By Gbogun Gboro
There is a subject which is very crucial to the well-being of Nigeria, but which we Nigerians never give the seriousness it deserves. I refer to the question whether our country should be governed under a presidential or parliamentary system. From time to time, someone raises this question and a few other citizens respond to him, but then the debate quickly dies down. Yet, as a citizen with experience of Nigerian politics and government since the 1950s, I cannot get rid of the feeling that we will, someday, have to resolve this question quite definitively.
We Nigerians have experienced two different systems of government since our country began to have a constitution in the early 1950s. We started off in 1952 with the British Parliamentary System. In this system, the members of parliament were elected by us citizens at the General Elections. From 1952 to 1966, we had a total of five parliaments, that is, a federal parliament, and a regional parliament for each of our four regions – East, North, West and Midwest.On the floor of each parliament, the parliamentarians then elected the Prime Minister (in the case of the Federal Parliament), or Premier (in the case of each Regional House of Assembly). The Prime Minister or Premier then nominates his ministers for his colleagues in parliament to accept.
In this system, a minister is responsible for the management of his ministry, the council of ministers is jointly responsible for the direction of affairs, and the chief executive (Prime Minister or Premier) is just first among equals. The council of ministers considers and approves the plans and programmes of ministers, and ensures the place and harmony of such plans and programmes in the over-all direction of the government. Each minister presents and defends his plans and programmes (that have been approved by the council of ministers) on the floor of parliament, usually with additional backing by the Prime Minister or Premier.
The Prime Minister or Premier, as well as the ministers, are responsible for making programmes and plans acceptable to the legislature, and are usually subjected to questioning by the legislators trying to satisfy themselves before giving approval. The Prime Minister, the premiers, and the ministers are also responsible for presenting the reports of the executive government to the legislature. To ensure success in parliament, the Prime Minister or Premier and his ministers must keep their party members in parliament well informed about, and satisfied with, their plans and programmes. On the whole, this is a system characterized by joint responsibilities, systemic accountability, copious informing and persuading. In such a system, the Prime Minister or Premier was very far from being a “Sole Ruler”, and could not easily give vent to his whims and caprices.
But in the 1970s, under the thick shadow of military rulers and heavy influence of military rule, Nigeria’s leaders gathered in Lagos and chose the American Presidential System for our country. We did not know the nuances and possible pitfalls of this system then; but now we know them – and they are many and serious. For one thing, the presidential system makes the political process, with countrywide presidential elections and statewide gubernatorial elections and senatorial elections, far too expensive. No Nigerian who (like me) has taken part in the system, who has been through its heavy expenses and usually heavy debts, can deny that these enormously expensive elections have been a major factor in the boosting of corruption in our country’s political life.
For another, the system concentrates power and responsibilities too heavily in the hands of the President or Governor. It has had the effect of turning our presidents and governors into virtual autocrats, their colleagues in the executive arm of government into mere waiters-on, and our legislators into glorified outsiders. Some Nigerian intellectuals have just completed a joint book in which they have pooled together their various and widespread studies of the steadily growing impotence of legislatures, the growing dictatorial tendencies of presidents and governors, and the enormous influence of the whims and caprices of presidents and governors in our governmental system. Because presidents and governors tend to view their administrations as their exclusive personal mandates, our country has been sustaining heavy financial losses through poorly digested, unreasonably chosen, and inadequately discussed programmes and projects, through presidents’ and governors’ tendency to insist on having their own ways in the making of government policies, and through thoughtless abandonment of programmes and projects initiated by predecessors.
Furthermore, the system has made the position of president or governor so insanely desirable to our politicians, that the quest for it has become a major source of conflicts and confusion in our political system. And finally, on the whole, the system has contributed greatly to the destruction of the professional quality of our civil service and bureaucrats – and this has been a major factor in the general decline of the quality of governance in our country.
This concentration of power in the hands of chief executives has proved culturally difficult for some Nigerian peoples to live happily with. Left to choose their own system of government, there are Nigerian nationalities that would hardly ever choose the presidential system – peoples (like my own Yoruba nation) who are used, in their history and political traditions, to shared responsibilities, mutual respect, and accountability, among the rulers of society.
The generally arrogant and thoughtless directions given since the 1960s to the ordering of the governance of our country have dragged our country down in many directions. It is my considered opinion that the choice of the presidential system has been one of the worst steps we have ever taken, and I humbly propose that Nigeria should return to the parliamentary system.
However, if any state in our federation chooses to run its affairs by a presidential system, it should be free to do so. The fundamental philosophy behind the whole idea of a federation is acceptance of, and respect for, difference. For some historic reason, a number of nations, living in their different homelands, find themselves joined together as one country, sharing one sovereignty. To be able to relate to one another harmoniously, they evolve a federal system of government – in which each nation governs itself in its own way, in the general context of their whole country. There are variations in system among the states of the United States of America, the states of the Indian Union, and the cantons of the Swiss Federation. Even in such a minor particular as traffic regulations, there are differences from state to state in the United States of America.
In the matter of mode of government, there might be differences in the ways in which our states would design their constitutions. For instance, even if there continue to be a president in Abuja and governors in some states, I seriously doubt that we Yoruba will ever have governors if we are allowed to choose our own system of government. For years now, we have seen what governors look like – and the general Yoruba opinion is that being ruled by governors is quite ugly. It is not so much our men that are ruling in this ugly way, it is the system that is ugly and warped in nature. We Yoruba as a people throughout our history have been very good at structuring and managing the principle of balance of powers in government in order to prevent the abuse of power. We would rather be ruled by a council of ministers, in which a Premier is only first among equals, in which each minister or commissioner bears definite responsibilities, and in which all are members of our elected legislatures and are responsible, on a daily basis, to our legislatures. That’s the kind of people we are. That is the kind of system charted for us by our political history and culture. And that is the kind of system I would strongly recommend for our country.