Presidentialism is one form of democracy. The major highlight is that of an elected President who leads the executive branch. Popularised by the United States, it is also known for distributing the responsibilities of governance between separate and independent branches of government. We tried having a parliament in 1960, so when we attempted democracy in 1979, and again in 1999, a nation recovering from military leadership sought a division of powers, one where the people had the true power.
Yet nearly two decades into Nigeria’s longest period of democratic governance, questions over the quality of the country’s leadership have arisen. We often look at the individuals that have served, but what if we went beyond them and looked at the model they occupied?
Has Presidentialism been overrated? Is the format to blame or the people who have served in the role? And should we look for an alternative better suited for our national development?
Unchecked and Imbalanced
A core component of democracy is the advantage of checks and balances. This is stronger in Presidentialism because there are three distinct arms of government. In a parliamentary system, the executive and legislature are often fused into one. The idea is that a president is checked by an elected legislature and an impartial judiciary.
One caveat is that for this to work, you need all arms to be pro-active. And in many cases, an effective presidential system needs the other two arms to work well. If it does not work well, then the system fails. Often dramatically.
Take for example the legislature and the power of congressional summons. This is common with legislatures around the world. However, a consequence of an all-powerful executive is the fact that officials ranging from the cabinet to part of the executive, and even appointed by it, have blatantly refused to comply with Senate summons. This is not limited to the Buhari administration. Under President Jonathan, Alison-Madueke famously remarked that the House needed the president’s approval to summon her, an incorrect claim as the constitution empowers the assembly to make such inquiries.
The judiciary suffers from similar issues as fiscal autonomy is lacking. While state courts now have autonomy, national courts still receive funding from the executive. And while other bodies like the Senate are benefiting from the addition of former Governors and legislators with experience, the judiciary suffers from the lack of institutional memory, due to a high turnover of justices. Justices remain at the mercy of politicking of members of the executive. If arms of governments are not strong enough to check other arms, then the system gets lopsided and weaker, and the strong justification for presidentialism is gone.
The Trappings of the Office
Perhaps it was the hierarchical structure that defines military leadership, but in 1979, when democracy returned to Nigeria after 13 years, we changed from a parliamentary system of governance to a republican system. And the influences of the preceding era continue to affect the mental psyche of the Nigerian electorate.
Take, for example, the seeming appeal of former military men. Our experience with ‘strong’ leaders has translated to our democratic choices: two of the four Fourth Republic Presidents are former military leaders. This type of leader, however, is not as common in a system with several checks.
Another issue is the attention that presidential elections attract. This, however, comes with a consequence. Most leaders assume the position already fraught with claims of illegitimacy. Since 1999, free and fair elections have been difficult to come by. This was famously acknowledged by late President Yar’Adua in his inaugural address.
Most importantly, however, the office is just too powerful. The President can veto bills from the legislature and appoints the justices of the Supreme Court. Constitutionally, there are limits to the power of the president, yet in reality, the lack of effective checks have led to assumed and appropriated influence.
With the wrong individual in office, we might as well be electing a temporal dictator.
If not Presidentialism, then what?
There is an argument to be made for a ‘kinder’ autocratic system of government. Many will compare this to a benevolent dictatorship. The problem is that the corrupting nature of power makes such ‘benevolent dictators’ very uncommon. For every France-Albert Rene and Lee Kuan Yew, there is a Zuma and Mugabe, united by the initial promise and separated by eventual legacy.
We have too many kings to have a single monarchy and our former military eras were effectively one-party states. A final look could be a return to the old parliamentary form of governance. This would collapse the differences between an executive and a legislature. We have been here before, and it addresses some of the concerns mentioned. Yet, effective checks would be less than before. We would be gifting a party, and an individual, control of the executive and legislature, as well enormous influence on the judiciary. We also had initial issues with the enormous influence the North had in parliamentary representation due to its population. Coupled with ethnic politics and election, the framers of our 1979 constitution decided on a different path that led us in another direction.
‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’
That quote, often attributed to Winston Churchill, is as apt in today’s Nigeria as it was in his time. Democracy is imperfect. As such, all its forms, including Presidentialism, are also with flaws. With a stronger appreciation of the other aspects of Presidentialism, we can make it an effective form of democracy. Regardless, in the end, it comes down to the people who empower the president: the electorate.
If Presidentialism appears to be dragging our democracy back, then it is the job of the people to force it forward. And if another option is better suited, hopefully, we wouldn't need a military era to convince us to change.