Parliamentary system creates political environment for development

The Parliament building. Photo/Monicah Mwangi
The Parliament building. Photo/Monicah Mwangi

The debate is still raging on whether we should we adopt

a parliamentary system of government or stick to what we are already used to — the presidential system.

To answer this question rationally and objectively, we need to close our eyes and forget about the leading proponents of each option. We need also to forget, for a moment at least, that the issue is not about who will benefit from one position or the other but how adopting a particular system will affect the manner in which we are governed now and into the future.

I want, therefore, to take you back into history and on a journey across the globe. At the end of the Second World War, the whole global political system changed drastically. In came two very powerful nations, the USA and the USSR, and down went the former European colonial powers, particularly the French and the British.

The USA and the USSR did not need colonies in Africa. In fact, European colonialism was a hindrance to the realisation of their global interests. If it was raw materials they wanted in Africa, especially in the case of the US, they could access it through economic imperialism and not political colonialism. So both pressurised Europe to decolonise not just in Africa but in Asia as well. Europe did not concede to independence in Africa out of generosity: Changed circumstances forced her to do so.

In the meantime, anti-colonial movements were already "on the move", in Africa and Asia, even before the war ended. By 1948, Indian nationalism had already overwhelmed British rule there. Negotiations for India's independence started well before the War wound up, and the bone of contention was centred on what type of self-rule the British would leave behind.

That the Indian nationalists settled for a parliamentary system of government with substantial devolution of power to the states was no doubt a mixture of domesticating British political culture in India while also taking into account the need to appease demands for "home rule" at the local level given India's cultural diversity. While this model of transition to independence succeeded in India to this very day, in Nigeria it failed rather miserably within the first decade of independence.

Most African countries that started at independence with Parliamentary systems of government experienced rude and ruthless imposition of presidential or military authoritarian rule within the first decade of independence. Many studies of military rule in Africa usually cite corruption, nepotism, tribalism and greed for power as the major causes of military coups in Africa. Many studies

of the rise of civilian presidential authoritarian regimes cite more or less the same

factors as the causes of the emergence of these regimes. So why should we have military rule in some cases and civilian ones in others exercising more or less similar authoritarian power?

We will not spend much time seeking an answer to this question. Suffice it to say, however, that all presidential authoritarian governments and military regimes that replaced the post-independence parliamentary systems all drove the respective African countries down the disastrous road of underdevelopment without exception. Look at Nigeria, Uganda, Mali, Togo, and Cameroon etc. All have little to show in terms of poverty eradication, equitable development and reduction of inequalities. Even Cote d'Ivoire and Kenya, for long touted as examples of capitalist prosperity in Africa, have faced serious political and economic crises for quite some time now.

But would adopting a parliamentary system be a panacea to Africa's development problems? Not necessarily. But it would at least provide a better political environment for economic development. First, it would improve political stability. Elections under parliamentary systems of government are not cut throat affairs where the likelihood of losers losing fairly is rare and the tendency for incumbents to retain power notwithstanding the outcome is always very high. Thus investors and the business community tend "to wait and see" any time elections are just about to be held in presidential authoritarian regimes. Thus the downturn in investment flows adversely affect capital formation.

Second, if you look at India, you will find that the intensity with which elections are fought, maybe even higher than in Kenya or Nigeria. But once the votes are cast, counted and results announced, society quickly "goes back to normal" and major economic activities hardly disrupted.

In Kenya and Nigeria, once the election fever sets in two or so years ahead of any polls, investors begin hedging their bets and adopting plenty of caution in making investment decisions.

Three, it is true that in Parliamentary systems as well as presidential systems, who leads is important. Indian political parties, like their British or Canadian counterparts, are likely to win elections depending on who their leaders are — hence the likely candidates for premiership--as well as what policies they espouse. In Kenya or Nigeria, the presidential candidates win or lose elections quite often with minimum regard to their policies. Provided a candidate is capable of building a large enough ethnic or regional coalition to win the policies can come later.

Yet it is policies, and not simply personalities,

that shape the agenda for social transformation. We in Africa seem to have embraced the one-party and one leader model political system because, at that point in time, we thought this would serve our need for national unity. But after almost 60 years of independence this has taken us neither to national unity nor to national development. It is time to change tact.

We only need to trace our steps back to independence to learn something from India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica and the West Indies in general. All these are parliamentary systems and they have done very well in terms of political stability, national unity and development. Why should we stick to a model that has not worked for us and is still unlikely to work for us?