024. For various reasons of force majeure, President Macky Sall postponed the election date to December 15, 2024. The postponement has generated controversies and fatal protests. Even though a Senegalese court of competent jurisdiction has overturned the postponement, there is no disputing the fact that about 105 deputies supported the postponement out of a total Assembly of 165 members. This is a manifestation of democracy, even though there were reports that those who opposed the postponement were forced out of the National Assembly. Is the use of force to suppress any opposition now an element of democracy?

Seeking a transition from the presidential, to the parliamentary, system is patriotic in its initiation, responsible in reaction to public yearnings, centripetal in national unity calculations, and quite soothing in calming down the current political tensions in the country. The political governance of Nigeria, especially under President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB), underscores self-deceit, political chicanery, and cultural rascality in wrongly preaching the sermons of indivisibility of Nigeria. Most unfortunately, however, keeping Nigeria united by manu militari can no longer be done in the Gowonian mania. Keeping Nigeria one as a task that must be done now requires worshiping God with both common and uncommon sense. A lot of soft methods, like returning to a parliamentary system, has become a desideratum. In other words, no national unity can endure without first ensuring strong regional cultural settings. A new Nigeria can emerge from the adoption of a parliamentary system which accommodates various social groups of society. With the deepening boko haramism Islamic jihad, and recidivist Fulani herdsmen’s attacks on farmers, democracy cannot be expected to thrive well. They are all killing democracy softly, and surely paving the way for militaro-people’s coups. The various State Assemblies should therefore make haste in passing the bill.

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