I join fellow Nigerians and friends of Nigeria in welcoming President Muhammadu Buhari back home after 50 days of medical treatment in London. While the president was away, I tweeted that “All must wish @NGRPresident well”, adding that “Nigeria can’t afford another president dying in office”. And, of course, it can’t! So, we should thank God that President Buhari returned to the country “feeling much better now” as he said, even though he needs to go back to London for “further follow-ups within some weeks”. We must wish the president speedy and full recovery. That said, however, we can’t ignore the issues of democratic governance that the president’s illnessraises.
The first touches on the integrity of Nigeria’s electoral democracy. Sadly, the Buhari presidency has been hobbled over the past two years by the president’s health. But this raises the question of whether, when he ran for president in 2015, he knew of any illness that could prevent him from functioning effectively in the office. Emotions apart, this is an important question because a perennially sick president is problematic for democracy and good governance. In most countries, the health of a presidential or prime ministerial candidate is taken extremely seriously. For instance, in the US, every major presidential candidate must publish his or her medical records, as Donald Trump, 70 years old, and Hillary Clinton, 69, did last year, with their doctors issuing public statements that their client was medically fit to perform the functions of president. That openness is what to expect in a proper democracy.
But Nigeria practises voodoo democracy, with so much secrecy around people vying for political offices. It’s even a taboo to ask about the health of a presidential candidate, let alone demand that his or her medical records be published. Most job application forms require information about the applicant’s health conditions, and rightly so. No employer would knowingly employ an applicant who would end up taking a lot of sick leave or otherwise be incapacitated, on health grounds, from doing his or her job. So, why should the electorate – who are the employers in any democracy – elect/employ a president without knowing ex ante about his or her health conditions? The Nigerian Constitution sets out what should happen when a president is seriously sick in office, but says little about what should happen when a candidate is vying for that office. Yet, for the sake of good governance, prevention is better than cure! Candidates for the office of president should publish their medical records!
President Buhari said after arriving in Nigeria on 10 March that he “couldn’t recall being so sick since I was a young man”. But even assuming that Buhari could justify not disclosing any medical condition in 2015 on the basis that there was nothing to disclose, what about now? If the president had “never been so sick”, don’t Nigerians deserve to know what the illness was? Why is it still a mystery? If the US President or the British Prime Minister were off work sick even for a few days, their health conditions would be disclosed without delay. Why would a president go on two months’ medical treatment abroad, keeping his nation on tenterhooks, and return without disclosing the nature of his illness?
I am making a point of general principle, not necessarily a criticism of President Buhari. And the point is that in a democracy, public office is incompatible with secrecy. Those who don’t want their assets to be known and scrutinised, those who don’t want their health conditions to be disclosed and discussed should not go into public office. A president, whose salary is paid by the taxpayers, whose welfare is maintained by the state, can’t claim that his financial and health affairs are private matters. They are not. For instance, in principle, I have no interest in the medical or financial conditions of the MD of, say, Nigeria’s largest bank, but I have an interest in those of the president of Nigeria. Why? Because one is a private person, the other a state-maintained public officer!
Now, in fairness, exceptfor the failure to disclose the nature of his illness, President Buhari was candid about aspects of his long medical vacation. He was right, for instance, to praise his deputy–this brings me to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo – who brilliantly steered the ship of state while he was away. The president remarked that “youth and intellect is squarely behind” Osinbajo, while “age and purely military experience is behind me”. That’s not far from the truth. Indeed, Osinbajo demonstrated to the entire world what a good government could look like in Nigeria; he showed how a politician could get things done. Nigerians, even the opposition party, PDP, commended him for holding the fort creditably. Virtually every major Western newspaper, from The Economist to the Financial Times, also lavished compliments on him. David Pilling of the FT said Osinbajo “injected real energy into policymaking”.
But, inevitably, the question arises: why did it take Buhari’s absence for Osinbajo to show his true mettle? What inhibited his style? Well, the answer is that, in Nigeria, the vice president functions almost entirely at the behest of the president. Indeed, section 5(5) of the Constitution gives the president sole “executive powers”, which he can exercise either “directly” or “through the vice-president and Ministers”. Except in circumstances where the president has to transfer powers to the vice president when he is going for medical treatment abroad, he is generally not obliged to delegate executive powers to his deputy. Thus, the vice president can only function on the basis of the responsibilities “given” to him by the president. For instance, while the vice president constitutionally chairs the National Economic Council, the authority to take important policy decisions on the economy resides with the president. But it is not right that the power to run a major country should flow from one individual in that way; even the US President doesn’t have such power! Which brings me to the question of political restructuring.
I have argued endlessly in this column for restructuring Nigeria. This is borne out of a deep conviction that this country can’t make significant progress without political restructuring. Nigeria must be restructured along the six geopolitical zones to create devolved and competitive regional administrative and economic powers. But there is another aspect of political restructuring that is less talked about: Nigeria’s system of government. Nigeria, in my view, should adopt a parliamentary system, with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government.
There is no space to dwell on the merits of the parliamentary system. But it’s worth noting that out of 193 UN member-states, only 40, including Nigeria, have full presidential system, with an executive president. Yet, Nigeria is not ethnically, economically and politically suited to a presidential system of government. What Osinbajo’s sterling performance shows, for instance, is that he could be an effective prime minister and head of government, while Buhari, an elder statesman, is well suited for head of state. That separation works perfectly in most countries, and it is what Nigeria needs. Nigeria certainly doesn’t need a technocratic, brilliant and dynamic vice president who has to wait for the president to “give” him responsibilities.
Indeed, it’s very disheartening that, despite Osinbajo’s widely-acclaimed demonstration of competence in Buhari’s absence, commentators are still literally begging Buhari to leave economic policy to his deputy. Of course, this is because the current governance structure isn’t working. The future lies in restructuring Nigeria not only on regional basis, but also along the parliamentary system of government.