By Agbo, Ochonu & Kperogi
In the face of existential challenges facing Nigeria and leading up to the 2023 presidential election, the ensuing conversation arose among three Nigerians in the Diaspora on the way forward for a nation in crisis.
In our last discussion that focused on restructuring, Farooq made the following submission: “Well, Osmund, I’m basically saying that it’s impossible to restructure Nigeria under our American-style presidential democracy. If we want to renegotiate the basis of our federation, we should first get rid of the current system. That requires creative destruction which, I must admit, is hard.
“A cursory historical excursion of instances of ‘restructuring’ that Nigeria has had since its founding shows that tweaks to the structure of the country took place in colonial arrangements, military dictatorships, and in the much leaner, less cumbersome parliamentary system we practiced after independence.
“The current presidential system we’re unimaginatively aping from America is un-amenable to restructuring in the ways people imagine it can be. So, my contention is that we need to take care of that first. We need a different system from what we practice now.”
My question to you Mo is, do you believe that a big part of Nigeria’s challenges with governance has to do with our American-styled presidential system of government as Farooq suggested? In other words, should we then opt for the Parliamentary-Westminster type instead? What are other options we need to consider at this time?
Osmund, I agree with Farooq that the presidential system promotes the unitary centralisation that we all criticise as stifling sub-national innovation, promoting corruption, and preventing healthy developmental competition between the sub-national units. We all agree that under the current system the center suffocates the states and the states in turn suffocate the local governments, in a debilitating spiral of centralised tyranny.
The Westminster parliamentary system is obviously a less centralised and more accountable political system, but I am not wedded to it, and I am not advancing it. I want us to have an honest, unfettered conversation that results in a political system that tackles our peculiar challenges and weaknesses as a nation and accommodates our unique political and economic aspirations. Whether that system is created from scratch or is an amalgam of several existing ones or is a modification of the parliamentary or presidential system is totally up to Nigerians.
I am not comfortable with the idea of lazily borrowing systems developed to cater to the political imaginations and challenges of other societies or refusing to do the work of political innovation to produce a system that is uniquely ours and is suitable to our political history, present, and imagined future.
I agree with some of the points raised by both of you. Obviously, each of the two systems has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. What I like about the presidential system is that the people can directly have a say in choosing who gets to lead the country, instead of leaving that in the hands of members of parliament, many of whom are in the pockets of corporate lobbyists and other vested interests. Under a Presidential system, it would have been virtually impossible for Imran Khan, a hugely popular Prime Minister, to be removed by the Pakistani parliament, in a no-confidence vote teleguided by that country’s military high command.
I am also not enthusiastic about the high turnover rate of leaders in parliamentary democracies. Take Britain, for example. They’ve had four Prime Ministers before Rishi Sunak since the Brexit vote of June 2016. But on the flip side, the danger of a President like Donald Trump staying in power for too long and pulling the entire house down, even faster than a foreign adversary, is real. In a parliamentary system, it’s much easier to remove a leader who is not doing his job.
But to be frank with you guys, I am hard pressed to recommend one system over another and neither do I believe that tossing out one and embracing another is the elixir for our country’s multi-system afflictions. No. I think the problem has to do with the practice; the human angle if you will. You can have the most perfect system built on a solid set of laws, but its effectiveness is only to the extent that we have a critical mass of citizens ready, willing and committed to making sure that those laws are not observed in the breach. Nigerians have perfected the art of finding our ways around everything and thwarting the most genuine effort. If in doubt, ask Prof. Mahmood Yakubu’s INEC about the sham called the 2023 election.
In theory, Nigeria is supposed to operate an American-styled presidential system, but just like religion, what we have is more like a counterfeit version. Our unique brand of federalism operates more or less like a unitary government with all the power concentrated at the center. In America, where we copied the presidential system from, the police are under the control of the state or municipal governments, whereas in Nigeria, the Federal Government controls the entire police force. It’s crazy to think that there are around 68 items on our exclusive list. Go figure.
My criticism of the American-style presidential democracy is limited to its un-amenability to structural tweaks, not its other elements that Osmund mentioned. So, maybe it isn’t American presidential democracy per se that I have an issue with (although I have a lot of issues with it) but the impossibly cumbersome procedural steps required for constitutional reforms.
Like Osmund, I also like the idea of voters directly electing the president, which America, ironically, doesn’t have, leading to situations where candidates can lose the popular vote and still be president, such as Donald Trump who lost the popular vote by close to 3 million and still “won” the presidential election in 2016.
My worry is that we imported into our constitution the structural impediments that America erected as preconditions to change their constitution. America set a high bar for amendments (or what we have chosen to call “restructuring” in Nigeria) to its constitution because of its peculiarities.
The American union—and the constitution that cemented this union— emerged from the compromises between the North and the South; between rural, agricultural states and urban, industrialising states; between slave states and free states; between densely populated states and sparsely populated states; and between loyalists to the British Crown and patriots who rebelled against the Crown and supported the American Revolution.
In order not to compromise the integrity of the compromise that birthed the union, America’s founders decided to set a really high bar for changes to its foundational document. That is not Nigeria’s experience.
As an evolving, still largely experimental country, we can’t afford the rigidity of the threshold required to amend the constitution.
Ultimately, we need to devise our own system and draft our own constitution in a fashion that reflects our unique socio-historical experiences as a colonially created state that embeds multiple, often fissiparous, nations. We should certainly derive inspiration from others, but wholesale imitation of other countries’ systems is lazy, unhelpful, and counterproductive.
We seem to be experts at aping the political innovations of countries we assume are our superiors. We do the copying uncritically and without regard to our peculiarities and our sovereignty. But as Farooq rightly said, the problem is not just that of an ingrained inferiority; it is also laziness on the part of our political elite, who usually have the task of crafting or recrafting the constitutional and foundational statutes of the nation.
By the way, why are we wedded to the idea of winner-takes-all adversarial elections? What’s sacrosanct about them? Why can’t we have single, combined elections that produce multiple winners for different levels of political offices, so that instead of winners and losers we have bigger and lesser winners?
And while we’re on the subject of inventing our own political system outside the stifling stricture of this dysfunctional democracy, why must we elect all officials at all levels? Can community congresses and community delegates not put forward representatives by consensus for lower-level political offices?
As long as these people are put forth by their communities and are vetted for minimum qualifications, we have legitimacy and representation. What’s more, if you rotate the office between the constitutive units, then you have acceptance and representational justice.
I am putting forward these provocations to push us to become more politically creative and to spur debate on the many possibilities that exist outside of this failed and debilitating trap we call presidential democracy.
I am also advancing this small sample of options to answer our unquestioning evangelists of liberal democracy, who, when told that this system is not working, are fond of saying that we must stay the course even if it kills us and ruins our country because, as they put it, liberal democracy may be flawed but there’s no viable alternative to it.
This is of course self-immolating thinking, a recipe for doing the same thing over and over again with the same terrible outcome but persisting on that failed path. That’s what our American hosts call insanity.
Finally, I think it’s high time we extended the conversation to one area that no one talks about: the financial cost of whatever kind of democracy we practice. The presidential liberal democratic system is simply too expensive, costing hundreds of billions for periodic elections and hundreds of billions more to pay elected officials and their appointees and to maintain two legislative chambers.
What, by the way, is the justification for a country with perennial revenue problems, massive deficits and debts, and many competing needs, to have two legislative houses apart from the asinine reason that the American system we plagiarized also has two chambers?
We need to be thinking about a cheaper form of democracy, where both the frequency and cost of elections are on the table to be debated and tweaked and where the institutions and procedures that underpin our democracy are not so expensive that they prevent us from investing in our people or building a viable economy.
What we’re doing now is spending money that could transform the lives of our people on increasingly meaningless elections that do not throw up good leadership or reflect the will of the people. It’s a poor return on political investment.
We must reassess and come up with a system that does not require us to gamble away the well-being and welfare of our most vulnerable citizens and trade off investment in critical infrastructure and social services to maintain a system that impoverishes our country while decimating the trust of the people in government and producing political apathy with every election cycle.
I believe Winston Churchill is the one often credited with the saying that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. With that said, the alternatives haven’t served the world any better and so we are left with finding ways to fine-tune it. But at this point, we have some kind of consensus which is the fact that Nigeria simply cannot afford to copy verbatim, a system that obtains elsewhere with different people and culture without paying attention to our own unique historical imperatives as well as attitudinal nuances. A particular democratic model may not be one-size-fits-all after all. It means that the American Jeffersonian example with all its bells and whistles demands some local modifications in the Nigerian contexts. And I quite agree that there is nothing to be shy about interrogating different political systems and processes in our effort to arrive at a workable home-grown model. Maybe it’s time to explore technocracy or even experiment with what Jason Brennan described as “epistocracy” in his book Against Democracy. I will leave it to you egg-heads to figure out. Thank you, guys, again for this wonderful exchange.
Thank you, guys.
Osmund Agbo, a medical doctor and social justice advocate, writes from Houston, Texas; Moses Ochonu is a professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee; and Farooq Kperogi is a professor of Communication at the Kennesaw State University, Georgia.