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Time to reform the presidency

By Ejeviome Otobo
29 May 2015   |   1:03 am
NIGERIA will today witness the swearing in of a new President. He will inherit an “imperial” presidency. It will be wrong to attribute this bequest solely to the out-going president.

presidencyNIGERIA will today witness the swearing in of a new President. He will inherit an “imperial” presidency. It will be wrong to attribute this bequest solely to the out-going president. Like all “imperial” presidencies, they evolve over time and do not happen in a few years.

How did Nigeria’s “imperial presidency” evolve? What are the features of an “imperial” presidency? And how might the presidency be reformed to transform it from an “imperial” one to a modern, agile presidency? Before addressing these issues, it bears emphasis that the presidency – the office of the chief executive of Nigeria – is the “central nervous system” or the “central processing unit” of the government at the federal level.

The actions and inactions as well as the style and substance of the presidency continuously ripple through the entire government.

The current presidency is the product of a long period of institutional accretion and three traditions of government in Nigeria: the prime ministerial; the military regime, which ruled Nigeria for a very long time; and the civilian presidential system that was inaugurated in 1999. Each of these traditions has left their imprints on the presidency.

The Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) has its roots in the prime ministerial system.

Several positions in the presidency that are now occupied by military or ex-military personnel have its roots in the military regime.

The position of the Chief of Staff to the president was created in 1999 with the inauguration of the civilian presidency, although it was scrapped in 2008 during the Yar’Adua administration.

The popular perception of “imperial” presidencies is that they project an aura of powerfulness. Imperial presidencies are distinguished by other features as well.

There is much emphasis on the trappings of power. Even the seating arrangement in the Executive Council conveys that image. The press has also regaled the public with stories of how the presidency has 11 presidential jets with a number flown simultaneously for presidential visits and to summits.

Imperial presidencies are also marked by a coherence deficit reflected in the many overlaps in the functions of its constituent offices or departments and with some ministries.

Some people who work in the presidency will object to this description. But that is where the problem lies: there is a wide gap between the popular perception of the effectiveness and agility of the presidency and those ensconced in it.

There are four compelling reasons why reform of the presidency must now be undertaken: efficiency of the presidency, effectiveness of government, unity of command, and cost savings for the country.

To appreciate how the presidency should be reformed, it helps to explain its main functions. These are five: decision-making; policy development; policy coordination; programme monitoring and evaluation; and defence leadership and diplomatic initiatives.

In contemplating the reform of the presidency, the most important decision will have to do with whether the government wants to retain the SGF or the Chief of Staff.

For all the reasons explained so far, it is neither desirable nor necessary to have both positions. The Yar’Adua administration realised this after a year in office.

Yet, the White Paper on the report of the presidential Committee on restructuring and rationalizing of Federal Government Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies was conspicuously silent on the overlaps between the office of the SGF and Chief of Staff.

Once that decision has been made, the next issue will be designing the structure and functions of the new arrangement. A few ideas are offered here.

The restructured office of SGF, who ought to be called SFG, or Chief of Staff – whichever position is retained – will have two substantive deputies.

One of the deputies will be designated as deputy SFG or deputy chief of staff (SPICE). The other deputy will be called deputy SFG or chief of staff (PACE).

Under the overall supervision, guidance and leadership of the Chief of Staff or the SFG (who must be relocated to the presidency), the specific division of responsibilities between the two deputies will be as follows: the deputy (SPICE) will be entrusted with the tasks of strategic planning and initiatives; policy coordination; parastatals and regulatory agencies; servicing the cabinet and its various committees; senior appointments; Federal-State-Local government relations; and programme monitoring and evaluation.

The deputy (PACE) will be responsible for protocol and conference management; administration and budget; crisis preparedness, response and management; communications and speech writing; public and press affairs; medical services; estate management and engineering; and family and social affairs.

Both deputies will be of deputy ministerial (minister of state) rank, while the SFG or Chief of Staff will be of ministerial rank.

The proposed structure will not only imbue the presidency with greater coherence but also reduce costs provided that rigorous streamlining is done.

Any reduction in the number of ministers in the cabinet, as generally envisaged, will reduce the cost of governance, but paradoxically increase the need for improved coordination by the presidency.

There are a few other reforms that should be introduced to strengthen the functioning, effectiveness and coherence of the presidency.

There should be a revamped system of cabinet committees. Four cabinet committees are proposed, namely: Economic Committee; Social and Environment Committee; Infrastructure, Science and Technology Committee; and Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.

The composition, periodicity of meetings and terms of reference of these committees and the chairing arrangements of these committees should be decided by the president.

Three options for chairing the committees can be considered: the president chairs all of them; the president and vice-president splits the chairing role between both of them; or a system of rotating the chairing among ministers in each committee.

All committees will be required to report periodically to the full cabinet chaired by the president, where key decisions will be made.

The cabinet committees will improve the coherence and coordination within various sectors.

Two other important reforms to consider are “continuity in government” arrangement in times of grave emergency; and crisis preparedness, response and management.

Successive presidential administrations have fallen far short of the golden standard in crisis response and management.

This vital capacity must be reviewed and strengthened before the next major crisis erupts.

The reform proposals outlined here will go a long way in transforming the structure and functioning of the presidency into a modern, agile one but also send a strong signal to the public that the new government will take reforms to wherever they are required, including the presidency itself. The best time to initiate a review and decide on the reforms of the presidency is now.

• Otobo is a Non-Resident Senior Expert in Peacebuilding and Global Economic Policy, Global Governance Institute, Brussels, Belgium.