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Presidentialism is not serving Nigeria well: It’s time to ditch it

The system of government that a country adopts can determine its political and economic progress. That’s why countries choose a system of government that best suits them, and why many readily change their form of government if it’s not working. My view is that the presidential system is not working for Nigeria, and, as such, the country should adopt the parliamentary system, which will serve it better. This view is supported by evidence of the failure of presidentialism in Nigeria, as well as by empirical analyses of the two systems.

First, it’s instructive to note that most of the world’s countries have prime ministers and not executive presidents. Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, only about 46 have a presidential system, where full executive powers are vested in one person. Out of the 50 sovereign states in Europe, 34 are parliamentarian; so are nearly 40 of the 54 member states of the Commonwealth, including the most successful ones, such as Canada, Australia, India and Singapore.

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Furthermore, political structuring, whereby countries change their system of government, is common worldwide. In their paper entitled “Determinants of constitutional change: Why do countries change their form of government?”, Bernd Hayo and Stefan Voigt identified 123 changes in the form of government in 169 countries from 1950 to 2003. More recently, in 2015, Sri Lanka, which adopted a powerful executive presidency in 1978, introduced the 19th Amendment, described as “the most revolutionary reform ever applied to its constitution”, to dilute the powers of the executive presidency and move more towards a parliamentary system.

By contrast, Nigeria has moved in the opposite direction. At independence in 1960, Nigeria inherited the parliamentary system and practised it for six years until the military intervention in 1966. About thirteen years later, when General Olusegun Obasanjo decided to return Nigeria to civil rule, he set up a constitutional drafting committee to fashion a new Constitution for the country. But he so loathed the oppositional politics associated with the parliamentary system that he effectively instructed the “49 Wise Men” tasked with drafting the 1979 Constitution to shun the system, never mind the fact that one of the “perils of presidentialism” is political gridlock resulting from the competing claims for legitimacy by the president and the legislation.

But apart from Obasanjo’s preference, the committee itself favoured the presidential system. Chris Akor has explored this issue on the pages of this newspaper. In a number of articles on Nigeria’s fondness for strongman politics, he cited the reasons the framers of the 1979 Constitution gave for opting for the presidential system. One of these was that Nigeria needed a strong president who could serve as “a symbol of national unity” and “a custodian of the national interest”.

Well, the so-called 49 Wise Men were utterly naïve. The truth is that you can’t govern a multi-ethnic country with a strongman mentality by vesting excessive powers in one person from one ethnic group. That’s why most ethnically-divided countries favour the parliamentary system, which is more representative and collegial.

Let’s face it, which president has united this country or really been the symbol of national unity? Instead of authoritarian utopia, where strong leaders bring people happily together, what we’ve had is totalitarian dystopia, where supposedly unifying leaders use excessive military force to suppress ethnic agitations. From President Obasanjo’s Odi massacre to President Buhari’s “Operation python dance”, Nigeria’s all-powerful leaders have been using military repression to enforce unity in the country. Such draconian rule is usually associated with presidentialism.

The truth is, comparatively, the parliamentary system was politically more successful than the presidential system in Nigeria. Think about it. Nigeria practised the parliamentary system for six years, from 1960 to 1966, and has now practised the presidential system for about 25 years, first for about five years between 1979 and 1983 and then for 20 years from 1999 to date. While the seeming failure of the parliamentary system between 1960 and 1966 can be blamed on the inexperience of the immediate post-independence politicians, who suddenly found themselves running a country without a colonial oversight, what excuse can anyone give for the utter failure of the presidential system over the past 25 years? It was the 1966 military coups, not the parliamentary system, that provoked inter-ethnic tensions in Nigeria. But the past 25 years of presidentialism have been defined by political instability and ethno-national tensions. Presidentialism hasn’t guaranteed political stability for Nigeria.

But what about government effectiveness? Well, the evidence shows that Nigeria under a parliamentary system, with a prime minister that was first among equals and with powers devolved to regional governments, was better governed than under the presidential system, where excessive powers are vested in the hands of one person at the centre. Section 5(5) of the Constitution gives the president “executive powers” and section 148 says he “may, in his discretion”, assign any state responsibility to the vice president or any minister. In other words, the president can exercise executive powers alone without giving any responsibility to a minister or even the vice president. Indeed, last year, President Buhari stripped Vice President Yemi Osinbajo of virtually all the key responsibilities he had during their first term. So, despite his relative youth, intellect and energy, Osinbajo functions almost entirely at the behest of the president! That’s not good for effective government.

The ideal constitutional arrangement is for President Buhari to be the ceremonial head of state, while Osinbajo is the prime minister and head of government. With that arrangement, Buhari can make the overseas trips he seems to enjoy and be as laid-back as he wants, while Osinbajo, as prime minister, gets on with running the government, as he did effectively on the two occasions President Buhari was on long medical vacations. At the moment, even though the president is at home, no one seems to be running the country. The presidential system has also not delivered effective government for Nigeria.

But the strongest argument against presidentialism is economic. In a research paper entitled “Who does better for the economy? Presidents versus parliamentary democracies”, economists Richard McManus and Gulcin Ozkan argue that parliamentary systems produce superior economic outcomes than presidential systems. Using data from 119 countries across the period 1950 to 2015, they found that, on average, annual GDP growth is up to 1.2 percentage point higher in countries governed by parliamentary systems; inflation is 6 percentage points lower; and income inequality is up to 20 percentage points lower. They found that 91% of the best performers on growth and income inequality are parliamentary governments. By contrast, the study found that presidential regimes are consistently associated with less favourable economic outcomes, such as slower output growth, higher and more volatile inflation and greater income inequality.

But why do parliamentary systems deliver better economic outcomes? Well, the authors argue that this is because parliamentary systems consistently feature higher scores of democracy, more extensive media freedoms, a stronger rule of law and greater checks and balances. Robust legal, political and administrative institutions, which are more associated with parliamentary systems than presidential ones, explain why parliamentarism has produced greater democratic and economic progress than presidentialism. Of course, the US bucks this trend; it’s governed by a presidential system and yet economically successful. The authors argue that’s because of its inherent checks and balances. As someone puts it, the US system “is checked and balanced to a fault”!

So, the evidence is clear. A country’s system of government can determine its political and economic progress. And the truth is that the presidential system has not served Nigeria well. Parliamentarism is a better route to political stability, government effectiveness and economic progress in Nigeria than presidentialism. Thus, restructuring Nigeria must include returning it to the parliamentary system.

Olu Fasan


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