Political power, despite its universal allure, and like all other forms of power, has its limits. We have heard presidential candidates allegedly promise to save the Naira, resuscitate failing industries and stamp out corruption. We have listened in four-year cycles to politicians make promises of all sorts – paying little attention to whether these lie within the remit of their powers.
Even as we have seen them fail, the deeper truth about the limits of political power has failed to resonate. We prefer to view the President as a wielder of messianic powers whose failure to exercise them stems from inaction, corruption or greed. Nigerian politicians do not help this perception because they carry themselves with arrogance and self-aggrandizing titles that make it appear they can do all things. But they can’t. In reality, no one can.
A more critical perspective teaches us that a President’s success is down to his ability to work within the limits of the office and develop consensus for agreement. Half the work is identifying effective policies, the other half is achieving the right political balance to execute them. Policies are drawn up after exhaustive consultations and not at the whims of a president. So any successful policy is more than just the president, although he is often the face.
First, let us quickly address the obvious - a lot of criticism directed at the Presidency justifiably carries weight because the powers of the President are enormous. The President nominates many prominent officials in the executive including all justices of the Supreme Court. The President also doubles as Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces – a euphemism for the power to wage war. Other powers include the right of assent or veto of bills before they become law and the coordination of domestic and international government policy. The president appoints government ministers and heads of every national body in the country, and in some cases the entire governing board. It is clear that the President's powers are vast.
Nevertheless, such powers do not exist in a vacuum. Legal limits exist. In framing the Constitution, there was a concerted effort to create a government accountable to its constituent parts through checks and balances. This applies to the Presidency and it is important to understand the limits that all presidents face. Checks and balances, which complement the separation of powers, are very important in a democratic system. These ensure that no solitary arm of government, or its leader, can abrogate unilateral and dictatorial powers. Thus even if the Nigerian President is all powerful, anyone can take the government to the courts, which are under the supervision of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. At the extreme, the National Assembly can impeach the President for actions that are unlawful and unconstitutional. In short, at least in the eyes of the law, no one is untouchable.
It is in these checks and balances that the constitutional, practical and moral principles of governance become lost on the majority of Nigerians. Without a doubt, most limits are constitutional, but beyond those lie practical and electoral checks on Presidential power. Constitutionally, the checks are endless. For example, there are checks on general appointments because most of the President’s appointments are subject to confirmation by the Senate. In fact, even the idea of the all-powerful veto which can initially reject bills from the National Assembly can be overturned with a two-thirds vote swing in the National Assembly.
But there are also practical limits of the president's power built on compromise, party politics, religion, ethnicity, wealth, influence, and corruption. Dividing Nigeria’s National cake has always been an exercise in realpolitik – an effort in convincing each party that it has received the biggest piece. For example, in recent years, the Governors Forum, despite not being constitutionally recognised, has risen as a source of power in its own right. As a collective, they have displayed their ability to shape public opinion, create new political parties and raise campaign funds. It is telling that the last three Presidents were former State Governors. Then there are community leaders like ex-militants, traditional rulers like the Emir of Kano and spiritual leaders like the President of Christian Association of Nigeria. These leaders exert strong influence over their local residents and tribes, with some of them able to command allegiance from their followers much stronger than that held by the Nigerian state.
Now more than ever, with an enlightened polity, the President cannot simply rely on the powers of his office. Even in comparison to other presidents or world leaders, there is a growing awareness that successful presidents cannot be aloof, monarchical or dictatorial. The US Congress has repeatedly checked the United States Executive and President Obama ultimately failed to get an opposition-led Senate to consider on his nominee for the Supreme Court. In Nigeria, the media has grown into a force in its own right. More Nigerians are checking news articles on various outlets and media houses are beginning to shape narratives and hold leaders to account. For now these powers remain limited, but time will tell.
Above all these examples, there is the final limit on any President’s power - the electorate. The mandate that a president receives is the source of his or her power. There is no government without a political mandate. When that mandate is lost, either through a disillusioned electorate, more popular opponent or through an increasing opposition to policies, there is no high from which a president cannot fall. If in doubt, just ask former President Goodluck Jonathan.