• Friday, May 24, 2024
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Re-Parliamentarism can offer Nigeria an escape from bad governance and weak institutions

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In his September 24th piece,  Christopher Akor penned down a thought-provoking piece in a fashion that was every inch laced with scholarly dexterity. However, in my opinion, his claims and conclusion were fundamentally problematic. In Akor’s opinion, the governance problem that besets Nigeria is structural in nature. To paraphrase him, the best constitutional design that would offer Nigeria good governance and address the dictatorial tendencies of presidentialism is the Westminster style parliamentary democracy the country practised in the First Republic. As a budding institutionalist who has followed this debate by scholars and public commentators, I think the parliamentary versus presidential debate in Nigeria is one that has been repeated ad nauseam without considered reflection.

In scholarly writings, the debate has its origins in the scholarship of one of the harshest critics of presidentialism, Juan Linz, in what he dubbed “the perils of presidentialism”. This generated series of responses from some of the finest political scientists the world has ever seen. Essentially, the Linzian critic of presidentialism was premised on the following maladies: democratic instability, party indiscipline, rigidity of presidential terms, dual legitimacy (executive and legislature) which engenders gridlock in the process of policy formulation, and the proclivity to exploit presidential power(s) for private benefit. Hence, Linz submitted that “the vast majority of the stable democracies in the world today are parliamentary regimes, where executive power is generated by legislative majorities and depends on such majorities for survival.” Drawing on the Linzian view, other scholars who probed further seem to have formed a virtual consensus that suggests a preference for parliamentary systems over presidential systems.

Akor drew insights from this consensus in making his claims and conclusion, having read John Gerring and Strom Thacker’s research extensively. He posits that considering that merits of parliamentarism – high level of policy predictability, good governance, and stronger party system – “conflict state desirous of building strong institutions should naturally opt for parliamentary system that forces all actors to act within the confines of the party.” The problem is, such a conclusion is often blind to the drawbacks of parliamentarism, which of course both the framers of the American Constitution and the 1979 Constitution in Nigeria took into cognisance.

In the case of America, a careful reading of the federalist papers – a profound exposition of political science – clearly shows what the framers thought they were doing for 9 months in Philadelphia. Critics of presidentialism hardly pay attention to this. As I respond to  Akor’s claims and conclusion, I will also point out what I term “the perils of parliamentarism”.

In parliamentary systems, the Chief Executive (the Prime Minister) is the creature of the legislature (not the sovereign) who does not enjoy “plebiscitary legitimacy” as is the case in presidential systems. Consequently, there is hardly disagreement between them to ensure policy formation and outcomes serve wide interests. When they disagree, the legislature just kicks the PM out using a no confidence vote, have another election, and get a new PM who agrees with the legislature. Is that simple!

The mechanism of checks and balances which limits the exercise of executive power and dominance of an organ of government in presidentialism is literally ineffective in parliamentary systems. For instance, the United Kingdom which is the paragon of parliamentarism has the House of Lords, but it has no substantial powers like the Senate in presidential systems. The House of Lords can just make the Commons pass the Bill a second time and get what they want.

On the issue of presidential system’s proclivity to instability, research in comparative politics has shown that parliamentary systems are not immune to democratic breakdowns as  Akor and others suggest. In their examination of democratic failures in the 20th century, Matthew Shugart and John Carey argued that “there have been two waves of breakdowns of democracy in this century, one between World War I and World War II and the other in the 1960s. The first wave claimed mostly parliamentary regimes (and no true presidential regimes). The second claimed mostly, but not exclusively, presidential systems.”

Nigeria’s first democratic experience falls into the second wave. While Linz argues that parliamentary democracy is more conducive in stabilising democracy and apt for societies with deep cleavages and numerous political parties, his assertion was proved wrong in the case of Nigeria’s First Republic. This consideration preoccupied the minds of the “49 Wise Men” while drafting the 1979 Constitution.

Akor berates and dismissed the 1979 Constitution put together by the “49 Wise Men” in what he referred to as a mere attraction by the “structural elegance” of American presidentialism. Well, from his piece, I doubt much if he knows the worth of that Constitution. Beyond the “conflict of personality and authority” that led to the collapse of the First Republic, there were other pressing issues the framers of the 1979 Constitution were confronted with. Due to space constraint, I cannot venture into details. But suffice to say that while the Constitution was not a perfect document, it is by far one of the most ingenious Constitution making exercise the world has ever seen in modern history.

This view is shared by established scholars such as Donald Horowitz and Larry Diamond. Given the careful and painstaking exercise that produced the 1979 Constitution, it can unarguably be likened to what the framers of the American Constitution did in Philadelphia in 1787. However, Nigerians conveniently dismiss that ingenious effort when countries battling with how best they can manage the challenges occasioned by diversity have sent a delegation to understudy Nigeria’s innovative structural design. Ethiopia is worth mentioning in this regard. At the heat of the crisis in the defunct Yugoslavian federation, the country was advised to learn from Nigeria’s ingenuity.

Akor opined that the framers of the 1979 Constitution should have adopted the hybrid model in South Africa, forgetting that South Africa drew a lot of inspiration from Nigeria’s experience in designing institutional mechanisms for managing diversity which it was confronted with. By the way, the problem of personalisation of power still lingers in South Africa in spite of this model as well as party indiscipline. Again,  Akor seems to be oblivious to the fact that while some countries have adopted the hybrid model, e.g. France and Italy, with a bicameral legislature, the Senate is essentially honorific without substantial powers as seen in presidential systems with two separate bodies that are equally powerful. Consequently, the policy outcome in such an arrangement is likely to reflect the will of the more powerful lower house.

Akor also claims that parliamentary systems have “strong party systems and forces all actors to act within recognisable organisational structures that is robust enough to force accountability and prevent the personalisation of power.” But if we have learned anything from the Brexit debate in the U.K. is the fact that enforcing party discipline on MPs using the instrument of “bullying, bribery, and blackmail” only produce partisan interests (not public interests). As A. C. Grayling noted, in an attempt to trigger Article 50 to get the U.K. out of the EU, MPs on all sides of the House were “whipped into supporting the bill providing for the triggering of Article 50…[and] many of them stated that they knew it was wrong, disastrous for the country, against their considered opinion, and not what they wished”, but they had to obey the party.

Doubtless, governance in Nigeria has been in dire straits under presidentialism. Astute observers of the country’s governance problem in the First Republic will say the same thing about parliamentarism. Both systems have advantages and drawbacks. But one is certain judging from our experience. The solution to the Nigerian problem is not a switch to parliamentary democracy as  Akor submits, but attitudinal change on the part of those who drive political institutions (political actors’) in Nigeria. Truth is, political institutions are designed to constrain the behaviour of political actors’ and prevent them from acting whimsically while conducting the onerous task of governance. This guides policy formulation which translates to good governance. Once institutional designs fail to achieve this goal on account of subversion of rules as we have frequently seen in Nigeria, it is game over. This is why I feel  Akor’s claims and conclusion fly in the face of reason and intellectual scrutiny.

Ihembe is a postgraduate student in the Department of Political Sciences, @ the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Reachable via [email protected] whatsapp +23436396194.