The cat-and-mouse, catch-me-if-you-can, game on display between the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and the National Assembly over the former’s refusal to address them on Thursday, December 10, 2020, as previously agreed, is odious. It is frankly an embarrassment worthy of rebuke from this column all day long. The killings, brazen kidnapping of hundreds of hapless schoolchildren, marauding herdsmen, and daily threats to life, all make it tempting to launch into the kind of tirade many readers would delight in; Buhari is this, Buhari is that; the constitution says this, the constitution says that; shame, shame, shame etc.
The column is inviting you, Nigerians and friends of Nigeria, for a walk through the park in a sober reflection instead. Let us cast aside the ritual of name-calling, and individual characters in the drama, and think of the system that makes it so easy for that to happen in the first place. That is a much fruitful use of precious resources. The inability of the National Assembly to induce the Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to address the nation on a recurrent life and death issue has brutally exposed the inadequacy of the federal system of government the country is currently toying with.
It is even more alarming that the legislators felt it necessary to ‘invite’ the President to give voice to public unease about rampant insecurity in the country at all. It is something that should have naturally occurred to the President without being prompted by anyone. The truth is, a federal system of government such as it is practised in this country, allows for a taciturn president, even one that chooses to live in a bunker. Whereas, a parliamentary system would not be so permissive. The urgent need to adopt a system that ensures an open, direct, and accountable government is what should really exercise us in this moment. So, how would the situation be different under a parliamentary system?
First, under a federal system, governmental powers are diffused, and ‘shared’ amongst the three arms of government: legislature, executive and judiciary. So, the President presides over just one of those; the executive branch, hence, the reference to the Buhari regime rather than the Buhari government. Government is a collective whole. The three branches of government are co-equal and semi-autonomous. One is not superior to the other in the sense of one branch being able to impose its will on another. Accountability in-between elections is neither straightforward nor direct in a federal system, where the electoral timetable is fixed. That works well in an environment of a vibrant, well-equipped, functioning government bureaucracy and a fierce adherence to the rule of law but, sadly, not in the Nigeria, anything-goes, political environment. It is a completely different ballgame under a parliamentary system. The head of government namely, the Prime Minister, presides over a ‘government’ properly so-called. Members of the executive branch are mainly (though not exclusively) drawn from within the legislature itself. And, amongst members of the cabinet, a PM is only first among equals. Parliamentary scrutiny involves the PM answering questions put to him/her by Members of Parliament (MPs) on the go. Urgent questions and debates can be initiated in Parliament at will, the rules empower the Speaker to instruct any member, including the PM, to respond to questions on the floor of the chamber. There is more sensitivity to constituency feelings, as an individual MP can take an issue directly to Parliament for an immediate fix.
It goes without saying, therefore, that you cannot be the PM unless you are up-to-date with the daily business of government. As the PM, you own events as they occur, and those events, in turn, own you, literally. You must be well briefed on a daily basis, fully in charge of your faculties and quick on your feet. Any slip up is immediately picked up by members of the opposition and some sections of the media whose mission it is to bring your government down, quite legitimately. In addition, the system has an entrenched, state-funded, “official opposition”, full of ambitious MPs anxious to run you out of town. There is little or no room to hide for a head of government under a parliamentary system. There is no hiding behind the tele-prompter, prepared speeches, or media aides. A lazy, docile, and lackadaisical PM would be torn apart in a jiffy. Perhaps, the crown jewel of parliamentary democracy is the Almighty ‘vote of no confidence’ if, and when passed against the government in parliament, triggers its immediate fall and a general election. Though an extremely privileged and powerful office, the PM’s feet is held to the fire all the time. His position is only as secured as his last performance in parliament. Given that, can you visualise former Presidents Shehu Shagari, Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan, or current President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in a position of the PM? Precisely!
Nigeria has experimented with a parliamentary system before though. The British bequeathed that to us upon independence. It survived for only six years. Upon independence, the country was run by both federal and regional parliaments (East, North and West). Regional governments were strong and semi-autonomous. There was no cut-throat competition for President (Governor-General between 1960 and 1963), as the role was largely ceremonial. There was no talk of ‘marginalisation’ either as the regions were pushing for development and growth at their own pace. So, why was the system abandoned in favour of division into multiple (unviable) states? Because, it was understood that regional autonomy was a direct invitation to secession. Indeed, six years into parliamentary democracy, the Eastern Region announced secession from the Nigerian federation in 1966, triggering the Nigerian civil war from July 1967 until January 1970. The Eastern Region was sitting on vast reserves of crude oil, the Western Region relied heavily on trade and a sizable amount of natural resources, but the landlocked North was largely barren, and had so much to lose in the equation. The theme of ‘unity’ as the federal rallying cry against secession suited the North far more than it did the rest of the federation. It is therefore, the ultimate irony that Nigeria was balkanised into weak and unviable states in order to foster ‘unity’, but it was more to disempower the belligerent regions, and reassert control over resources. Nigeria has remained even more divided than it ever was, and the threat of secession thought to have been snuffed out by the division into states, has resurfaced with renewed vigour.
In my view, a return to some kind of regional government is inevitable if Nigeria is to remain as one whole entity. The current ‘federal’ arrangement is an expensive flop, a charade, and a sham that does not serve the interest of anyone but that of the unrepresentative, parasitic elite, determined to hold the rest to ransom in perpetuity. A six-geopolitical zone arrangement has been touted as the basis for such a regional settlement. It is not perfect, but it is a start. In that scenario, the current redundant state governments would dissolve into local council administrations with strong and powerful mayors accountable to local people. Regional parliaments would be composed of constituency MPs with sensitivity to the feelings and will of their constituents. No more motorcade of governors, deputy governors, senators, and ministers riding roughshod over sovereign citizens. No more executive, all-powerful centralised government either. At the centre, there will be a rotational president responsible for defence and foreign affairs only. A simplified, streamlined governance would cost less, bring government closer to the people, deemphasise and depersonalise political office. Above all, it would mean an end to, and banishment for an aloof, reclusive and unresponsive presidency for good. Thank you for this great walk in the park.
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