Rotational Presidency: Constitutional imperatives in multi-ethnic climes
Even at the best of times, the logic of rotational presidency (or rotational government) is fiercely contested. Opponents of rotational presidency argue that because the definition of democracy, as formulated by Abraham Lincoln, is the government of the people, for the people and by the people, the concept is simply about “winners”: those with the largest numerical votes getting into elected offices thereby securing the mandate to lead and direct the affairs of their country and fellow citizens.
Attractive as the rationale might be, it does not, by any means, command universal acceptance. Proponents of rotational presidency, however, unsurprisingly, adopt the opposite stance. Inferentially therefore, there are at least two divergent schools of thought on the subject. This article examines these issues in binary terms for concision, whilst advancing the case for rotational presidency in genuinely progressive democratic, heterogeneous, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies, entirely on the merits.
As at the time of writing this article, there remains a vicious battle for the soul of Sudan in the greater horn of Africa which has reportedly claimed 100 lives. At heart, are deadly skirmishes between two key factions of the country’s military dictatorship, with conflicting loyalties to the leadership of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces respectively. This is over transition, power-sharing arrangements and related modalities pertaining to a civilian government. In simple terms therefore, the tension is over rotational government, which reinforces the topicality of the extant issue.
What then is rotational presidency? Conventionally, the construct implies the alternation of presidential or prime ministerial powers within a country; between regions, independent or quasi-independent ethnic-nationalities, political blocs, irrespective of creed; based on the overriding criteria of demonstrable competence, the willingness to ensure regional balance, integrity, leadership; the active desire to unite citizens, equitable and just governance. Plus, an enduring commitment to the people’s security, welfare and economic well-being. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for instance, defines rotational government as one in which “rotation (power-sharing) arrangement for the post of Prime Minister has been established between the leaders of the two blocs that constitute the Government. In the Government’s work, it maintains an equal balance of power between the blocs. The purpose of a parity government of this kind is to require its two member blocs to engage in dialogue and reach compromises and agreements, since one bloc cannot make decisions without the consent of the other.”
The concept is not new either. As far back as the 1890s, the Swiss Federation, has run rotational governments which continues to the present. The Federation comprises 26 cantons (or states) headed by a cabinet, the Federal Council, whose seven members collectively provide strategic policy direction for the Swiss government, taking turns to lead the country. The constitutional principle of proportional representation is evident in the Swiss model in that the Federal Council comprises representatives of the country’s leading political parties and language (French, German, Italian and Romansh) regions, thereby according intra-country heterogeneous ethnic nationalities a pragmatic and symbolic stake in governance.
Although the Swiss Federal Executive Council is headed by a de facto President, that position is not one of absolute powers. Rather, it is one of a primus inter pares or a first among equals. Incidentally, the country is one of the most peaceful and stable multi-ethnic democracies globally, a factor which has been attributed to this interesting constitutional model and its practical exemplification of the principles of collegiality, competence, neutrality, regional balance, international peace building and transparency. According to Expatica, Switzerland is one of the safest countries in the world and its homicide rate is 0.7, lower than the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) average of 2.1, thereby ranking the country sixth (6th) out of thirty-six (36) OECD nations. It is hardly surprising therefore that Switzerland hosts several international institutions including the International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Sports Court (CAS), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), World Health Organisation (WHO) etc.
Another interesting example of rotational government in a heterogenous political clime is the Republic of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The country was part of the old eastern bloc country Yugoslavia. However, pursuant to the latter’s rupture in 1992, Bosnia & Herzegovina, proclaimed independence, which culminated in the Bosnian war (1992-1995).
A seminal denouement, which facilitated the ending of the war was reached with the US-inspired General Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina Dayton Agreement (“the Dayton Accords”) in 1995. The country is home to the larger intra-national ethnic nationalities comprising Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, plus, no less important minorities including Albanians, Jews, Montenegrins, Roma, Turks and Ukrainians.
In Ireland, the political parties, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil, formed a strategic compact in 2020 the effect of which was de facto power rotation between their leaders commanding popular democratic support. Much earlier, and although not strictly defined as a rotational government, when Tony Blair, British Labour Prime Minister (1997-2007), tactically resigned in 2007, Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, assumed the position of British Prime Minister (2007-2010). The figurative change of guards was by every reasonable analysis, rotational government in action.
Given that backdrop, opponents of rotational presidency argue that it is: “undemocratic” because it does not afford political victors to reap the fruits of their democratic successes. They contend that it is unwieldy because it results in lengthy and, at times, fruitless negotiations, lethargic statecraft, a de facto moratorium in policy execution, coupled with attendant spiralling costs of governance. Do they have a point? Absolutely! Effective and impactful democracy implies action, not inertia; it implies timebound execution of key operational and strategic policies, not endless talking shops entailing talks about yet more talks; it also connotes demonstrable results which impacts the economic and physical welfare of citizens on a day-to-day basis.
Proponents of rotational government or presidency adopt the ideological and pragmatic stance that leadership, governance and statecraft must be geared towards the overarching objectives of equity, justice, proportional representation, regional balancing and transparency. Do they have a more compelling case? Unimpeachably! Their contention is founded upon the premise that all citizens should have a stake in governance; that democracy, based on Abraham Lincoln’s aforementioned definition, cannot be tantamount to the tyranny of the majority upon the crude metrics of numerical advantage; that the winner-takes-all approach inherent in the arguments of opponents of rotational presidency is ideologically and intellectually supine. In short, the interests of the majority and the minority should be well protected and, as far as practicable, reflected in the running of the country. The symbolic resonance therein is striking amongst citizens, and in all probability, increases their commitment to nation building in that context rather than the opposite.
Weaving this into sharper focus, Switzerland, as exemplified above, vividly illustrates the merits, not perfection, of rotational presidency. Although of a completely different scale, Nigeria’s political dynamics are noteworthy too. The country is multi-ethnic, multi-religious with over 200 tribes and languages. The majority ethnic nationalities are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. Other ethnic nationalities include Bachama, Edo, Efik, Fulani, Ibibio, Ijaw, Itshekiri, Kanuri, Nupe, Tiv, Urhobo, et al. The fundamental constitutional questions then are: why is rotational presidency not explicitly incorporated into the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)? Is rotational presidency not more suited to the unique complexities of Nigeria’s diverse ethno-religious demographics, after all there are unnerving agitations for autonomy by various groups in the country including Arewa Republic, Oduduwa Republic, Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) et al? Wittingly or otherwise, does section 5 (1) (a) of the 1999 Constitution which stipulates inter alia that “the executive powers of the Federation shall be vested in the President…” vest inordinate powers on the head of the executive arm of government?
Historically, in the run up to Nigeria’s independence on October 1 1960, the Willink Commission, considered vociferous concerns of minority groups and individuals over fears of domination by the majority ethnic nationalities within the ethnically diverse Nigerian nation. The findings emanating from the Commission strongly advocated constitutionally guaranteed safeguards for minorities and sustainable human rights. Why then, approximately 63 years on, is this lingering?
Summing up, the arguments for rotational presidency are more compelling on the grounds of: the Swiss experience and the model’s propensity for entrenching proportional representation of majority and minority ethnic nationalities; regional balance; the probability of greater commitment by citizens to the arduous task of nation-building which, by inference, decreases the likelihood of separatist agitations. Of course, none of these upend the necessity for effective vision and leadership. Nevertheless, the case for explicit constitutional provisions embedding provisions for rotational presidency in complex, emerging and volatile democracies, like Nigeria, for example, is incontestable. The acid test is whether the executive and legislative arms of government will, collaboratively and creatively exercise the initiative and act swiftly. That point is reinforced in the pertinent words of the former United States presidential aspirant, Jesse Jackson: “leadership must meet the moral challenge of the day”
Femi Ojumu is the Principal Partner at Balliol Myers LP, a firm of legal practitioners and strategy consultants in Lagos, Nigeria.