Soon after his election, President Jonathan proposed his panacea for the political troubles of Nigeria: a single six-year term. And now half of the nation’s senators, purporting to know the will of the people, have dutifully obliged him by rubber-stamping the obnoxious idea. Their premise is that democracy, and not its would-be practitioners, is to blame for the failure of representative governance in our country.
The logic is as follows: the president and state governors are always consumed by the goal of securing a second four-year term under the current system. Consequently, they abandon governance and, using the enormous power and privileges of incumbency, squander time and scarce financial resources in that bid. Senator Ekweremadu’s committee puts it beyond doubt: “the financial expenses often associated with re-elections” and the need to “ensure that the executive heads are freed from distractions so that they can concentrate on public policy issues.”
Only that the president and senators’ solution has nothing to do with democracy and everything with the anti-democratic disposition of our politicians. The problem we have is that of trying to practise democracy without democrats; of having as its standard-bearers persons weaned on the poisonous milk of military dictatorship, steeped in the culture of power without responsibility and political office as the gateway to unaccountable riches.
It is almost axiomatic that a single term turns the office holder into an autocrat with the elimination of the most effective check on power. So the president or a governor may not be distracted by the quest for a second term, but might he not be by any number of megalomaniacal dreams? For example, to be the “Eze Ego” (king of money) of Africa, the Ogidigborigbo (ask ex-Governor Ibori what this means) of the universe? The dream of owning the most prestigious golf course on earth? To steal enough to build a private heaven amidst the poverty and misery of the vast majority of his fellow citizens?
Were Jonathan and his senators really interested in radically cutting the exorbitant cost of our demon-cracy and imbibing a genuine spirit of service, they would have considered a more sensible alternative: parliamentary government. Unfortunately, they take the presidential system as sacrosanct. We began our experiment in self-governance with the parliamentary system. Then in 1979, we sought to conjure national unity through the magic of a president elected by popular mandate. Hoping, thereby, to slay once and for all the monster of tribalism. Well, you know it: that dream has since been turned into a nightmare by the ensuing mechanical notion of unity which transformed a shaky but thriving federation into a constricting unitary state.
It is time, I think, to return to the parliamentary model. For one, the presidential system tends to be prohibitively expensive, in poor and rich countries alike. Moreover, it has failed to deliver to us the golden fleece of national unity. And speaking of democracy, how much more representative can a system be than one which makes politics truly local? In a parliamentary system, the candidate stands for election in her own immediate constituency. Her electorate consists of the people best able to judge her character and fitness for public office. At the centre, the party with the majority of seats forms the government. And failing a clear governing majority, forms alliances to that end. One could argue that the parliamentary system is more conducive to federalism defined as the devolution of power by constituent units to a central authority. And that the United States, ironically, is the perfect illustration of this concept: its president is not elected by popular ballot but by an Electoral College constituted by the states’ delegates.
But that is not the only ideal that recommends the parliamentary model. Six or eight years, in my view, is not enough time for meaningful achievement in a country without passable basic infrastructure (roads, railways, electricity and communications grids, schools, healthcare, water works, etc.). Under a parliamentary system, the tenure of a dynamic and truly transformative leader would be subject only to the popular will. Left to me, I would say that if only for his bold commitment to an effective urban mass transit system by way of a light rail metro network in Lagos, Governor Fashola ought to remain in office for as long as his electorate returns him. Vision and dedication to the common good being so rare among our politicians, we ought to be able to retain the few who display these qualities to any appreciable degree. A parliamentary system enables this and, even better, the electorate does not have to wait till the end of an electoral cycle before ridding itself of a corrupt or inept government: elections can be called at any time as a referendum on the party and persons in power.
Still, it is true that without statesmen and women, no form of government is any good. “For forms of government let fools contest,” the great English wit, Alexander Pope, proclaimed in his “Essay on Man,” adding that “Whate’er is best administer’d is best.” I agree insofar as Pope presumes selfless men and women who can be trusted to rise above the claims of this or that ideology or social system. Unfortunately, these are not the kind of men seeking to persuade us that in order to advance democracy, we must first constrict and weaken it.
Professor Ifowodo teaches literature at the Central State University of Texas in the United States. He can be reached by email via firstname.lastname@example.org