Presidential or Parliamentary System of Government: Where is the Convergence?




When my noble and learned friend and indeed a most respectable senior at bar, Yusuf Olaoluwa Ali, SAN requested that I give this speech to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the founding of his very successful law firm, I had no hesitation about accepting the invitation.

I did so for many reasons. First of which is that Yusuf Ali has been an exemplar of what the standard of legal practice in an ethical way should be.

He is a lawyer I have admired long before I met him.

I became acquainted with him at the place lawyers knew themselves back in the day, in the Law Reports, especially the Nigerian Weekly Law Reports.

That was where the men were separated from the boys not on television.

Regularly I would have read the weekly reports as most advocates then did, and after digesting the facts, law and Ratio Decidendi of the case, you would see at the end where appearances were recorded. Yusuf Ali, for the appellant or respondent as the case may be.

And he was involved in many notable trials and appeals that have contributed to our jurisprudence.

Not once since then, till today, and I ask anybody here to correct me, has there been any whiff of a scandal, unethical conduct or chicanery levelled against him. My assessment has been that he was and remains an advocate in the finest and truest sense of the word.

The facts of each case belonged to the client, not to him. His duty as he saw and rightly too, as proper lawyers in this jurisdiction are trained, is to apply his knowledge of the Law to the facts and assist the court to do justice and not to win at all cost.

He was deservedly successful in many cases and was humble in victory and graceful when the outcome did not favour his client.

I celebrate you as you deserve to be, as a fine example of my generation and I celebrate you for building a practice that has lasted three decades and is still thriving.

The challenge of course will be sustainability not only of the practice but of its strong ethical foundations for the next generation and many generations. Yusuf Ali & Co must be built to last, but that itself is a conversation for another day.

Today the conversation is about the subject I have chosen to speak about, which is one of the 3 (three) options I was given, and it is “PRESIDENTIAL OR PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT: Where is the convergence?”

I chose this topic because it has become a front-burner issue as we have as a nation started another journey of constitutional amendment and there is a demand, reported in the news, that about 60 members of the federal House of Representatives are asking that the constitutional amendment process accommodate a change of government system from presidential to parliamentary system.

I will come back to the matter in some detail shortly.

But let me preface my comments by asserting that the subliminal issue behind this request is the ongoing conversation about restructuring Nigeria.

This is a matter that I expressed some opinion about in my published speeches while in public service and some of it is captured in my recent book titled, “Nigerian Public Discourse: The Interplay of Empirical Evidence and Hyperbole”.

The central theme of the book is intended to challenge our thoughts and invite rigour and evidence to some of the things we have said or proposed about the developmental challenges that our country faces.

Some people have made fatalist and unsustainable claims and predictions about the future of Nigeria if there is no restructuring. They have, in my view, wrongly dropped the gauntlet and the door of each President since 1999, including the incumbent, that unless the president restructures Nigeria, nothing will work.

The first question I ask is whether the President alone can restructure the country by way of constitutional amendment if the National Assembly and the 36 states do not pass a Constitutional Amendment Bill for his assent. The answer is No.

The other point to make as I observed in another lecture is whether a constitutional amendment by itself will translate to accelerated national development. The answer again is No. As I observed, what the people really want is a better life, not a better document.

If we interrogate some of the amendments that have been effected by the National Assembly and those that come by interpretation such as the Resource Control Case which gave more financial benefits to certain states, the jury will be out about whether they have delivered a better life to the greatest number of people.

This raises the question whether we have been hyperbolic about the magnitude of the problem, and whether we have applied rigour to the evidence and facts in designing a solution.

Put differently, is the problem the constitution or are we the problem?

Another point to consider with the advocates of restructuring is to ask them what restructuring means to them.

Of course, when the restructuring issues are interrogated, we are likely to find that they agitate more about how to get access to more power and resources rather than how to make existing power and resources more efficient.

As I pointed out in my previous speeches, we must learn from the example of Brexit which was a catchphrase used by the UK politicians to get people to vote for the country’s exit from the European common market.

It was only after the vote had been cast for the exit that the social and economic consequences hit their people with palpable regret.

The result was a series of changes of leadership of their government heads in a manner that did not help political and economic stability. The cost of the vote is still counting adversely for their national development.

So, while I am not opposed to restructuring, especially by constitutional amendment, and I wish to be clear about that, I think that this is the time for the application of rigour and evidence-based decision making.

It is not enough therefore to keep harping on the restructuring as a catchphrase and silver bullet; for enacting a brand-new constitution to repeat and enact what I call standard clauses such as those that separate powers between the traditional three tiers of government.

Rather, we will be better served if each state or geopolitical zone (that has informally but unconstitutionally become part of our lexicon) tables specific demands that would form the basis of negotiations and agreement for a better and inclusive federal union.

With this lengthy preface for which I crave your sincere understanding. Let us proceed to the heart of the matter.

In doing so, let me share with you a very short story that perhaps reveals why I chose this topic.

When I first read the report about the bid to amend the constitution to return Nigeria to parliamentary governance, I was curious and called a member of the House of Representatives to kindly oblige me with a copy of the proposed bill because I wanted to see the arguments in support of the proposal.

This I might say is consistent with my argument for the application of rigour as distinct from emotion to the choices we make about our developmental challenges.

My request was favourably responded to and I will summarise the reasons as follows:

“1. One (single) Election- adopting a parliamentary system of Government means that there shall be one election conducted in one day to determine (i) councillors at ward level; (ii) State House of Assembly Members at Local Government Level; (iii) House of Representative Members at Constituency Level; and (iv) Senators at Senatorial District Levels. The impact of this is that the cost of conducting an election will significantly drop (N308 billion in 2023 vs N2.5 billion in 1999). It is expected that Nigeria will spend close to 1 trillion naira in the conduct of 3 more presidential elections (2027-2035). However, a switch to parliamentary system of government will see these numbers drop to significantly less than was spent in the 2023 elections.

2. Reduced Cost of Running Government- Nigeria currently spends between 6.8 trillion naira and 8.5 trillion naira as personnel cost in the running of MDAs headed by Ministers appointed by the President. In a parliamentary system of government, Ministers will be drawn from the Prime Minister’s cabinet. Salaries of ministers who are members of parliament will be harmonized, meaning that Members of Parliament who form cabinet, will receive their salaries as Parliamentarians.

3. Enhancement in the Rule of Law: a parliamentary system of government further improves the practice of the rule of law. This is achieved via parliamentary checkmate via opposition who are within parliament. While the Presidential system has so far seen abuse of the rule of law, a parliamentary system will enhance this rule of law. Enhancement in the rule of law will improve Nigeria’s economic viability to the global economy and community.

4. Representational Spread: Our version of a parliamentary system of government will ensure that the party to form government must have a representative member in at least 24 states of the country. Where a party is unable to achieve this, it must form a coalition with parties which have such and ensure that Cabinet allows for even representation.

5. Improved Economic Outcomes: according to McMaus and Okzan (2018) a parliamentary system is likely to have improved economic outcomes in the long run. Having looked at 119 systems of Government over a period (1950-2015) it was found that annual output growth was up to 1.2 percentage points higher (than a presidential system), inflation was less volatile and 6 percentage points lower, and income inequality was up to 20% lower in countries governed by parliamentary systems. In Nigeria, a parliamentary system of government will aid in improving the country’s current economic woes.

6. Reduced Likelihood of Volatility: While Nigeria had its first parliamentary system truncated by the Military (1960-1966) it is evident that that misadventure has led the country into dire financial and economic straits including a reduction in the quality of life of Nigerians and a reduction in Nigerian’s faith in government. While most Nigerians were unaware of the essence and value of a parliamentary system, it has become evident in countries which have adopted a parliamentary system of government that there is significant stability in the countries (see South Africa, Poland, Japan).

7. Reduced corruption and better checks and balances


8. Greater confidence of the people as they know and understand government policies and programmes better since these will be reported and discussed in parliament before execution.

9. Less cumbersome in implementation of government policies as the bureaucratic huddles (sic) are reduced.

10. Less centralisation of powers in and (sic) individual

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11. More responsive and responsible government as PM reports to parliament and answers questions in parliament on govt policies once a week.”

As you all know, I will be 61 years old in June this year, which means that I was not born when Nigeria became independent and opted for the UK style parliamentary system, and I was 3 years old when the system collapsed, in violence, intolerance and of course when the civil war ensued, I was only 4 years old in 1967.

Factually I was not cognitive of the facts at the time, but history has been kind and I have read many accounts, albeit sometimes differing about who was responsible, but nonetheless consistent about what happened.

The first point to make is that a democracy founded on any type of governance, parliamentary or federal, requires a highly educated population to navigate its twists and turns. Even in some more advanced democracies, we are living witnesses to fisticuffs in parliament, when some people, often in minority and in opposition, cannot have their way.

With very great respect to the proponents of this parliamentary arrangement, most of the reasons adduced such as cost of governance, rule of law, separation of powers, economic growth etc can be achieved under a federal arrangement if there is sincerity of purpose and an elite consensus.

I must express my admiration for their courage in proposing the radical change, but with respect, they have not yet advanced a compelling reason why we must return to a system that catastrophically failed us.

It is possible that all the arguments are not yet laid bare, but we must all understand that whether it is parliamentary or federal, liberal democracy is now globally proving a difficult vehicle for development.

The evidence before us shows that some of the countries delivering the best public goods to their citizens today are not liberal democracies, but I would still not trade the liberties of any democracy for any form of autocratic development.

Let me also be clear, that I am not by any criticism of liberal democracy a supporter of any Afro-democracy of yet undefined measures.

The big challenge of democratic efficiency in my view is how to build consensus between the Executive, Legislative, and judicial Arms without compromising the best interest of citizens.

It is the view of some that any collaboration is a weakness of the Legislature and they are termed “Rubber stamp.”

But before I continue my analysis of some of the arguments set out above, let us attempt for the benefit of those who may not understand it, a definition of a parliamentary type of government as distinct from a federal one.

According to Wikipedia:

“a parliamentary system, or parliamentary democracy, is defined as a system of democratic government where the head of government (who may also be the head of state) derives their democratic legitimacy from their ability to command the support (“confidence”) of legislature, typically a parliament to which they are accountable.”

Wikipedia lists the advantages and disadvantages of a Parliamentary system as follows:


1. Adaptability
2. Scrutiny and accountability
3. Distribution of power
4. Calling of elections


1. Incomplete separation of power
2. Legislative flip-flopping
3. Political fragmentation
4. Democratic unaccountability

Regrettably this forum and time constraints do not permit me to make anything more than headline analysis while the more rigorous debates will hopefully occur during the consideration of the proposal.

Needless to reiterate, there is a global increase in what is now called the politics of identity, where peoples, interest groups and communities who hitherto had no voices have now found a voice and seek a seat at the table of development.

These certainly compound the already existing problem of consensus building in a democracy.

In a highly diverse country such as Nigeria, the overwhelming historically sensible form of government is a presidential and federal one, where the states have their own independence and can develop at their pace.

The truth is that if public service is really about service, we are likely to require more people to represent and serve their constituents as the population increases in order for them to be effective.

Election costs can be reduced not only by a parliamentary system which is not guaranteed but also by deployment of other techniques and technologies.

As we have seen from the definition, a parliamentary system does not ipso facto mean that we will have a single legislative house. That is a matter of choice because some parliamentary systems have bi-cameral legislature.

The issue of cost reduction is therefore a matter for an elite consensus to decide to reduce what is paid to elected public servants and their perks rather than only the number of legislators or the number of legislative chambers.

Japan, one of the countries mentioned in the list of reasons adduced by the proponents of a parliamentary style of Government had 11 (Prime Ministers) between 2000 and 2021.

The rapidity with which the head of government can lose his office by the loss of majority in the parliamentary system is not healthy for political stability needed to anchor economic and social development.

Imagine what would have happened if Nigeria had changed heads of government 5 (FIVE) times the way the UK has in the last 10 (TEN) years.

In spite of our 4- or 8-year cycle of leadership change, consistency of policy is still a challenge which speaks to party cohesion or lack of it, political education and culture and so on.

Furthermore, we must remember that the principles of separation of powers are better guaranteed where the Executive does not control the law-making arm which should check its excess.

The risk of autocracy is higher if the executive is also the law maker.

Who will investigate infractions of the Executive arm in parliament if the executive controls the parliament?

In a parliamentary system, it would require an elite consensus of men and women of goodwill to hold their members’ feet to fire.

In our yet evolving democracy where legislators change their party affiliations quicker than their robes, where will the opposition be if they become a minute minority?

As I said earlier, education is critical to the successful operation of a democracy and by extension a formidable opposition.

The last semblance of a vibrant opposition was in the period between 2013-2015 when an opposition coalition engaged the party in government and deposed them.

If you look closely at the leading lights of today’s consensus, which was the opposition in 2013-2015, now in government, you will see large numbers of members of those who should be the opposition who have “crossed carpet” to join the majority.

It is understandable; because life in opposition is lonely and is lived in shadows, but it is not excusable.

There is a lot more I would like to interrogate, but I do not wish to abuse my welcome by taking any more time.

My central message is to urge us to be very rigorous as we debate this potentially monumental choice. It must not simply be a choice between escaping from where it seems not to be working and what failed calamitously. That would be a false choice or no choice.

In conclusion therefore, I would urge that we think very deeply, ask ourselves why the parliamentary system failed us so woefully and whether we have overcome or can overcome those reasons.

In addition to querying the system, we must query ourselves and decide whether we are the problem instead of the system.

If we do these, we will find convergence at the point where we resolve to focus less on power and resource sharing and more on optimizing existing powers and resources for collective benefit.

All told, we must reflect very deeply, interrogate intensely and look very hard before we leap.

Thank you for listening.

Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN CON

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