First, if you look at the history of former African colonies, most of them started off after independence with parliamentary systems but then went presidential almost within the first year of their independence. They all soon sank into authoritarian regimes of the worst kinds, best known for political oppression, shameful denial of human rights, corruption that benefited few elites and political instability, very often punctuated by military rule.
From the disappointing Nigerian giant in West Africa, to the bloodthirsty uni-ethnic and rancorous nation of Somalia in the Horn of Africa, presidential authoritarian regimes have been a menace to development.
But have a look at little Mauritius: That little island set in the Indian Ocean crying to be noticed by the African continent as an integral part of this imposing land mass. The youngest nation to gain independence from Great Britain in 1968 remained a constitutional monarchy up to 1992 when, through a constitutional amendment, it became a parliamentary republic. Stable politically and prosperous economically, the people of Mauritius have never looked back to colonial times. Elections come and go every five years, the president appoints the Prime Minister from the winning party in the National Assembly, and not much is heard except her prosperity. Interestingly enough, it is the National Assembly that elects the President and the Vice President. It is, therefore, unlikely that “power may get into the heads” of these two knowing well where this power lies.
We are currently struggling to establish universal healthcare, while Mauritius has had this for years, and social protection guarantees the old and underprivileged respectable life.
The GDP per capita in 2016 in Mauritius was $9,627.60 while ours was $1,455.36 for the same period. When adjusted to purchasing power parity (PPP), Mauritius beats us almost 10 to nil: Theirs is over $20,000 while we score a meagre $2, 993.03! And you want to tell me that our politics is not letting us down? Come on! Go play that jazz to the birds!
Second, presidential politics never builds political parties; they destroy them. This is because presidential politics, especially when they are crassly authoritarian, simply destroy parties by creating one-man one-band shows, replete with personality cults and political sycophancy. Julius Nyerere tried to struggle against this by making TANU, then CCM, truly a mass democratic party, where even the president was accountable to the party and its mass-based political organs. But soon, Nyerere started to cry foul of the oligarchs within the party imposing authoritarian tendencies in his name. If Nyerere, the paragon of humility, failed, which African president is likely to build democracy through truly competitive parties? To be honest with you, none! The iron law of authoritarian tendencies in African presidential politics will sooner rather than later impose itself, and popular democracy will be easily sacrificed for the capture and maintenance of political power by the presidential elites. Forget that route to Africa’s decade of democratic state and nation building by popular political parties rather than through popular political Mavericks.
Third, while I would be the first to acknowledge the important role that brave, principled, progressive and democratic individuals have played in the struggle for democracy and national liberation in Africa, I would also be equally the first to cry foul about how authoritarian presidential politics have “wasted” such individuals. If Milton Obote had not descended into the abyss of presidential politics in Uganda and concentrated on defending and promoting parliamentary democracy, the history of that country would perhaps be very different. But the presidential system he tried to build to maintain power wasted him and his progressive ideas.
If Kenya had been a parliamentary democracy and not a rigid and authoritarian one-party presidential system, Raila Odinga’s ability and dynamism in organising parties would have ensured his progressive ideas benefited the nation much earlier and for a longer time. Instead, he was denied the making of history for nine years while in detention without trial as Kenya sank deeper into economic underdevelopment and political decay under presidential authoritarian rule. If Kenya had been a parliamentary democracy, the mistake we made as the Social Democratic Party to join in the fray of presidential politics in 1997, thereby risking being labelled “a Mkamba” outfit, would not have been there.
Our ambition to build a truly ideological party would perhaps have been sustained, and good progressive minds would have been retained in the main arena of democratic political struggles, while building a national developmental and democratic state.
Fourth, policies for national development are better nurtured in parliamentary democracies than “other” systems of government, be they monarchies or a variety of “ revolutionary” regimes that have appeared on the face of this earth since the First World War. By “national development”, I do not simply mean economic development or simple modernisation. I mean a development that brings the best out of human beings as social and communal beings, the Finnish way.
Fifth, devolved systems, which take democratic gains closer to the people, tend to do better in parliamentary democracies than in presidential systems. South Africa, for all intents and purposes, is a parliamentary democracy, where the provincial sub-national governments, just like their counterparts in Canada, do much better than the counties in Kenya.
Sixth, since power is more effectively devolved under parliamentary systems than presidential ones, the authoritative allocation of values is equally more diversified. Thus, an investor has the opportunity to negotiate with the government of Gauteng Province in South Africa just as much as he would with the national government in Pretoria. In our case, the room for manoeuvre is still limited for the counties.
Seventh, the emancipation of women is a social and political project that has higher chances of success in parliamentary social democracies than in other political economies, most of all presidential authoritarian systems. Again, the Scandinavian countries take the trophy in this regard. The US, notwithstanding her enormous wealth, and try as she may, still oppresses and marginalises a great majority of her women, particularly among those created by God as non-whites.
Eighth, people tend to loath total and absolute power more than anything else, especially when they see that such power has a tendency to be used arbitrarily. Monarchs, dictators and authoritarian rulers — unlike their parliamentary counterparts —have such tendencies to use political power arbitrarily, and hence very often “invite” conspiracies against them to remove them from power. If in doubt, read Shakespeare’s historical plays. If further in doubt, look at Africa’s history since independence. Politics under such political cultures tend to be brittle, uncertain and detrimental to national development.
Ninth, power, by its very nature, tends to get into people’s heads, whether president or prime minister. But power in the head of a president is definitely much more dangerous. It is quite clear that Jacob Zuma would have wanted to be President of South Africa for life but he could not because South Africa is a parliamentary democracy. Yoweri Museveni, many years ago, derided African presidents who stay in office for life. But he did exactly that.
Uganda was then, and still is, an authoritarian presidential regime. Parliamentary democracy gives the people much more latitude to tame a leader gone rogue than a presidential system.
Finally, I will not get tired from reminding you about what English writer George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “We need to be governed, and yet to control our governors.”
I believe if Shaw were alive today, he would vote for a parliamentary system of government rather than a presidential one to make his dream come true. Suppose, for example, the Conservative Party and the House of Commons in general were so fed up with Theresa May over the Brexit issue that they wanted to get rid of her. It would be a very simple process. A demotion from being the leader of the Conservatives by the parliamentary party would send her packing. Similarly. a successful vote of no confidence in her government in the Commons would lead to fresh elections. Getting rid of Donald Trump in the US, uncontrollable, as he already appears to be, would be a daunting, convoluted and unpredictable undertaking either by the Republicans or the two Houses of Congress.
Controlling the presidency has become a nightmare in a nation regarded as the epitome of democratic governance.