Legislature and governance


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Legislature and Governance



Edwin Madunagu


culled from GUARDIAN November 27, 2003

ONE of the two initial problems I had in discussing this subject is reflected in the choice of its title. I had, at first, adopted the working title: Parliamentary and presidential systems simply because I was of the view that, if I respect academic political science, then that is the appropriate subject - matter of what I would be saying. But, then, I ran into difficulties on how to start - thanks, perhaps, to my addiction to definitions. Beyond this, we have to bear in mind the level of political and historical consciousness which has declined terribly in our country in the last two decades.

The second problem I had was an ideological one, namely: persuading myself that this was an important subject to discuss at this time. I even asked myself whether it is important at any time. It was a scandalous thought, one would say. But, then, it was not entirely baseless. The matter can be put like this: A patriotic and knowledgeable group in Nigeria says that, to save the country from dictatorship, and for democracy, one of the steps we have to urgently take is the reversion to the parliamentary system of government. Another group argues that the urgent question to address is really not the governmental system -parliamentary or presidential - but rather, the grave danger posed to the survival of our people by the national and international class forces that are currently in power in Nigeria. These Nigerians argue that these are hostile, insensitive, anti-people, obscurantist, arrogant, class forces which if not disengaged from power, will impose fascist dictatorship on the country - whatever governmental system is written into the constitution, presidential or parliamentary.

I recall a political group meeting I attended many years ago. When we came to discussing the constitution, an older comrade, who had been in a particularly bad mood, could no longer contain his anger. He rose from his seat, moved to the platform uninvited, and commanded attention with his moral authority. What he said, or rather, shouted, can no reconstructed as follows: "Comrades, shut up! I say, shut up! Your problem is laziness - intellectual and political laziness. If we are serious we can use the Shagari Constitution, even as anti-people as it is, to battle the Nigerian bourgeois state to a stand still. As I see it, not even the most democratic constitution can shake you from your self-imposed lethargy". He went back to his seat and the presiding officer, who had unceremoniously abdicated his position, quietly resumed his functions. On his way to his seat the angry comrade admonished those who were interested only in intellectual debates to see how the Latin American dictators had used the "monster" called the presidential system. Thus, in a space of one minute, the comrade advanced two significant propositions on the subject.

We are taught that Nigeria operated the parliamentary system of government during the First Republic (1960-1965). Under it, the federal government had the following political institutions: Head of State, called President; Prime Minister; a Federal Legislature or Parliament, made up of a Senate and a House of Representatives; and a Council of Ministers. In the Second Republic (1979-1983), when we were said to be operating the presidential system, the country had the following political institutions at the federal level: a President; a Vice-President; a Federal Legislature, made up of a Senate and a House of Representatives; and a Council of Ministers or Executive Council. The same applies to the present Obasanjo's presidential system. This similarity in nomenclature is bound to cause confusions if one starts with definitions and appearances.

Furthermore, there are parliamentary systems with vice-presidents instead of, or in addition to, prime ministers; and there are presidential systems with prime ministers in addition to vice-presidents. A "practical" political activist, impatient with theories and theoreticians, can, on the basis of nomenclature, dismiss the difference between the two systems as non-existent. Although I would caution against that type of attitude and perhaps call it "philistine", I shall not drag the fellow to the other extreme by pretending that there is a world of difference between them.

When we speak of the parliamentary system, we hold up the British political system as model. When the presidential system is debated, the reference is to the American system. And when the parliamentary and presidential systems are up for comparison, we make the British and American systems confront each other. Nigeria parodied the British system in the First Republic with the claim that the parliamentary system was being practised. In the present dispensation Nigeria's ruling classes are laying claim to the presidential system when all they are doing is aping the American system. They did the same thing in the Second Republic. Essentially, the differences between the parliamentary system and the presidential system and their variants are the differences between the powers and responsibilities bestowed on their respective legislatures. And this does not change the class character of the state. Once the big question of which class or classes hold power is decided the small question of choice between the two systems reduces to that of how to distribute roles in the small group that rules over the polity. I give five illustrations, and leave the matter there.

In the British system, the political executive governs with the consent of parliament. It was this system that has been idealised and generalised and given the name parliamentary system. But parliament does not govern; it is only that the political executive, or government, cannot govern without the support of parliament. The government is formed by the party which commands the largest number of seats in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament which is fully elected. The leader of that party is called upon by the British monarch, acting as Head of State, to form a government. And the government governs in the name of monarch. The Prime Minister and all the ministers are members of Parliament. This situation remains unless and until there is a serious political crisis - when anything can happen. A vote in parliament expressing no confidence in the government is a call on the government to resign, or the monarch to sack the government, if fails to do so.

The American president, on the other hand, is not a member of the Congress, the name given to parliament in America. Ministers are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Congress. But they are not members of the Congress. The president is elected by the whole country considered as a single constituency. Executive political authority is vested in him or her. The president does not govern through, or with the consent of, Congress. And a vote of no confidence in Congress may have a moral force, but it does not require the president to resign. The president can only be removed through impeachment.

In Israel, the Prime Minister is elected by the whole country, taken as a constituency. This is a sharp departure from the British system where the Prime Minister is elected as a member of the House of Commons, like any other member. There is an Israeli parliament called Knesset. The Israeli President, periodically elected by Knesset, is a ceremonial Head of State. The President calls on the Prime Minister to form a government which commands a majority support in Knesset. Because the Prime Minister has been elected by the whole country he or she is given enough time to try to form a government. If, at any time, the Prime Minister loses the support of Knesset he or she is again given enough time to organise a new support, often through the formation of a new government. But, if at the end, the Prime Minister cannot do this, new elections are called. I think this is the system advocated for Nigeria by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, at least before the Second Republic.

In France, the President of the Republic is elected by the whole country, taken as a constituency. There is a parliament called the National Assembly. The leader of the party which controls the majority in the National Assembly forms the government in which he or she is called Prime Minister. Executive political authority is shared between the President and the Minister, and the latter exercises his or her own share of the authority through the National Assembly. Just as in America, it is possible for the French President not to have a majority support in the National Assembly or, to put it more clearly, for the President and the Prime Minister to belong to different political parties. When this happens, the arrangement is called cohabitation. The French system is currently being practised in Sri Lanka. And there is currently a cohabitation there. When a cohabitation runs into a serious crisis it is usually resolved through the dissolution of parliament and the setting up of a new National Assembly, through elections.

In the old Soviet Union, before Mikhail Gorbachev began his poorly articulated and recklessly executed reforms, there was a parliament, called the Supreme Soviet. This parliament had a standing committee called the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. The chairperson of this standing committee was called the President of the Soviet Union by the Western press. There was a Council of Ministers, appointed by the Supreme Soviet. The chairperson of this council was called Prime Minister by the Western press. But the Soviets called him or her the Chairperson of the Council of Ministers. Political authority was held by the ruling party, the Communist Party of Soviet Union, and it exercised this authority through the Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers.


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