Between parliamentary and presidential in Nigeria, by Kenneth Okonkwo

Nigerian map
Nigerian map

Recently, some members of the National Assembly gathered together and demanded a return of Nigeria to the parliamentary system of government. This is a desperate effort by some concerned lawmakers to salvage the ship of their country from eventual demise. Let us however look at the parliamentary and presidential systems of government and inquire through the historical school of thought which system will be better for us as a people.

Parliamentary system is a democratic form of government in which the executive proceeds from the legislature, normally called the parliament, and in which the party or a coalition of parties with the highest number of members in the legislature form the executive, the leader of the party becoming Prime Minister. Executive functions are exercised by members of the legislature appointed by the Prime Minister to the cabinet as Ministers and the cabinet is also held accountable to that parliament. In a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister is the head of government and he is different from the head of state who is normally a King/Queen in a constitutional monarchy or a President in a republican constitution. The parliamentary system originated in Britain and was adopted in several of its former colonies at independence.

A presidential system is a democratic and republican government in which the head of government is also the head of state and leads an executive branch that is separate from the legislative branch and is elected directly by the people as the Chief Executive of the country. He is usually called the President and freely appoints anybody he prefers as his Ministers, subject to the approval of the Senate. This system was invented by the founding fathers of the United States of America (USA) in 1787. Direct elections of the executive by the people is this system’s best known feature.

Nigeria is a diverse nation of over 300 tribes. Amongst these tribes, about three are regarded as majority tribes while more than 297 tribes comprise of the minority tribes. Any system of government to be adopted must suit our diversity and protect the minorities. The Prime Minister, in a parliamentary system of government, must choose his Ministers from the majority party in the legislature, while indeed, the Constitution forbids members of the legislature to be appointed by the President in a presidential system as Ministers, except they first resign from the legislature. What this means is that if Nigeria is practising parliamentary system of government and a party wins majority of the seats in the parliament from only a section of the country, that section of the country must also produce all the Ministers of the cabinet in the executive because the Prime Minister can only appoint members of the majority party as Ministers. This also means that the executive and the legislature must come from the same party or coalition of parties. Assuming PDP is a party in a parliamentary system of government and wins majority seats in the parliament only from the North. It then implies, by the law, that only the North will produce both the leadership of the legislature and all the members of the executive. The same applies if the party is voted by only Southerners and they win the majority in the parliament. You can imagine if President Tinubu were a Prime Minister and the whole Ministers were Southerners, or if President Buhari were a Prime Minister and the whole Ministers were Northerners, how will this help our political stability and our diversity? But it is what it is because that’s what the law says. In Britain, this system makes it possible for England to consistently produce the Prime Minister in general elections because of their majority in the parliament and is making the other federating units, like Scotland, clamour for independence despite their democratic longevity and reasonably common cultural heritage

In a Presidential system of government, the people elect the President directly and he can choose his Ministers from any State or locality, whether they voted for him or not. Indeed, Nigeria 1999 Constitution makes it mandatory for the President to pick a Minister from every State of the federation in line with the Federal Character Principle. This principle has no basis in a parliamentary system of government which is a system of the winner takes all. In a presidential system, the people may decide to vote for a party to govern the legislature but vote a different party to govern the executive to ensure proper checks and balance, but this is not possible in a parliamentary system because the people cannot vote for the executive directly and the party that has majority in the parliament must form the executive from its members in the parliament. Nigerian system is even unique in the sense that a minority party in the legislature can produce the leadership of the legislature if the majority of the legislators so wish.

The next argument by the proponents of the parliamentary system is that the cost of governance is cheaper in a parliamentary system than in a presidential system. Our research proves, however, that the cost of governance is more attitudinal than structural and also depends on size not structure. Our legislature is reputed to be the most costly to maintain in the world. Have you stopped short to think what it will be if the same legislature produces the executive with no arm of government checking it? America’s presidential system is not too costly for them because corruption among leaders is minimal. In any case, in a parliamentary system, we have two heads of government and State, each with splendid paraphernalia to maintain. The Head of Government is the political leader while the Head of State is the ceremonial leader. You can imagine creating a headship position for an African man and telling him that his only duty is to enjoy himself in ceremonies at the expense of the State. I guarantee you he will be more costly to maintain than even the position of the Prime Minister. In Britain, the Queen’s position is not cheap to maintain but at least the office yields a lot of revenue to the country through tourism. The African President in a parliamentary system generates no revenue but is costly to maintain. For the avoidance of doubt, this scenario had happened in Uganda after independence, where in 1962, Milton Obote was elected the Prime Minister while, Sir Edward Muteesa, the Kabaka of Buganda Kingdom, became the President. Milton Obote felt he was doing all the work but the President was doing all the enjoyment and living in grandeur. Political maneuvering climaxed in February 1966, when Milton Obote, the Prime Minister, suspended the constitution and assumed all government powers, removing the positions of President and Vice President with the connivance of the army.

Parliamentary system is characterised by incessant elections because of the ease with which existing governments can be removed or dissolved. A mere vote of no confidence by the parliament on any government brings the government to an end. The resignation of the Prime Minister ends the government and in each of the circumstances, an election must be conducted to fill up the position. The Prime Minister can unilaterally call for a general election if he cannot get his decisions passed through the parliament and if he gets the required majority, it will be done. In Britain, between 2015 and 2019, Britain has conducted five elections, including three general elections, to find a new Prime Minister. These are the general election that gave David Cameron a second term in 2015, the Conservatives election that produced Theresa May as Prime Minister when Cameron resigned in 2016. The general election called by May in 2017 to gain majority to negotiate Brexit. Conservatives election that brought Boris Johnson to power when May resigned in 2019 and the general election called by Johnson in 2019 to get Brexit done. Israel, with their parliamentary system, conducted three general elections in one year simply because no single party could garner parliamentary majority and could not form a coalition of parties to obtain the needed majority. These are very costly ventures and knowing the challenges of terrain, diversity, corruption and poverty for developing nations, it will be a tall order not to have political instability with these number of elections within a short while. In a presidential system, elections are fixed every four years and in the event of the death, resignation, impeachment or physical incapacity of the President, the Vice President assumes office and completes the tenure. Between 2012 and 2019, Nigeria has had only two general elections.

Parliamentary system, because it does not grant the people direct power to vote for the executive, tend to discriminate against the minority in favour of the majority. The executive in parliamentary system reflects the will of the majority in the parliament and is largely oligarchical. Whereas the Presidential system benefits the minority better because the people can decide to use their votes to correct imbalances in their society. Britain is very much an older democracy than America and has never produced a black Prime Minister. It hardly even produces Non-English Prime Ministers. In Israel, despite the presence of Arab members in the parliament, an Arab Israeli has never been Prime Minister. In the US, within 50 years of granting the blacks freedom to vote and be voted for, American people directly voted for a Black African man to be President. In Nigeria, within 11 years of returning to democracy in 1999, a man from Bayelsa State, with least number of Local Governments was directly voted for by Nigerians, to become President. This would never be possible under a parliamentary system of government. Parliamentary system is not ideal for a diverse nation that is multi ethnic, multi cultural, multi religious and multi lingual. It is better for a monogamous society. Presidential system, with reduced members of the legislature, will be preferable for Nigeria.

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