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Presidentialism: Obasanjo still defends the costly system he foisted on Nigeria

Presidentialism: Obasanjo still defends the costly system he foisted on Nigeria

As they prepared to return Nigeria to civilian rule in 1979, the military regime, led by General Murtala Muhammed and later by General Olusegun Obasanjo, set up a 49-man committee to draft a new constitution for Nigeria. However, the regime gave the “49 wise men” a red line: they must not return Nigeria to the parliamentary system of government, practised after independence from 1960 to 1966. Instead, they should adopt the American-style presidential system. After General Murtala’s assassination in 1976, General Obasanjo took over as head of state and put his imprimatur on the draft constitution, inserting nearly 20 amendments.

So, the drafters of the 1979 Constitution lied when they ascribed it to “we, the people of Nigeria.” In truth, it was Obasanjo’s military regime, aided by a few civilian elites, that imposed the constitution and the presidential system on Nigeria. Today, over 40 years after Nigeria first practised the system, and despite its patent flaws and utter unsuitability for Nigeria, Obasanjo is still defending it.

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The Yoruba say ‘Omoeni ki sedi bebere, kaafi ilekesiidi omo elomiran’, which, roughly translated, means that however ugly one’s child’s bottom, one wouldn’t put beads on the bottom of someone else’s child. There’s a seeming parallel here. Being his ‘child’, Obasanjo can’t see the weaknesses of the presidential system in the Nigerian context and the relative merits of the parliamentary system, again in the Nigerian context.

Recently, Obasanjo rebuked members of the House of Representatives and leaders of the Northern Elders Forum who called for a return to the parliamentary system. He reminded them of the 1966 coup, which ended the practice of parliamentarianism in Nigeria. Counting from 1999 rather than 1979, Obasanjo argued that “the 24 years of practising the presidential system” were not enough to judge the system.

Well, let’s start with those points. First, the 1966 coup didn’t discredit the parliamentary system. If it did, then the 1983 coup discredited, even more so, the presidential system, which lasted for only four years (1979–1983) as against the parliamentary system, which lasted six years (1960–1966). Besides, the January 1966 coupists did not blame the failure of the parliamentary system for the coup; rather, they cited corruption and the rigged federal elections of 1964, and particularly those of the Western Region in 1965. But if corruption and electoral fraud were problems under the parliamentary system, haven’t they reached stratospheric levels under the presidential system? Has the presidential system not produced powerful and buccaneering presidents who hijack the national electoral body and security agencies to rig elections for themselves or their parties? Second, if, as Obasanjo said, 24 years are not enough to judge the efficacy of the presidential system, were six years enough to judge the parliamentary system, but for the 1966 military intervention?

 “Has the presidential system not produced powerful and buccaneering presidents who hijack the national electoral body and security agencies to rig elections for themselves or their parties?”

Yet, here’s the simple truth: the core justification for adopting the presidential system has failed abjectly. The claim was that a powerful executive president would be a unifying figure who could corral and unite the country. But which Nigerian president has been a unifying figure? Was President Buhari a unifying figure?

Is Bola Tinubu, who ran for president on an exclusionist Muslim-Muslim ticket and was rejected by 63 percent of the electorate, a unifying figure? And despite the enormous powers vested in the Nigerian president, has any president been able to corral and unite the country? Instead of authoritarian utopia, what Nigeria has had under the presidential system is totalitarian dystopia, where supposedly strong and unifying presidents use the military to enforce elusive unity. Remember Buhari’s ‘Operation Python Dance’ or Obasanjo’s ‘Odi Massacre’?

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Truth be told, it is impossible to govern a multi-ethnic country with a strongman mentality by concentrating and centralising powers and vesting them in one person. That’s why most multi-ethnic countries operate a more representative and consultative parliamentary system. Of the 193 UN member states, more than 140 have a parliamentary system or a hybrid of presidential and parliamentary systems. More than 32 of the 50 sovereign nations in Europe practise the parliamentary system.

The Commonwealth has a large collection of multi-ethnic countries, and, unsurprisingly, about 40 of the 54 Commonwealth countries operate the parliamentary system, including more successful countries like the UK, Canada, Australia, India, and Singapore. South Africa has a hybrid system.

Those opposed to political restructuring often say that it’s not the system that matters, but the operators. Obasanjo made the same point: “No matter what you bring and no matter what you import, if the political culture is not there, it won’t work.” On the face of it, that argument is unassailable. But it’s escapist logic. The truth is, systems and structures matter; they can constrain behaviour. 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. If it didn’t matter, why did they do it? In 2015, Sri Lanka ditched its executive presidency in favour of a prime ministership. In 1997, South Africa abolished its Senate and replaced it with the 90-member National Council of Provinces, or NCOP, with ten members representing each of the country’s nine provinces. No country should be so sclerotic that it can’t change its system of government if it’s not working.

Unfortunately, in Nigeria, those benefiting from the current system and those emotionally attached to it continue to resist change, even when everyone knows the system is deeply flawed and has failed. In 2018, when launching her book Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous at the London School of Economics, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said there were two root causes of corruption in Nigeria: first, weak institutions, and second, “Nigeria’s costly presidential system.” In his recent book Reclaiming the Jewel of Africa, Dr Segun Aganga said: “The consensus is that the American-style presidential system has proven too expensive for Nigeria,” adding that “the presidential system is too expensive for the size of the Nigerian economy.” Those are former finance ministers. But is anyone listening? Do the vested interests care that the presidential system drains Nigeria’s scarce resources with a behemothic presidency and a bicameral National Assembly whose members are among the best-remunerated legislators in the world?

Beyond fueling corruption and the high cost of governance, evidence also shows that the presidential system is worse than the parliamentary system in terms of good governance and economic efficiency. According to the OECD’s 2022 “Trust in Government” survey, the top 20 of the 41 OECD member countries surveyed operate a parliamentary system. America, the standard-bearer of presidentialism, scores 31 percent and ranks 35 in the survey. Furthermore, 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 from 1950 to 2015, they found that 91 percent of the best performers on economic growth and income equality are parliamentary governments. Why? Because democracy, rule of law, and checks and balances are stronger under a parliamentary system than under a presidential system.

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So, the evidence is overwhelming. The parliamentary system is more suitable for multi-ethnic countries than the over-centralised presidential system. The parliamentary system would also reduce corruption and the high cost of governance far better than the inherently costly presidential system. Finally, the parliamentary system induces more trust in government and better economic performance than the presidential system.

Nigeria’s founding fathers opted for the parliamentary system; the 1966 coupists torpedoed it, and Obasanjo buried it. But Nigeria must resurrect the parliamentary system or adopt a hybrid system. Presidentialism is an albatross. Nigeria must rid itself of it!