‘Cheques’ and balances as spoilers…
The main thrust of this article is that though there should be ‘checks and balances’ between the various arms of government, what truly exists are ‘cheques and balances,’ which are distributed between them thereby rendering our institutions too compromised to confront impunity and evolve a culture of the rule of law.
We recall quite clearly when Obama as president on his round of visits to Africa refused to dignify Nigeria with a visit but instead went to Ghana, and his popular refrain that we needed to build strong institutions over strong individuals. One recent demonstration of the strength of institutions over powerful individuals has been the executive orders issued by President Trump on travel bans which were promptly set aside by a strong and independent judiciary. Try as Donald Trump may, the whole might of the White House couldn’t effect the ban as long as it was set aside by a judge. In a proper presidential democracy the legislature should make the laws, the executive executes them through relevant programmes and policies while the judiciary interprets the laws. The duties may crisscross occasionally, where executive policies may seem like laws, and where judicial pronouncements especially by the apex court take the form of laws, but essentially the separation of powers is meant to enhance accountability, where each arm has its own scope and performs it to the satisfaction of the citizenry.
The current Buhari administration has sometimes given the impression that the executive was giving marching orders to other arms especially the judiciary to be up and doing, by public expression of disappointment, and in the most celebrated instance, the deployment of the secret service which usually serves the aims of the executive, to invade homes of judges. While some Nigerians welcomed the development, knowing fully well that the judiciary had become a cesspool of corruption others condemned the act in principle. I have not conducted any study to know how this has positively impacted on judicial performance but there were quite a few Nigerians who applauded the move hoping that it would really shake the judiciary which had come to near total amnesia about its being the threshold of justice and made its dispensation a pecuniary offering to the highest bidder, with perhaps the only fairness being that they demanded and collected the bribes from both litigant and accused. After all said, we cannot hope to build any strong institutions if one arm of government performs only if it is intimidated by another for it would then mean that in the absence of such cause for fear the business would return as usual.
The same goes for institutions that depend on strong leaders. It would mean that in the absence of one the institution would be floundering. The average Nigerian knows that a vote between EFCC and ICPC on performance would go to Magu because he is perceived in the public eye as a strong personality. But the truth is that ICPC under the just concluded leadership was more intent on improving systems, processes and being proactive under a leadership which appeared as ‘weak’. ICPC is more likely to stand the test of time with or without a strong leader than EFCC.
But then the contestation is not really about strong leaders versus strong institutions. They are not mutually exclusive. A strong leadership rather than a strong leader would enhance strong institutions. Leadership here would simply signify the will to transcend the self and allow the systems and processes put in place in an organisation to work their course of pursuing its vision mission and tasks; it means that an organisation has sufficient internal controls to check the excesses of its members and to go back on track when it derails, without necessarily being apprehensive of external surveillance. Institutions are truly built therefore when the highest person in the organisation submits to laid down rules and the ethical standards, not because of fear of any external invasion. This is the bane of the Nigerian society, because those in leadership positions see themselves as above the laid down procedures and regulations and easily ignore or bend the rules to have their way and to favour friends and relatives.
It would be quite difficult however to achieve strong institutions in Nigeria in a sustainable manner even when there is a complementarity of strong leadership and strong institutions; reason being that the bedrock of strong institutions is actually the will of the people. In societies where the will of the people is taken more into cognizance strong institutions exist as measures of the accountability which is demanded by the people. Strong institutions are a reflection of societies which have gradually evolved respect for the sovereignty of the people’s will, a value held by the majority and reflected in the manner impunity is resisted. In Nigeria we could wish this hope goodbye because we are a people that is comfortable living with contradictions. We have feudal conditioning in our DNA, where we accept different sets of rules for different people and the chief may do what he has expressly forbidden everyone else. It will be extremely difficult because we the people do not collectively believe in the individual suffering for the sake of the common good, so we negotiate at every opportunity the standing rules and regulations to favour our situation. The average Nigerian begs his way out of situations instead of suffering the penalty, because s/he knows that the initial No is never the final answer. Similarly, we are generally complacent and put up with authorities no matter how obnoxious and self serving.
What needs building is a society intolerant of impunity, which would demonstrate its power through effective accountability mechanisms that go beyond the periodic electoral franchise. As this is a herculean task, those in authority need to facilitate matters by activating the checks and balances in their systems to promote the common good rather than deploy ‘cheques and balances’ to compromise systems and institutions.