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Published On: Wed, May 29th, 2019

The brutal and viciousness of parliamentary system of government

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By Tayo Oke

The late Chief Anthony Eromosele Enaharo (1923-2010) dedicated the last two decades of his life on earth not only spearheading the clamour for “restructuring” in this country, but more crucially, for the introduction (some might say re-introduction) of a Parliamentary system of government for the proposed regional governments in a ‘New Nigeria’. Parliamentary system of government is particularly appealing to people in the South-West of Nigeria because of the enduring legacy of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was the first and last Premier of the then Western Region between 1952-1959. He ran an inclusive, transparent and accountable government that was not only the envy of other Nigerian regions, but indeed the world, beating even France to the installation of a nationwide television broadcast
medium amongst a glittering list of many firsts in his achievement. He later went on to become Leader of the Opposition to the Tafawa Balewa government in the Federal Parliament from 1959-1963. Awolowo set a standard and benchmark for governance which generations after him still find difficult to match. His successful government has been largely
credited to the Parliamentary system of government bequeathed to us by the British hence, the demand for a return to the “good old days” of politics in preference to the expensive and inefficient federal system of government modelled on that of the USA.
Under the US system which we like to follow as and when it suits us, a near-mathematical schedule for assumption and departure from office of elected politicians is pencilled in and assured. The loser is even given the luxury of staying on for a few months after defeat, to ‘relax’ and catch his breath before finally quitting the stage. He prepares his “handover” note for his successor, creating as many last-minute financial obligations on his successor as he can get away with. For instance, the general election of February 23 this year has still not resulted in a change of government as you read this piece. The losers are sitting pretty, in their swivel leather chairs, enjoying the spoils of office – still. The ceremonial handover is not until May 29 of this same year, three months after losing power. This delay to the heeding of the people’s voice is thought to be necessary for an orderly transfer of the reins of government. Really?
Spare a thought, then, for Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, who was forced (by her own backbench colleagues in Parliament) to make the announcement for her departure from office at the front of Number 10, Downing Street (Prime Minister’s official residence) last Friday, May 24. She had just finished putting together a “Brexit Bill” she had intended to present to Parliament two days earlier. This was her fourth attempt at trying to pass legislation to approve the agreement reached with the other 27 members of the European Union for Britain’s departure from the union, otherwise known as “Brexit” after 45 long years of continued and uninterrupted membership. The Parliamentary arithmetic is not in the Prime Minister’s favour. The ruling (should we say governing) Conservative party has no overall majority, and is only hanging on to office with the help of one of the smaller parties. Chocking on emotion, and clearly in tears, Mrs May announced her resignation as leader of the Conservative party effective June 7, and will quit being Prime Minister as soon as a new leader has been elected by party members. That means, in effect, in a couple ofweeks’ or so time, no more. The late Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, and leader of the Conservative party from 1975 to 1990. She was kicked out of office with three days’ notice only. There was no lengthy election for her successor, John Major, since he was elected by consensus. Mrs Thatcher too, announced her departure in front of Downing Street in tears, not minding being at the height of her political ascendancy at the time. She had won three general elections in a row, mostly by landslides. But, somehow, something about her continued presence in office was unpalatable to her parliamentary colleagues. They wanted her out for having become a “liability” for the Conservative Party’s ambition for a fourth term in office.
Upon her departure from office, Thatcher was seen scuttling around London frantically searching for a house to buy, and even where exactly to relocate. She had not thought of living anywhere other than the Prime Minister’s official residence for more than 10 years. No hiatus from being number one citizen to being an ‘ordinary’ woman in society. No luxury of transition or ceremonial handover, parade, or anything of that nature. No theatre, no frills. The fate of the Prime Minister is in the hands of fellow Members of Parliament under a Parliamentary system. It is an important bulwark against abuse of power and tyrannical rule. There is no mathematically enshrined assumption or departure dates. To remain in office, a Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of their colleagues in Parliament or, bow out gracefully, or, be pushed out unceremoniously. It is direct, clinical (sometimes messy), and ultimately brutal.
Under a Parliamentary system, a government is elected for a term of office, which is usually four-five years at a time. This is just like under a presidential system, except that the term of office in the latter is fixed, and written in stone. In a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is primus inter pares (first among equal) in respect of their colleagues in the Cabinet. Government is a “collective responsibility” of all of them.
This is unlike the presidential system, where the President is the “executive”, the symbol, and personality that embodies the “administration”; not government. The President is only supposed to be running an administration. Governmental authority is supposedly diffused and embedded in the other arms of government ‘equally’. So, in theory at least, an administration can be chaotic, and shambolic, but government goes on. In a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister runs a government, and any semblance of chaos, disunity or mismanagement could precipitate its immediate collapse. This is what renders such a system exceedingly attentive to the feelings of the electorate, echoed through the elected representatives, including the Cabinet. A Prime Minister is willy-nilly, alert and on the ball, mastering and digesting the minutiae of government departments around the clock, practically. From a shooting incident in some remote part of the country, to trade union disputes or prisoner escape, the Prime Minister is thrown straight into the spotlight. A sickly, inattentive, uninformed and lackadaisical political leader will not last long in the post. This is what lies at the core of accountability. It is also what makes the system susceptible to chicanery, and skulduggery of the kind that led to Theresa May’s inauspicious exit from government in the UK.

So, to my brethren here at home desirous of a parliamentary system of government, I say, be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

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