Governance paralysis

[FILE PHOTO] President Buhari

The more I think about it, the more I believe the generals could have done it better. We were all enthused by the executive presidential system they imposed on the country through the 1979 constitution. It was an exotic system; its most important innovation perhaps being the two-term limit imposed on elective offices in the executive and the legislative branches of government. Our Eureka moment had come. The term limit closed the gate against anyone’s ambition to sit tight and become a permanent fixture in our national politics. We rejoiced too soon.

However, within the first four years, we began to see the risk the khaki men took by transplanting a political system that has worked well in the United States unto our land. The bunching of the presidential, governorship and legislative elections into the same year and the same period was the first obvious problem for us. Its implication was that for better for worse, we have three years of grace for the elected men and women to attend to the affairs of the governed. The entire fourth year is consumed by election and the re-election struggle. Governance, not the best at the best of times in our country, is paralysed stiff.

We had another chance to take another look at this. Democracy is a work in progress because it is the only system of government that affords itself the task of periodically re-examining and tweaking its institutions to make them move in line with changes in the political mores of the land. The Abdulsalami Abubakar administration, 1998-1999, gave us the chance to re-examine the most vital aspect of our executive presidential system: the uniform tenure of all elective offices, save that of the local governments.


We thought that Abubakar and his men would look at some of the creases in the 1979 constitution and remove them for the third or fourth republic. When the regime invited the views of the public towards the shaping up of a new constitution, the discerning who had the experience of the past suggested the generals should stagger the tenure as follows: president, a single six-year term; governors, a single five-year term; legislators, two terms of four years each and local government chairmen, a single three-year term.

Some of the merits of the suggestion would be these. One, the president and the governors would be elected at different times and thus save the country the governance paralysis that attends their being elected the same year and at the same time.

Two, a single term would eliminate the sort of politicking that holds our country hostage to the vaulting ambitions of men and women every four years. It is neat and it is effectively terminal. And, to put a fine point on it, state funds would no longer be used to fund their re-election.

But Abubakar chose to ignore those suggestions for reasons that should not be difficult to fathom. He fell back on what he believed had been already tested and accepted by his fellow Nigerians – two terms of four years each for the president and the state governors. And we landed in this battle ground call self-succession.

Self-succession presents its own peculiar challenges because almost everything rides on it. If you eliminate self-succession, you would have solved half of our political problems. For one, our state and national treasuries would be much safer than they are now.

More importantly, self-succession has had some insidious hold on the performances of those who seek it. We need look back to only 2003, the first time the self-succession war began and has been sustained in the current republic. We saw the president and the state governors sacrifice some critical decisions that would move the nation and parts thereof forward to their re-election interests. Presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan each at various times chose not to have the courage to do what needed to be done because doing so would compromise their re-election bid.

Obasanjo had the best chance to do more than just well by the electorate. Given his antecedents, his international exposure, his personal courage tinged with a dollop of wayo and the overwhelming support of the local and international communities, he could have moved mountains and fixed the tattered system – if he had been limited to a single term of six years. But he found power so sweet that he wanted two terms and after he received that, three terms. Luckily, he did not ask God for a third term and the almighty was kind enough not to give him what he did not ask for.

Yar’Adua set up the Justice Uwais committee on electoral reforms. At his swearing-in on May 29, 2007, he showed an encouraging determination to straighten the unsightly creases in our electoral system to a) make our elections and the processes leading to them truly free and fair and b) to make the elections credible.

However, when he received the well-regarded report complete with sensible recommendations, the courage to go ahead with implementing them failed him, thanks to some of his aides who saw dangers to his re-election that were not there in the report. We lost the chance, the golden chance, for the president to put things right. Because of a second term.

One of Jonathan’s former aides told me we would have seen a different man if he had won his re-election bid in 2015. I take that to mean that the man generally regarded as meek, weak and timorous, would shed that skin and become a new, improved president. The implication is that he refused to show the true man he was in his first term in office because he expected a second term and the chance to be the man who had hoped he would be. Now, the real Jonathan would never stand up because he lost his re-election and thus the chance to do those things in his first term that would have made him go down in our history as a great president.

So? Well, because of self-succession three men, good and true, who would have made great presidents and our nation great blew it.

This matter is worse than you might think. Just think what would have been the fate of some of the states if some of the scoundrels who presided over them for eight years had done only five years. My guess is that they would have looted much less and Ibrahim Magu and his men could have treated their headache with simple Panadol.

Well, this is all academic now. We cannot force the clock to roll back its hands. We have lost for ever the chance to be a different country. We must live with it. No sitting president would tweak the constitution just to straighten its creases and make things right for the Nigerian state by amending the constitution to provide for a single term for the president and the state governors. I know of no man who is so nationalistic that he would be willing to shoot himself in both feet. So, for a four-year term, we have three years of some governance and one full year of governance paralysis. Well, you can feel the nation moving forward. I suppose that is what matters.

What I have done here is one of my favourite mental exercises called the What If Question. What if the generals had done things differently in re-engineering our social, economic and political development? Would Nigeria be a better country today, as in a nation of laws not of men; a great and egalitarian nation; a land full of promise for its people; a country not perched on the wall precariously with all its heart-wrenching contradictions?

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