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The Suitability of Presidential System of Government in a Multi-Ethnic Democracy By Femi Gbajabiamila

The Suitability of Presidential System of Government in a Multi-Ethnic Democracy  By  Femi Gbajabiamila
  • PublishedMay 24, 2017

This is an excerpt of the speech delivered by the Leader of the 8th House of Representative at State of Osun House of Assembly to commemorate the 60th birthday anniversary of the governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola.

I am humbled by the invitation extended to me to deliver this lecture on the suitability of the presidential system of Government in a multi-ethnic democracy, a very topical subject in our present day democracy. Apart from the fact that I may not be the most qualified person to take up this all important assignment, this lecture is coming at a time many Nigerians are confronted with enormous challenges and so many unanswered questions with regard to the most suitable system of government to adopt in order to get out of this present economic and political quagmire. Most importantly, this lecture is coming at a time when the entire Country and the good people of the State of Osun are gathered to celebrate one of the very change agents in Nigeria’s political history. His Excellency Governor Rauf Aregbesola. I am indeed humbled.


A very popular and well acceptable definition of democracy is that it is the Government of, by and for the people. It is a government whereby every citizen of a country irrespective of class/status, colour, sex, and race has the right to participate. The rights of the few and weak are protected even though the majority rules. In fact, the majority rulers derive their authority from the people. In constitutional democracy, the powers of the rulers are regulated by legal means so that the rights of the minorities and the weak are protected and respected. This is the type of democratic practice in most countries in the world, particularly, the United States of America, Germany, France etc. And of course, this is the democratic practice in Nigeria. The structure or system of government in any country is derived from the Constitution of that country. The United States operates federal system of government where government is separated between two independent sovereignties at the federal and state level. However, there is some truism to the saying that all politics is local and as all politics is local I believe all democracies can also be local.


However in Nigeria, our Constitution prescribes for us a federal system of government with 3 federating units to wit: federal, states and the local governments. Section 2 sub-section 1 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 provides that “Nigeria is one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign state to be known by the name of Federal Republic of Nigeria”. In most federal democracies of the world, Federal system is designed along two federating units which seems to be the intention of the legal draftsmen under sub-section 2 which states that “Nigeria shall be a Federation consisting of states and a Federal Capital Territory”. However under Section 3 sub-sections 1 to 5 of the 1999 constitution (as amended), Nigeria’s federal system appears to be designed to consist of three Federating units perhaps to suit our local circumstances according to our current experiences. Even at that, it is practically difficult for many Nigerians to accept that we practice federalism. This has led to the question as to what system of government do we really practice in Nigeria, and of course what system of government is most suitable for Nigeria which is where the topic of this lecture revolves. For us to answer this question, recourse must be made to some simple descriptions of the systems of government relevant to our discuss.
Presidential system is a government where the executive is led by a President who serves both as the head of state and the head of government. The President is always dominant. However, due to the principle of separation of powers usually entrenched in the Constitution, he still has to obtain majority support from the legislature for his actions.
In the parliamentary system, the executive is not really separated from the Legislature. As in the UK for instance, the Leader usually referred to as Prime Minister is a member of the legislature. He picks his cabinet’s members who are also members of the legislature. He is the head of government and the head of parliament. In the circumstance, the party that controls the legislature controls the executive. The executive is tied to the parliament. The Head of government who is also the head of Legislature can easily get the laws favorable to his party’s aspiration passed, and of course there will be no issues with execution.
In federal system, powers are shared between the central and the component regions. The central cedes certain powers to the regions. The regions are independent of the central to a very large extent. In countries were federalism is in full force, regions have more responsibilities than the central.
The unitary system is one in which all the powers are concentrated in the hands of one central government. Even though the central governs, it may delegate some powers to the regions, these powers are exercised at the whims and caprices of the central authority.
The question arising from the above is: where exactly does Nigeria belong?


The right answer to the above question may be missed without attempting a retrospect of Nigeria Constitutional history.
Nigeria had at one time or the other practiced almost all the systems of government. After the first military coup of 1966 and under the short-lived administration of the then Head of State General Aguiyi Ironsi, Decree 34 of 1966 was promulgated abrogating the federal system of government and substituting same with unitary system of government. This system continued even during the Yakubu Gowon led Military government.
When General Murtala Mohammed took over as the Head of State, he, after meeting with the Supreme Military Council adopted the presidential system of Government and thereafter set up a Constitution Drafting Committee to draft our Constitution in line with Presidential system of Government. While addressing the Committee on the 18th day of October, 1975 he stated that the Supreme Military Council had discussed and had agreed on the Presidential System of Government in which the President and Vice President are elected with clearly defined powers and accountable to the people, Eric Teniola also captured this record of events in his book, Origin of Presidential System of Government.
From independence in 1960 to 1966, Nigeria practiced the Parliamentary system of Government where we had the president Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe as the Head of State and the Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa as the head of Government.
Federalism dates back to the year 1939 by Governor It was adopted by the Richard Constitution of 1946, the Macpherson constitution of 1951 and the Littleton Constitution of 1954. The 1954 Constitution was as a result of the Constitutional conference that took place in London in 1953 where the resolution for Nigeria to remain a Federal State was adopted and the reasons for the adoption of federalism were:
Cultural and ethnic diversity
The fear by the minority of domination
Geographical factor and economic factor and
Bringing government and power to the people
From the foregoing, it is very clear that Nigeria has passed through almost all the systems of government. It is however disheartening that today we are still pondering over a suitable system of government that will take us to the Promised Land. Some scholars have argued that our problem does not lie in the system of government we practice but in our insincerity as a people. For instance, even though we proclaim federalism today, we cannot boldly say we practice federalism. To me, we have combined the features of federal, presidential and unitary systems of government. By name, it is Federal Government of Nigeria; by Constitutional design, it is Presidential and in practice, it is Unitary. But we pretend to be operating the federal system. Even though the reasons for adopting the federal system were mainly for the protection of the minority so that power is spread evenly, in practice, power has continued to concentrate at the center.
Let’s be clear, the drafters of Nigeria’s constitution were mindful of our diversity. For this reason they included provisions you will not find in many other constitutions. Provisions such as Federal Character found in section 14 (3) of the Constitution and appointment of Ministers from each State of the Federation found in section 147 (3). The philosophy and principle behind these provisions are based on the need to protect ethnic minorities almost similar to the principle of affirmative action in the United States which was to protect blacks from racial discrimination. Indeed the Constitution ensures equal participation by providing equal representation through election of National Assembly members. It also provides strict requirements of popularity of votes and 25% in 2/3rd of states for the President. This way the President whether or not he likes it must have enough spread across the ethnic groups.

The multi ethnicity and diverse nature of the Country does not seem to help issues. The negativities of our diverse nature seems to always raise its ugly head with every system we operate. Apparently, there is so much distrust among the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. As it was in the sixties, so it is today. And at the risk of sounding so pessimistic, so shall it be if we as a people do not take urgent and sincere steps to correct the ills and abnormality in our democratic system and practice.

For the purpose of this topic, I will like to revisit the features of Presidential system of government for us to ascertain how suitable it is in a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria. They are:
Separation of powers between the arms of government
President is both the head of state and head of government. This makes the President too powerful
President is responsible to the electorates
There is hardly any recognized opposition which is dangerous for democracy
Ministers are individually handpicked by the President and can be summarily dismissed by the President
The system is very expensive
Following the highlights above, most powers are concentrated in one man at the Centre and this cannot be suitable in a multi ethnic society like Nigeria where there are issues of marginalization, resource control, power sharing issues, revenue allocation, agitation for secession etc. As evidenced today, there are too many responsibilities at the Federal level and it is therefore not surprising that the dividends of democracy hardly get to the grassroots. The medical, education and social standard in our villages are nothing to write home about. Majority of the citizens leaving in rural areas hardly feel the effect of government. This is not surprising for it is foolhardy to expect the center government in Abuja to know and solve the problems in every hamlet in Nigeria.
It is important in addressing this topic, the system of government cannot be addressed in isolation of the structure of government. Both work hand in glove. In other words, if the system does not fit into the structure then there will be a misfit and the two will never be able to work in unison. What do I mean? A Presidential system of government which by its nature cedes a lot of powers to “Mr President” or maybe “Madam President” one day, can only work in a democratic system where true federalism thrives. An executive President in a unitary system is perfect recipe for chaos and absolutism.


Available Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) first quarter 2017 report indicates that the Federal Government statutory allocation to the three tiers of government in January 2017 was N430.16 Billion of which N168 billion went to the Federal Government, states N114.28billion, and local government councils, N85.4 billion. In other word, the 36 states of the Federation and FCT and the 774 local government areas got less than one tier of the government at the center.

In February 2017, Federal Government got 200.6 billion, states received N128.4billion; local government councils received N96.52 billion representing (20.60 per cent).

In the month of March 2017, Federal government received a total of N180.51bn from the N466.9bn shared. States received a total of N116.5bn and Local governments received N87.5bn.

The FAAC allocation was made applying the revenue sharing formula, federal government – 52.68%; States – 26.72% and local governments – 20.60%

This has always been the narrative. It is worrisome that it is the federal government that want to provide water for the people in Esa-Oke or the man in Mubi. It is the federal government that want to provide fertilizer for the farmer in Idoma land, use the federal police to secure Badagry, Bama and the creeks. If the various ethnic groups in Nigeria must come together with one mind in one spirit to accept Nigeria as one indivisible country and if we must collectively work towards the unity and development of Nigeria, the narrative must change. Democratic government is for the people and by the people. Power must return to the people. Therefore, items under part 1 second schedule of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 must be revisited. Items relating to power, police, water, agriculture, mines and mining, parks, registration of business names, prisons public holiday’s railways, stamp duties, marriages etc must be moved to either the concurrent list or residual list. The issue of restructuring must be revisited. States and local government areas through which the common man feels the Government must be empowered.


Nigeria’s democracy has experienced a very rough history arising from several military coup leading to many years of military rules and the civil war of 1967 to 1970. These together with ethnic sentiments, tribalism, religion fanaticism insincerity and greed by some politicians have hindered our democratic growth. In democracy, power belongs to the people, but in Nigeria’s democracy, power has been taking away from the people leading to distrust, inter-ethnicity rivalry, disagreement and conflicts power tussle and the quest for secession.
Does the idea of zoning stunt development of other areas? Does it sacrifice merit on the alter of ethnicity. I think like everything else it is the practitioners that matter. Whilst the above two questions are germaine and can be a problem, I believe the whole idea of federal character and the appointment of a minister per state should adequately answer the question of schewed federal presence in certain regions. It is important to note that the federal character policy is not only applicable to appointments but also to projects of the federal government The fact that the constitution also provides for equal state representation in the legislature also addresses this issue. Surely a budget that is lopsided will find it difficult to pass through the National Assembly. It must be clearly understood that what drives the policy of zoning or federal character is the fundamental quest of all people for equity, fairness and justice which is also written into our constitution. It is no different from the cry for resource control. This underlying principle is therefore implicit and explicit. Though zoning is not written into our laws (at least not yet), it is implicit in the sense that a Party that presents 2 south west candidates as President and Vice President is bound to fail. Today the No1, No 2 and No 3 must be from different zones.
I believe the presidential system if modified to fit into our local peculiarities and if practiced within the context of a federal system, can work well in Nigeria, but there must be some modifications particularly by devolving powers to the regions and the states.
Many have said Nigeria is a mere geographical expression and the amalgamation in 1914 was really and truly an amalgamation of several nations with different cultures, religion and languages. For this reason it has been suggested by scholars that the presidential system should be modified and rejigged by having rotational presidency as a form of government enshrined in the constitution. Some have also proffered that we should have a council of presidents with one President and two Vice Presidents and all three representing the three major tribes, or a six man presidential council representing all six geopolitical zones of the country. Some have even gone further to argue for a hybrid system of government, part presidential, part parliamentarian. Which ever way, it is abundantly clear that to achieve a more perfect union, we need to some recalibration or restructuring as some will like to call it. The presidential system of government in and of itself works well generally, but as Nigerians we must not play the ostrich or continue to be in denial that our society, our people and our chequered history have peculiarities and vagarices that may not necessarily be found in other societies that practices a typical and traditional presidential system of government therefore it is my humble opinion that because there exist a patent symbiotic relationship between politics and economics and because the two feed off each other and to maintain a social equilibrium for the purpose of achieving a more progressive and egalitarian society there is need for some re-engineering.
I stand on that side of the divide that believes we do not need to jettison the presidential system wholesale but that we should look at the merits and demerits and come up with a customized presidential system of government for our great country.
Before I close let me use this very auspicious moment to on behalf of my colleagues in the National Assembly from across party lines congratulate His Excellency, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, the executive Governor of the State of osun for attaining this milestone, my prayer for you is very simple but even in its simplicity it is very powerful and that is, May the best days of your past be the worst days of your future.
Once again I thank you for the opportunity to hear my thought and in my own way contribute to this most important debate that is essential for our forward movement.

Femi Gbajabiamila is the Leader of the 8th House of Representatives of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

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