Confab: exploring Ajibola’s ism

By Ochereome Nnanna
Published March 14th 2005 in Vanguard

STARTING from today, the National Political Reforms Conference is going to "catch fire". The past three weeks have been spent dawdling over the inevitable preliminary issues of rules of procedure and the President’s opening address. From this day, the efforts to break the house into working committees that will handle the specific issues at stake will pick up in earnest.

From now on, we expect more heat from the International Conference Centre venue of the conference, as the various interest groups will have the opportunity to canvass their positions. So far, it does not seem as if the Presidency has taken any unholy interest in the proceedings of the house. Even its motley bunch of nominees has not appeared to be pushing any specific selfish government agenda. If this atmosphere is maintained till the end of the conference, the chances are very good that its outcome will reflect the wishes and aspirations of the majority of the people of Nigeria.

This is the moment that delegates representing vested interest groups must push into gear and mobilise opinions in support of their agendas. This is no time for laying back.

During the general debates at the plenary sessions, Prince Bola Ajibola touched an issue that I feel deserves the greatest critical attention at this time when we are reforming our democracy. He called it "parliamentary presidentialism", a form of democratic practice associated with France. When General Sani Abacha was plotting his transformation from military to civilian dictatorship, this system was often mentioned as his preferred road map. The idea was that the system would give an imperial president the powers to appoint a prime minister to run the economy and manage the bureaucracy generally, while the president took specific charge of defence, foreign affairs, internal affairs and any other post he felt like controlling personally.

FOR us to even make any progress, let us completely remove the illicit and offensive persona of Abacha from this matter. Let us see how we can use this idea to reform our democratic processes to achieve the following national objectives: (a) reduction of powers of the centre (or more appropriately, the Presidency); (b) achievement of greater checks and balances among the various realms and institutions of the Nigerian State; (c) more equitable power sharing among the various geopolitical areas of Nigeria during any (and every) political regime and (d) enhancement of inclusion or the minimization of the winner-takes-it-all disorder that our current presidentialism promotes.

The basic thing we really want to reform is the imperial powers of the Presidency. In one of the most inspiring contributions on the floor of the Conference, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole captured the powers of the Presidency in these words: "it has the capacity to make millionaires out of paupers, and paupers out of millionaires". It also has the power to decide who gets political power and who does not. It steals the people’s right to choose, and places it at the disposal of the President. The President becomes the nation’s supreme sovereign. There is no longer any such thing as "power to the people". As I noted before on this forum, the current presidential dispensation makes a potential beast out of any normal Nigerian put in the office of the President of Nigeria.

Those who are already beasts by nature simply run amok with power. They are completely cut off from the reality of the Nigerian situation and therefore become no longer in a fit and proper position to take appropriate decisions to move the nation forward. And yet, there is nothing anybody in Nigeria can do about them, as their stay and safety is completely guaranteed by the powers of the state which are at their command.

These reforms should be aimed to de-deify and re-humanise the leadership of Nigeria. The only way to go about it is to create a political condition that will not permit dictatorship. It is foolish to say that every system is good but only the operators make it look bad. Conditions can be created to make bad leadership more difficult to thrive, and that is the challenge before us.

We have tried the parliamentary system and seen its limitations. For instance, we now know that it is better to leave the executive to run the government while the legislature makes the laws, rather than involving the executive in law-making. Our long period of romance with military dictatorship tells us that a return to parliamentary democracy will increase the cost of governance, as every parliamentarian in the ruling party will see himself as a potential minister or even prime minister.

THE Prime Minister will be subjected to blackmail as he has to bribe his colleagues all the time before his bills are passed. He will survive only through continuously bribing his fellow MPs with positions or money. Unmitigated parliamentarianism will be too fluid, fraud-prone, unstable and unsuitable as an option for us to improve our democracy.

On the other hand, much has been said about the expensive nature of core presidentialism and the dictatorship it has always promoted. There must, therefore, be a midway between these extremes. That is what this Ajibola’s 'ism' is all about. I attribute it to the former Attorney General of the Federation because he was the first delegate I heard mooting the idea, even though I think he should put more steam into his effort to sell it to his colleagues.

The parliamentary presidentialism will divide the powers of the office of the President between the President and a Prime Minister. Both will be elected. Both will also be impeachable. The president will remain the ceremonial leader of Nigeria with executive powers over defence, foreign affairs and security in all ramifications. He will remain the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, the nation’s Number One citizen and the symbol and guarantor of the nation’s sovereignty. The Prime Minister will take charge of the economy and bureaucracy of the federal government. Both will report to the National Assembly and will be overseen by it, subject to the constitution, which the Judiciary will continue to have the powers to interpret. All institutions of the federal government, such as the INEC, the Revenue Mobilisation and Allocation Commission, Federal Character Commission, the Police and the like, will receive their funds directly from the pool but subject to the supervision of the National Assembly. The details can be fleshed out accordingly.

By adopting this system, apart from diffusing the powers of the office of the President, another important national objective is met: the objective of power sharing. At any time or regime, all the six geo-political zones or regions will be properly accommodated in high public offices of the federation, thus putting paid to feelings of marginalisation. People do not have to wait for 30 years before they can have a feeling of belonging. At any time or regime, the offices of the President and Prime Minister will solve the North/South (Christian/Muslim) power struggle. For the six geo-political zones, there will be the offices of the President, Prime Minister, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives, National Chairman of the ruling party and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (head of the bureaucracy) to go round. Political offices have to be distributed to ensure that the concept of federal character is fully complied with and every section or region is abundantly accommodated.

THE heat in the system will automatically come down. This will be more so when the regions inherit some of the powers of the federal government (and its funds too) and our electoral processes are repositioned to give opportunity to every hard working political party. This is achieved through the principle of proportional representation system of voting. We will look into them in detail when the occasions arise as we make progress at the conference.