By Anthony Akinola*
I once imposed upon myself the privilege of having to challenge the view of the much-admired General Adeyinka Adebayo, former Military Governor of the defunct Western Region, on the desirability or otherwise of the presidential constitution.
The elder statesman had, on one occasion, called for a return to the parliamentary system practiced in the First Republic, describing it as the system bequeathed to us by our founding fathers. I chose to challenge his view for the simple reason that the parliamentary system was inherited from the colonialists and not something that can be attributed to the ingenuity of those we have come to accept as our founding fathers.
The British did not invent the parliamentary system of government in a deliberate manner; it evolved with the history of their nation. The monarch “appoints” the Prime Minister, a tradition which began in 1721 when King George I, who was said to be unable to speak English, appointed Robert Walpole as “Leader of the Commons”. Be it the office of “Speaker” or that of “Chief Whip”, the British have a history as to how their political institutions evolved over time.
Even today, the British Government “belongs” to the monarch and the Opposition is expected to be loyal. The British tradition has endured centuries of practice; the British do not have a written constitution in the sense that there is no document that can be pointed at as such. Helped by the nearly homogeneous nature of society, the British system is driven by customs and usages.
The founding fathers of America could have lazily embraced the parliamentary system as their inheritance, not least because their nation was also a colony of Britain. Instead of clinging to that, they charted a course of their own.
Their constitution of 1787, the first written constitution in the world, introduced four concepts into the world of politics – presidential/congressional system, limited government, federalism and bi-camera legislature.
The contents of the American constitution were largely informed by the views of three individuals – Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. The collection of their historical essays, The Federalist Papers, ranks next to the constitution itself as the most important document in American politics. They were informed patriots, not ethnic champions!
The elements in the American constitution were geared, principally, at ensuring peaceful co-existence among autonomous states whose peoples held different values. For instance, every State is represented equally in the Senate while representation in the House is based on population. The need for a common purpose is emphasized in a presidency whose occupant is elected nationally and sees the entire nation as his (or her) constituency.
In spite of the diversity of interests in contemporary America, the presidency has proved to be a unifying influence and this explains why groups that would normally be at loggerheads are accommodated in two broad-based political parties. Were America to now opt for the parliamentary system, one would be surprised if “gays” and “lesbians” did not have their own political parties to contend with other interest groups such as anti-abortion, pro-abortion, anti-gun, pro-gun, etc!
The institution of the presidency also explains why an otherwise divided Nigeria is on the verge of achieving an authentic two-party system, with politicians of various divides intermixing in a manner which would have kept the truly-nationalist founding fathers rejoicing in their graves.
There was a time in the history of Nigeria when leaders of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) – the political party which predominated the politics of an era – did not seek direct political support in the southern regions. The politics of that era was characterized by opportunistic alliances of one set of ethnic groups against another,and the result was a civil war fought between 1967 and 1970.
One other great advantage of the presidential system derives from the fact that the terms of elected officials are fixed. For instance, the President cannot be removed from office, except for an impeachable offence. Even then, an impeached President is promptly replaced.
This can hardly be said of the parliamentary system, in which “a vote of no confidence”, or even a disagreement among political parties in a coalition government, could mean there would be a need for an election. One cannot but admire the fact that America’s four-yearly presidential election has been consistent since George Washington was elected as first president in 1792.
There is no doubt that the parliamentary system is great, even superior to the presidential alternative in some respects. It is much less expensive to manage, as it also compels greater accountability on the part of political actors. It invites great admiration when observed from a mature political culture where principles and policies triumph.
Sadly, ours is far from being one. Religion and region compete and contend. The “informal coalition” of disparage interests, engendered by the presidential constitution, offers a greater prospect for peace in severely-divided Nigeria. The agitation for a return to the parliamentary system, if prevailed, can only mean a return to another era of ethnic confrontation.
*Anthony Akinola is a commentator based in Oxford, UK.
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