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Parliamentarism can offer Nigeria an escape from bad governance and weak institutions (1)

In my public reflections, I have been consistent in pointing to Nigeria’s weak or pretend institutions as the leading cause of state dysfunction. In one of such reflections last month where I argued that our institutions are not up to scratch, an academic who has followed my writings closely gave a short but poignant response: “we know this. What’s the solution?”

Although every criticism or analysis contains the seed for its own solution, today and next week, I will present what I consider the best constitutional arrangements that will give Nigeria a fair chance of developing and sustaining strong institutions, promote good governance and prevent the personalisation of power that has characterised Nigeria’s presidential democracy since 1979.

Scholars of institutions have always balked at the idea of suggesting sure-proof ways of building strong institutions quickly. For most of them, building and operating state institutions is a long-term project even under ideal circumstances. That leaves new, fragile and conflict-affected states in a quandary and susceptible to strong man rule and personalisation of power that is particularly destructive for these nations and ultimately responsible for their poverty and underdevelopment.

if Nigerians are concerned about good governance and institution building to rein in the excesses of our leaders, the first reform that has to take place is to abolish the powerful presidential system and revert to a more collegiate parliamentary system

Despite this hesitation, years of research by scholars of comparative politics and empirical evidence around the world, as summarised by John Gerring et al of Boston University, point to the fact that presidentialism tends to foster “a more personalised and free-floating style of leadership centred on individual politicians and smaller, less established organisational entities”, while “Parliamentarism fosters a politics that is highly predictable, institutionalized form of politics and policymaking in which participants are part of the establishment.”

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Researchers are also in total agreement that parliamentarism fosters a stronger political party system, which as the American Political Science Association (APSA) noted in 1950, is the linchpin of democratic accountability and effective governance.

Drawing on these, Theodore Lowi in 1985 and Juan Linz in 1990 point to the key weakness of presidentialism, which is that it fosters a more personalised form of political behaviour in which presidents, legislators, interest group leaders and even bureaucrats, enjoy significant independence from the political party.

In contrast, the key distinguishing factor of parliamentarism is its fostering of politics that is more institutionalised and centred, as it were, on political parties. What is more, John Gerring and his associates, in 2008, did an empirical study of presidential and parliamentary systems and concluded that based on evidence, “parliamentary systems offer significant advantages over presidential systems. In no case examined … does parliamentary rule seem to detract from good governance. In most policy areas, particularly in the areas of economic and human development, parliamentary systems are associated with superior governance.”

This should naturally suggest that new, fragile or conflicted states desirous of building strong institutions should naturally opt for the parliamentary system of government that forces all actors to act within the confines of the party. But we know African leaders particularly dislike curbs and checks on their powers.

For those colonised by the British, they have virtually all replaced the more collegiate Westminster parliamentary system bequeathed to them at independence with a more powerful presidential system that gives the president far greater powers than is naturally healthy for the development of institutions.

This allows the president to personalise power, eliminate or render the party ineffective like in Uganda and Kenya, undermine and even destroy state institutions, clamp down on opponents and build an alternate administrative structure based purely on personal loyalty and patronage.

In the case of Nigeria, the excuse to do away with the parliamentary system was the so-called conflict of personality and authority between the nominal and ceremonial president and the Chief Executive or Prime Minister during the first republic that was erroneously fingered as the cause of the collapse of the first republic and the subsequent plunge into a fratricidal civil war.

Perhaps, scarred by the civil war, Nigeria’s largely elite and intelligential class taxed with the job of producing the 1979 constitution decided to jettison the more collegiate Westminster parliamentary model for the American-styled presidential system without regard to the implication of that model for institution building and good governance.

Perhaps, if their only concern was the conflict of personality and authority between a ceremonial president and prime minister, they could have adopted the South African model that is at once solidly parliamentary and presidential at the same time.

The South African model retained all the features of a solid parliamentary system with a strong party system and a strong parliament where the president and leader of the ruling party is subjected to strict oversight and held accountable. It however addressed the concern of those like Leopold Senghor who argued that sharing power was un-African, and did away with the dual authority figure by providing for a president only who combines both functions of the ceremonial president and prime minister.

But I suspect our ’49 Wise Men’ – the crème de la crème of Nigeria’s academics, lawyers and politicians, were attracted by what they erroneously saw as the “structural elegance” of the American-styled presidential system, which they argued was more compatible with African indigenous kingship/chieftaincy traditions.

In essence, they knowingly set out to create a dictatorship president and made it in such a way that the president could do away or sidestep all the institutional restraints placed around him, personalise power, weaken or destroy the country’s fragile institutions and build his own power structure based on personal loyalty and patronage.

In summary, if Nigerians are concerned about good governance and institution building to rein in the excesses of our leaders, the first reform that has to take place is to abolish the powerful presidential system and revert to a more collegiate parliamentary system that ensures a very strong party system and forces all actors to act within recognisable organisational structures that is robust enough to force accountability and prevent the personalisation of power.

To be continued

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