Challenges of the Presidential System of Government

by Sam Kargbo

This is a long essay on the challenges of the Presidential System of Government in general, how it is constituted in Nigeria, and why it has failed to deliver development in Nigeria. I will present it in parts. The central theme is that the Presidential system of Government is oligarchic and the President is a Leviathan monster that the institutions of the State cannot effectively control or tame without the support and vigilance of the People. He is the Sovereign in whom the executive powers of the state are vested and as such he is the Head of State, Commander-in-Chief, Chief Executive, Guardian of the Economy, Chief Policy-Maker, Chief Diplomat, Chief of Party, and Executor and Maintainer of the Constitution. No matter the powers given to them, the institutions and agencies of the State cannot defend democracy or protect themselves against a ruthless and ambitious President without the willingness of the people to put out themselves to support and protect them.

The supportive theme is that the ignorance, indolence, connivance, and indulgence of the people often egg on the Leviathan President to see himself as a god and act as one. Worse still, is the fact that the power of authoritarianism is often freely gifted to the President by the people. In other words, it is the people who surrender themselves to the President in the form of anticipatory obedience or suggesting to “a President” what to do to be “strong” and be able to deal with their opponents ruthlessly.

Origin of the Presidential System of Government.

The place of the nativity of the Presidential system of Government can be found in how Britain operated its colonial system in the Americas. Early migrants from Britain to the Americas were a mishmash of all sorts of characters. Among them were religious rebels who believed that the church should be a voluntary community rather than a compulsory state religion and therefore refused to submit to the suzerainty of the Church of England. To escape persecution, the idea of migrating to the Americas, to found freedom settlements where they would be free to practice the faith that made them outlaws in their homeland, became attractive. As a win-win solution between these pilgrims and their persecutors, they sought and obtained the authorization of their home government to establish self-governing colonies in the Americas with lawmaking bodies that had the power to appoint Governors with executive powers. This separation of the independent executive branch from the law-making body was adopted and modified by the American Constitutional Congress in 1787 and became known as the Presidential system of Government.

The Presidential system has since spread to all but a few countries of Northern America and Central Europe. At Impendence, many African countries adopted the Presidential system of Government and Nigeria in particular adopted the Presidential system of the United States of America with a slight modification in the mode of the election of its President and the powers reserved for the President in their respective constitutions. Whereas America adopts a very complex and bizarre delegate system in Article II section 1 of its constitution, the Nigerian President is elected by a simple majority of popular votes under sections 133 and 134 of the Nigerian constitution. The powers of the American President under Article II sections 2 and 3 are not as extensive as the powers of the Nigerian President but in reality, both Presidents are equally powerful. If a distinction is necessary, it will be safe to say that the Nigerian President is gifted unlimited opportunities and avenues to enrich himself and those he chooses to spread his patronage to. This aspect will be expanded when we discuss the Nigerian President.

Definition of the Presidential System of Government

We shall adopt the definition that describes the Presidential system of Government as a democratic form of government in which a directly elected head of government presides over an executive branch that is distinct from a legislature and judiciary. We shall go further to highlight the features of a Presidential System of Government to guide our discussion.

Besides the fact that it was inspired by freedom, especially religious freedom, and the right of citizens to elect the chief executive of the country, the Presidential system of Government has the following standout features:

 (1). The people elect the Chief Executive of the State to serve for a fixed term and the elected Chief Executive of the State is responsible and accountable to the people and not the law-making body or nonstate actors or oligarchies. The American constitution provides in this respect as follows:

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows….

 Although the unitary executive creates a leviathan sovereign with enormous powers if used efficiently, the state could benefit from the stability afforded by the fixed term;

(2). The Presidential system incorporates the concept of separation of powers, whereby the legislative, executive and judicial powers of the state are divided and allocated to three different organs of government which are to cooperate and pool efficiencies through the principle of checks and balances that connects each organ of government to the other and prevents them from functioning as silos. In this wise, although the President is the head of government and presides over the executive branch of government, and is almost always the head of state, his powers are not at large. He cannot dissolve the legislative arm of government whose members are equally elected by the people to serve for a fixed term.

Because he is directly elected by the people, the President does not function at the mercy of the legislature and does not need to curry its favour or pander to its whims and caprices to stay in office. The legislature can however remove the President from office if found guilty of gross misconduct. Both the President and the legislature must act and function within the ambit provided for the by the Constitution and where they act out of line, the judiciary is there to whip them into line.

(3). Each arm of Government is a buffer to each and both of the other arms of Government. No one arm is supposed to be too powerful to the extent of being able to emasculate another arm or the two other arms combined. The system also prevents the unlawful ganging up of two arms against an arm of the Government. All three organs are supposed to be equal and will be equal if they give their loyalty to the instrument that creates them and the people in particular.

 (4) The head of government is most times the head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. This feature of the Presidential system of Government is expressed in section 130 of the Nigerian constitution as follows:

 (1) There shall be for the Federation a President.

(2) The President shall be the Head of State, the Chief Executive of the Federation and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federation.

Distortion of the Presidential System of Government.

The Presidential system is distorted and converted into an Oligarchy when the President appropriates the entire Government by weakening the other two arms of Government and putting them under his firm grip and control. Once the two arms of Government are under his control, it becomes easier for him to fiddle with the Constitution to allow him to extend his tenure.

In the books, Russia operates a Presidential system of Government by which the President is elected directly through a popular vote for a six-year term. The President has the power to appoint a Prime Minister who chairs the Government of the Russian Federation and presides over the day-to-day operations of the Government as prescribed Constitution, Federal constitutional laws, Federal laws and mostly by the President through Presidential decrees and orders. A Russian President was, according to the 1997 Russian Constitution meant to serve no more than two terms. However, Vladimir Putin has since removed the term limit and has been able to appropriate the Russian State. He has held continuous positions as President or prime minister since 1999: as prime minister from 1999 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2012, and as President from 2000 to 2008 and since 2012. He has announced that he will run in the 2024 Presidential election and he is almost certain to win a fifth term as President. He could be President for life.

China has a President as the Chief Executive of the state but in reality, it operates a system of people’s congress within the parameters of a unitary Marxism–Leninist one-party state that it describes as the “people’s dictatorship”.

Rwanda operates a Presidential system of Government but Paul Kagame has since appropriated the state—the 2003 constitution provided for a President with a seven-year tenure that can only be renewed once. However, Paul Kagame has been that country’s President since 2000. Paul Kagame, who grew up as a Ugandan and rose through the ranks of Yoweri Museveni’s rebel army to become a senior Ugandan army officer when Yoweri Museveni took over power in Uganda, returned to Rwanda with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1990. He became its leader and was a prominent figure and factor in the ending of the Rwandan genocide. After arresting the drift of the genocidal civil war, and the return of the country to a civil rule in he became the country’s Vice President and Minister of Defence in 1914, a position he used to force the then President Pasteur Bizimungu to resign in 2000 to enable him transform from the de facto President he was as Vice President to de jure President. He has remained in office to date by amending the constitution to justify his hold on power. Paul Kagame is the Putin of Africa.

The cases of Paul Biya’s Cameroon, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s Equatorial Guinea, Denis Sassou Nguesso’s Republic of the Congo, Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda, and Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrea are worse.

In Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who seized power through a military coup has been the President since 1979. The very old Paul Biya has been President of Cameron since 1982 while in the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, became President in 1979 and stayed in office till 1992 and returned to the office in 1997 and remained in office till date. Yoweri Museveni, the rebel leader turned politician has been the President of Uganda since 1986. Eritrea has only known Isaias Afwerki as its President since it gained independence in 1993.

In Togo, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo ruled as a life President and his son who succeeded him in 2005 is still the President of that country.

Mugabe would have died in office as President had he not been forced out after 37 years as President of Zimbabwe.

Idris Deby was killed in office after 31 years as Chad’s President.

Yahya Jammeh left the office of President of the Gambia at gunpoint in 2017 after seizing power in a military coup in 1994 and naming himself as President.

Chad’s Idriss Deby ruled for 31 years before his death on 19 April 2021. He died due to complications from injuries sustained during a terrorist attack.

It is therefore safe to say that what passes for a Presidential system of government is dependent on the character and nature of the Government in action than the name. Most African Presidential systems of Government are glorified clueless, inept, avaricious and self-aggrandizing dictatorships, which explains why they have failed to deliver development.

Early Warning Signs of a dictatorship creep

A dictator is lurking in the inner recess of all of us. It is natural for one to believe that they know how life should be lived and how things should be done. We fantasize about ideals and the idea that what is good for us is good for the world and what is not good for us is bad for the world. This may explain why most of the overambitious military officers who have overthrown constitutional governments in Africa through coups justify their dastardly actions and deeds with messianic rhetoric. According to them, their adventures are always responses to patriotic calls to save the country. The gamble they make with their lives demonstrates their readiness to lay down their lives for the greater good of the country. In sum, it is always patriotism that propels them and gives them the right to decide the fates of their fellow countrymen and women.

According to David Hundeyin, in his article: Danger ahead: Beware of “patriotism” published in the Businessday on 29 May 2021

Throughout history, this has been the recurring decimal with empires, states and regimes that inflict large amounts of violence and misery on the human race. There is always a small group of elite intellectuals, politicians, administrators, soldiers and merchants who arrogate to themselves, the power to make disastrous choices in the name of millions of people without consulting them or obtaining their permission. The enabling excuse is always some iteration of the word “patriotism”.

It is this warped mental makeup of playing god over the affairs of men that makes every coupist, who transmutes into a civilian ruler, want to cling on to power for life. Where they are hamstrung and contained by the political landscape they preside over, they blame their inefficiency on democracy and the law. I do not believe that Obasanjo will forgive those who denied him a third term. Buhari never missed an opportunity to tell Nigerians that his inability or lack of the will to fight corruption was because of the rule of law that prevents him from being the General he is. It is also not a coincidence that most of the sit tight rulers in Africa have military backgrounds and have executed successful coups on their way to limelight and fame.

Ironically, it is the nature of men to be attracted to individuals who appear strong and exude the capacity to provide security and stability in an otherwise chaotic world. There is also that false belief that one’s prosperity is mostly dependent on the magic wand of a strong leader.

 The root of dictatorship is the belief that the law is not permissive enough and that effectiveness comes with innovations and inventiveness outside the parameters of the law. There is always the temptation for a President to take on a life outside the Constitution and the laws of the land. The President starts veering off when he gets impatient with the law and gets irritated by those who remind him of the limits of his powers. A President is fully motivated to breach the constitution once he believes that but for the law, he could bring the moon to the ocean for the people. It is therefore not unusual for a President to mask dictatorial tendencies with rhetoric on the welfare of the people, law and order and public interest. It is also not uncommon for dictators to believe that all those in opposition are against them and often fail to envision the appropriate consequences of their actions against the opposition or that the opposition is only responding to the missteps or unconstitutional actions of the dictator.

Early warning signs that a ruthless leviathan wants to perpetuate himself in Government are (1). the weakening of the Legislature, Judiciary, and all the institutions that are meant to defend democracy. Nothing enables dictatorship than weak legislature and judiciary. Once a President is able to capture and warehouse the legislature and the judiciary in his Presidential domain, it becomes easier for him appropriate the entire state. Instead being the buffer between the President and the people, they become his handmaids. Unfortunately, an ambitious President does not need to do too much to capture these two organs of government in a continent where those who seek public offices are not ideologically driven but principally actuated by material needs. The push is most times the need to escape the trap of poverty and not to serve as disciples or sheriffs of constitutional democracy and the rule of law. All a President needs to do is to buy them with one form of bribery or the other;(2). Destruction of the opposition through draconian and repressive acts against political opponents. Where the leadership of the opposition is made up of former political office holders or politically exposed persons, all a President needs to do to shut them up is to stage commissions of inquiry with the mandate to dig into their past and nail them with scandalous findings or simply unleash on them prosecutorial or security agencies that will force them to flew the country ; (3). Engineering and propping of insecurity to justify the usurpation of power and limitation of the liberties of the people in the name of national security and public interest. The dishonest and manipulative President will always attribute acts of domestic violence to “enemies within,” and use such events as excuses to limit civil liberties;(4). Rigging of an election and its ratification by the people through passive connivance clothes the President with an aura of invincibility and the incentive to assume powers outside the constitution; (5). Undermining the people’s trust in the law and law enforcement or surrounding themselves with their security force rather than a security detail accountable to the public; (6). Popularism antics by which the President not only appeal to the sentiments and concerns of the ordinary and vulnerable folks but proffers simplistic solutions to complicated and acute socioeconomic issues and problems. It is typical for an ambitious President to employ Messianism and miracle worker evangelism to make a case for more powers and an extension of time to actualize the promise miracle;(7). Akin to popularism is the propping of a cult personality in which the President is promoted by Lackeys and self-enslaved-minded individuals as the only good man in the land while all others, especially his opponents, are the witches and wizards who are sucking the blood of the nation and snuffing its oxygen. Note also that the average human being is mentally indolent and looks for shortcuts for his problems. This mental laziness or indolence disposes us to favour information that confirms or strengthens our beliefs or values. We band and commune with those who affirm our beliefs and avoid those who hold contrary views or beliefs. This is why religion is an effective mental therapy. Ambitious leaders often inflame our confirmation bias which compels us to look for and latch on to evidence that supports our ideas or desires, while discounting contradictory information, with wild rhetoric and wishful ideas.  Most dictators ride on the people’s confirmation bias to assume cult personalities. (8). Exploitation and weaponization of the fault lines of the country through surrogates who promote tribalism, religion and regionalism. Dictators are very good assessors of known social dynamics and can conveniently take advantage of them to retain or maintain power; (9). Undermining the independence of the Media and civil activism either through repressive actions, restrictive laws and policies or divide-and-rule tactics and where that succeeds, the media and civil organizations are divided along the fault lines of the country. Every leader, in whatever capacity fancies the idea of controlling information. Presidents are however conflicted by such a desire on the one hand, and the constitutional oath of upholding the sanctity of the liberties of the people which include a free, energetic, vigilant, knowledgeable and if you may, an adversarial media. Because the media must do a reality check and background investigations on the posture and narratives/rhetoric of Governments and their bureaucratic agencies, Presidents see them as the enemy they must crush if they are to court the affection of the people. In the days of the primacy of newspapers, magazines, television and radio in information and communication, the task of controlling the media by Governments was easier. But in this world of social media, the task is herculean; (10). Papering over the economic woes of the country and the ritualization of excuses and blame against the opposition and imaginary adverse forces; and (11). Politicizing the civil service, the armed forces, police and all public institutions and agencies. The idea of strong democratic institutions speaks to their insulation from political influence and pressures. When Public institutions and agencies are populated by the President’s men and women or when the tenure of their personnel and promotions or rewards are at the pleasure of the President, there is every tendency for them to pander to the excesses or demands of the President. Within the African context, these public bureaucracies are easily appropriated by the President by ensuring that their hierarchies are made up mainly of people from the President’s tribe or people with ascertained loyalty and sympathy for the President. When all the democratic institutions and agencies become an extension of the President’s family or tribal umbilical cord, they become a solid army with which the President wages the war of subjugation against the rest of the people. They rig elections for the President, suppress opposition or dissent for the President, even without his prompting or instruction, identify or sort out those standing against the President’s usurpation of power, reward the backers of the President, and demonize those who express critical views against the President and for those in uniforms, they “enforce the law” against the perceived enemies of the President.

The list is not closed. Every African country has its peculiar dictatorial tendencies and manifestations and the job is for a vigilant and assertive citizenry to curb them.

Can we tame Mr President?

In answer to this question, I will adopt the following views expressed by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, a Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change in an article he published in 2018 with the title “Fighting Against Dictatorship” :

“There will always be people whose personality makeup predisposes them to dictatorship. Many past and contemporary dictators suffer from extraordinarily high levels of narcissism, psychopathy and paranoia. They have an inflated sense of self-importance and feel entitled to the admiration of others. An inherent lack of empathy, guilt or remorse allows the most malignant to commit unspeakable atrocities.

But while it is easy to vilify dictators, we should also realise that, in many ways, we (the people) are the ones enabling them. After all, a dictator cannot function without followers. Although we may not admit it out loud, it’s attractive to have others tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. But abdicating personal responsibility cripples freedom of expression and derails democratic processes. The good news is, however, that although we enable dictators, we can also disable them.

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