Published On: Thu, Apr 4th, 2019

In search of the ‘Strong’ President (I)

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THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu

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Most hands in the All Progressive Congress, APC seem now desperately on deck, battling to forestall a repeat, at the legislature, of what happened in 2015. The legislative ‘big bird’ in 2015 had lost its good ‘headpiece’ and was strangely adorned -by the contraption of traitors- with the ‘head’ of a vulture. The Hausas call it ‘angulu da kan zabuwa’. But in this case it should actually be the other way round, ‘zabuwa da kan angulu’. And for four grueling years we have had to bear with the ‘head’ of a carrion-eating avian falsely beautified with the feathers of a peacock. Buhari himself has admitted that, that treacherous contraption had terribly slowed his government down. And now his ruling Party is strategizing not only to get the numbers right at the NASS but this time around also, to get both chambers wear the right peacock ‘headpieces’ as we enter into the next dispensation. But then the question arises, will it be enough to have just the numbers at the legislature, and maybe even to install the desired leaderships of both chambers? Would that then be the legislative Eldorado that the Buhari Government will require to hit the ground running in its second coming? Absolutely no!
Let’s hope that Mr. President will not discover, to his chagrin, that the key to a successful democratic governance lies more in the execution of a ‘strong presidential initiative’ at the legislature than it does in merely having the ‘numbers’ and the right ‘leadership’ at the legislature. Truth is, in spite of achieving those, a weak presidential initiative at the legislature will still be as counterproductive as having a treacherous Saraki on the rudder. Any parliament, no matter how favorable constituted, in addition to being potentially ‘a woman of easy virtue’, it can also be ‘a beast of self-harming contumacy’: just now it is responsive and tender to executive concerns, and just now it can be cantankerous and rebellious even to the comely overtures of a friendly executive.
The Legislature, unless it is handled firmly by a ‘strong president’, it can be more of a systemic drag than the democratic incentive that it is intended to be. And whatever parliament becomes in the long run, -whether responsive or repulsive to executive concerns- would depend largely on the President’s ‘strong’ or ’weak’ initiative in the legislative process. As parliament is the centerpiece of democratic governance, the legislative process is the heart of all democratic enterprise. It is usually tended to the benefit of the entire body polity and it is ignored often at great peril not only to the system’s operation but indeed to the entire democratic enterprise. The legislative process feeds the democratic circulatory system from the mighty pipe of political life namely the jugular vein right to the minutest capillaries of everyday administration. It is the most all-encompassing of any governmental processes touching on all sectors of a polity and of necessity leaving out no constituency. And it is the reason that ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ presidents are usually judged strictly by the deftness of their initiative in the legislative process. Any presidential initiative must be effective enough to keep parliament in synch with the norms of constitutional ‘checks and balances’. Because the legislature, by the very nature of its unique powers and functions, is hardly ever willfully amenable to, or tolerant of, checks by the other arms of government.
Every parliament ought to be its nation’s ‘moral high ground’. The legislature alone is suited for that hallowed spot atop which only men of impeccable character should reside. Yet every parliament potentially can also be its nation’s moral drag. It can be both eminently corruptible and a willing infidel. Even as sublimely exemplary as the American parliament is reputed to be, President Abraham Lincoln, once in the heat of an Executive-Legislature brickbat, had lampooned the Capitol of his time as the “do-nothing Congress” which he said catered more to ‘special interest’ than it did to public good. Yes, the legislature is the touchstone of democratic liberty, but there is this erroneous impression that the legislature is not to be limited by any other institution. This false notion arrogates to an otherwise fallible lawmaking body a toga of infallibility, so much that although legislators have no constitutional immunity, the attribute of infallibility has the effect of creating a sense of immunity against the right of the other arms to call the legislature to account. And it is inevitable that these falsely arrogated attributes illimitability, infallibility and immunity may result in the grandeur of a feeling of irreproachability, that lawmakers begin to see themselves as divine. And it is from this arrogant station that high crimes and misdemeanors are committed by lawmakers in the guise of legislating for public good.
It was in discussing the perils of parliamentary life, its lethal combination of inertia, greed and arrogance, that the British lawmaker Fenner Brockway once said that “Sometimes I remark that I have spent three years in prison and three years in parliament, and that I saw character deteriorate in parliament more than in prison”. And this reminds of the American Author-Cleric Edward Everett Hale who, when he was asked, “Do you pray for the Senators?” replied: “No, I look at the Senators and I pray for the country”. In truth all democracies are inevitably tormented by the cantankerousness of that one arm of government –the legislature- which enjoys a plethora of constitutional powers, including being more preeminently positioned to oversight others than it too is to be oversighted. The law-making power of the legislature, its investigative powers, its powers of oversight over both the Executive and the Judiciary, its power to allocate and to authorize spending, and even to remove the President whenever it deems fit, all combine to place the legislature as the only arm of government in which virtually all the separated or shared powers of the three arms find absolute expression; so that only the legislature enjoys at once legislative, quasi-judicial and quasi-executive powers, the combined effect of which rather than be a sobering stimuli for good, often serves as an intoxicating force for evil. In fact the right of the legislature to equally initiate bills plus its power to override presidential veto and thus make to become law what the President has vetoed, are proofs of the absoluteness of the legislature’s law-making authority.
The abuse, by parliament, of this enormous power-potential is either to be counterproductively tolerated by ‘weak’ presidents or deftly checked by ‘strong’ ones. There is hardly any more effective moderating force to keep the Legislature in check than a ‘strong President’ who -even in the absence of Constitutional guarantees- enjoys the liberty of ‘democratic convention’ to act legally or sometimes even extra-legally, to whip erring parliament into line. But a pre-emptive President who has successfully put in place a formidable initiative in his Executive’s approach to the legislature, may not require a resort to bare knuckle approach to check the legislature; and more less likely so if he enjoys the partisan accommodation of a legislative leadership which he has personally lobbied to bring about and which is favorably disposed to his Executive concerns. And so whereas a jackbooted approach would be practically unsustainable to keep parliament in check, a totally non-interfering approach on the other hand, would be terribly self-harming! Rather than portray the President as respectful of democratic limits, Executive non-interference in the affairs of parliament can only betray a weak presidential initiative and by implication a weak presidency. It is in tactfully striking a delicate balance between these two extremes that ‘strong presidents’ in a presidential democracy live up to their Executive billing. Their strength manifests more in thinking ‘independently’ but acting ‘inter-dependently’ with the other arms of government.

To be continued

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