Policy Briefs

Distractions, Dissonance and Dichotomy in Government

By Oseloka H. Obaze

It’s always been inimical to tell a sovereign that he is wrong. Rather, one must tell a sovereign in nuanced terms that he has been ill-advised. And so, this piece seeks not to tell President Muhammadu Buhari that he is wrong on any count of governance, but to say unequivocally, that he is being ill-advised on many counts.  Hence, Nigeria is in the throes of degenerating into the realm of insipient un-governability, if not perdition.  Everything that could go wrong with a nation is manifesting.  We are a troubled nation; a nation in trouble.  Overbearing negative forces are at play. Worryingly, those who ought to speak up are either too cowed or conveniently resigned. Some unfolding conjunction of circumstances must compel President Buhari to rethink his governance methods and our national political trajectory now. He must seize the moment.

Democracy has many enduring qualities, which is why it is the preferred form of governance. Yet operators of Nigeria’s nascent democracy continue to exhibit certain devious flaws that negate our democratic ideals and values. That disposition makes it not so trite to conclude that our bedeviling flaws are less systemic and more idiosyncratic of our political leaders.  Nigeria’s national landscape is awash with palpable strains in the relationship between the executive and legislative arms of government at the federal level.  The matter has gone viral and international.  The overarching situation is so testy; it’s no longer our tedious brand politics.  Troublingly, the potentials for an exacerbated political crisis are huge, and well beyond the usual turf fights or brinksmanship.

Nigerians watch bemused and shudder as the leadership of the Nigerian Senate are being buffeted by multiple investigations, which, naturally, are being carried out by proxy agencies of the Executive Branch, even as they are discharging their statutory duties. Because the judiciary is tangentially and inescapably involved, many sense a contrived oblique attempt at decapitation.  Resultantly, the entire governance structure is mired in an unfolding conundrum as economic development and political governance are sequestered. Whilst the undertone of the unfolding crisis are nuanced and couched as non-partisan, the consequences are oddly unmistakable.  Invariably, every action seems to connote malice aforethought.

Interestingly, the dramatis personas involved in the executive-legislative face-off are elected leaders charged with keeping us out of harm’s way and not empowered to precipitate a national implosion. These are leaders who by law can only be removed by popular recall. Yet, we seem to have opted for a more destructive path, which ought to leave every well-meaning Nigerian concerned.  Matters are complicated further by political appointees who engage in nihilist valedictions; while conjecturing worthwhile political advice to be only those that mock and vilify political traducers or glorify their principals. Such primordial and non-ideological disposition hardly fits the template or cherished underpinnings of democratic good governance.

Strong and healthy democracies are naturally robust and vibrant. The vibrancy emanates routinely from mutually cordial and courteous rapport between the three arms of government, grounded on respect for the separation of powers.  The well-being of any democracy is equally measured by the debate, accommodation and consensus the political leadership builds.  Absent such tolerance and consensus, contradictions emerge that create distractions, dissonance and dichotomy in governance.  The resulting political miasma leads to a tense and overheated polity. Let it be said boldly, that Nigeria in mid-2016, has arrived at that dubious juncture. We are at a tipping point and we should all be deeply troubled.  An unseemly, near invisible strand loops together all the dissembling pressures and fissures confronting us.  While the strain may seem not so concerted, that gale force is cascading with turbulent convergent speed.  No one can tell the breaking point or moment when the tornado will touch ground, but the ominous signs and dark clouds are all-too evident. Nigeria today, is an unraveling nation.  It’s time to rethink, retool and recalibrate, if we desire as President Muhammadu Buhari said recently, ‘to keep Nigeria one’.

As Richard Neustadt, a global authority on the presidential system postulated, “The presidency is a place for men of politics, but by no means is it a place for every politician.” Considering that President Buhari invested sixteen productive years of his life to seeking the presidency, he ought to be well-situated to grasp the complexities of the Nigerian presidency.  As the Chief Executive, he singularly personifies the presidency. Yet, his values, integrity and acclaim of being beyond reproach does not automatically devolve to his political associates, appointees and staff, notwithstanding that the presidency is a collective of those to whom the president may entrust or delegate authority to assist him in exercising his duties.  It is for such cogent reasons, that the doctrinal cliché, “the buck stops here” was coined, with a view to underlining that the president alone must assume full responsibility for what happens on his watch.

Political scientists long identified three categories in which presidential powers are exercised as Constitutional powers, Delegated powers and Inherent powers. The first derives from powers explicitly granted by the Constitution; the former from powers granted by the Congress or National Assembly to assist the president in fulfilling his duties; with the latter being inherent in the president’s power as chief of the executive branch. Invariably, those wielding delegated powers also carry the burden of meeting the threshold test of not acting beyond their remit, and assigned or assumed powers.  Moreover, any action they take, regardless of whether it has the president’s imprimatur, are safely deduced as having the president’s implicit and explicit approval.  Such realities give rise to several challenges as well as circumspection.

Hence, reference to or criticisms of any conduct of the Presidency or the Executive arm, assumes critical importance; likewise conducts and utterances emanating therefrom. Even if unmentioned, it’s assumed that such utterances and related conducts are manifestations of the president’s desire, policy choices or directives. Matters are further compounded, when unelected non-principal officers in the Executive Arm undertake the responsibility of commenting on matters relating to Principal Officers in the Legislative or Judicial arms.

Two salient points needs to be made here. First, government derives its legitimacy from the Constitution.  It cannot and must not be seen to be in breach of that Constitution, no matter how compelling or politically expedient it may be to do so.  Second, the three arms of government are co-equal or in the political science lingo, “separate but equal”.  In that context, they are self-censuring, self-regulating and immune from any interference by the other, except in instances where the Constitution arrogates adjudication responsibilities.  In a nutshell, as Prof. Ben Nwabueze averred recently of the relations between and betwixt our executive, legislative and judicial arms, “the independence of each department requires that its proceedings shall be free from the remotest influence, direct or indirect, of either of the other two powers”.  A corollary is full respect for constitutional safeguards, including ascribed immunities for certain officials.

Lest this write-up is misunderstood as condoning illiberal gains and conducts or eschewing any befitting comeuppance accruable to scofflaws within the legislative arm; it is not. The law must take its course, but it must not be seen to have been induced or outwardly orchestrated, even if by legerdemain.

Some goings on within the federal government seems sufficiently innocuous. In truth, they are not. We are witnessing a macabre, unfettered and troubling expansiveness of the presidency.  Such developments are as unhealthy as they are egregiously dangerous. It’s no wonder we incrementally hear hushed and now open allegations of “cabals within the government”. We must remember as activist Bill Wilson once opined that the expanded presidency remains “the greatest threat ever to individual freedom and democratic rule.” Lest this write-up is misunderstood as condoning illiberal gains and conducts or eschewing any befitting comeuppance accruable to scofflaws within the legislative arm; it is not. The law must take its course, but it must not be seen to have been induced or outwardly orchestrated, even if by legerdemain. As we witnessed during the Obasanjo administration, the leadership of the senate experienced a high-rate of attrition.  But such changes were from within the legislative ranks and not fostered by the executive branch.

Finally, history of democratic politics and lessons drawn from great democracies including the United States and lately Brazil, instructs us that the power to persuade is perhaps the most important aspect of any presidency. As Richard Neustadt, observed, “the power of (the United States) government is vastly dispersed; the president cannot simply command and receive.”  Hence, the president must persuade, cajole and engage meaningfully and constructively.  This is what Nigeria needs now from President Buhari.  That approach is the only panacea for the disquieting, vexatious, and dangerous distractions, dissonance and dichotomy gripping Nigeria.  Shall we tell the president?

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Oseloka Obaze, MD & CEO

Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.

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