Nigeria: What Boris Johnson’s Fall Tells Us of Nigeria’s Presidential System

The parliamentary system of government is for me the most suitable for Nigeria in this present time.

It was the system on which Nigeria was weaned and which the country inherited as an independent polity from Britain on October 1, 1960. Under a regional set-up, it launched Nigeria into one of its most productive years immediately before and after independence. It was a period of rapid growth in all major sectors- education, agriculture, housing and infrastructure.

It remained in place until the eve of the first military coup that ended the government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa on January 15, 1966.

The beauty of this system was again brought home to me last week when Boris Johnson’s cup of sin finally ran over and the British people said enough was enough. Perhaps because of the instability that accompanied its practice in the First Republic, on return to civil rule in 1979 after a 13-year interregnum, the parliamentary system was jettisoned in favour of an American-style presidential system.

In pivoting away from any reminder of the monarchy to establish a system where “all men” are held equal, America from 1776 established a presidential system that has evolved into a republican mode with monarchical trappings. This was the system Nigeria adopted in a degraded and perverted form in 1979. We amplified in egregious folds the powers of the presidency without the safeguards of its American version.

The Founding Fathers knew what they wanted. But it would appear that succeeding generations, after 245 years of democracy, did not reckon with a Donald Trump (as Britain did not reckon with a Boris Johnson) that strained and stretched the shock-absorbing stamina of the system to its very limits in a dangerous presidency that culminated with the January 6, 2021 invasion of the Capitol.

But for all its shortcomings under the first generation of Nigerian post-independence politicians, the parliamentary system remains the best for now in a profligate, dumbed-down presidency that Nigeria has been saddled with for more than four decades. For one, and as I already hinted, it is a far more egalitarian and cost-effective system that leaves room for the best candidate to emerge as party leader and, ultimately, the leader of the country. Under this system the ideological lines of political parties are more clearly delineated and the supremacy of the party as the most important organ of governance is very evident.

It is the party rather than an individual that is given the national mandate unlike the case under a presidential system. The party leader emerges from among other eligible and competent members of the party that constitute a shadow cabinet and government when in opposition.

It is in this sense that the leader is considered first among equals not the travesty that is often on display in Nigeria’s legislative houses where either the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House (in the case of the national legislature) wields what amounts to and is in effect executive powers with which they can and do easily take both fair and unfair advantage of their colleagues.

In other words, a putative government is always in place and nobody can emerge leader of a party in a parliamentary system without the support of the majority of members. The country does not have to go on suspension until a leader who came into office unprepared is able to constitute a cabinet as we often see in Nigeria.

This was what happened under President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. Nigerians waited for six months for the president to appoint his ministers following his inauguration. The competence of any potential or emergent leader is closely scrutinised in a manner that ensures that only the best at a particular time emerges in a parliamentary system. Under these circumstances incompetence in whatever form is easily detected and booted out.

The vigorous debates that characterise parliamentary sessions will be a sure put off for those who offer themselves for office without any idea of their duty.

Here no demand is placed on citizens to guess or second-guess the actions of any leader. Nor are they called upon to read, as a matter of duty, a leader’s body language as Nigerians are often compelled to under the present government of President Buhari. People, both parliamentarians and the larger public who could also be in the gallery to witness parliamentary sessions, pay attention to your words which must be backed by action or you are taken apart and torn to pieces during question time.

There is no hiding place for incompetence masquerading as detached profundity, discourteous noise-making and bullying or whatnot. As a slaughter slab where legislators who also function as members of the executive come under the magnifying glasses of all, the parliament is not the haven of the faint-hearted or standoffish politician with patriarchal pretentions, one around whom others must walk as if on egg shells.

The very ambiance and architecture of most parliaments that run in the fashion of the British system where bodies are crushed together in close proximity ensures that nobody plays the prima-donna. It amplifies the equality of members and the egalitarianism of the mode of governance in operation. The parliamentary system is also a system that leaves room for a candidate to stage a comeback to an office from which they have been ousted.

While this is increasingly less so in Britain, it is very much evident in countries like Israel and Japan with their variants of the parliamentary system.

That system with its staying power was brought to bear on Boris Johnson last week as he dug his heels in a vain attempt to remain in office as prime minister.

Who can imagine a Nigerian president, say President Muhammadu Buhari, being gruelled and roasted with questions in the manner the Liaison Committee, comprising senior parliamentarians across party lines, did Boris Johnson? Despite his hedging tactics, shamelessness and outright lies, Johnson was pinned to the wall and left no space to wriggle out without appearing stupid. Presenting a defiant mien, he grabbed at straws in hopes he could stay on in office.

While at it, at least two members of his cabinet resigned to join tens of others who had earlier made their exit. His government was like a sinking ship. But he held on, determined to bring down the entire house. Before 10 the following morning, however, he had succumbed.

Despite nationwide insecurity, the brazen attacks on Kuje Prison in Abuja and the presidential convoy in the President’s home town of Daura, not a strand of hair had fallen off the skins of those who had the duty to protect the homeland. No questions were asked. Rather, it was the President expressing his disappointment.

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