In framing up the current constitution of Kenya, one of the objectives was to reduce the presidentâ€™s powers or prerogatives. I do not know how this has been achieved.
In Malawi, there are appeals for discussing the presidentâ€™s powers at the next stakeholdersâ€™ meeting by the Public Affairs Committee. Just what powers or prerogatives of a Malawian president are viewed to be excessive is something we have to find out when the said meeting takes place.
Seeking to dilute the powers of a sovereign is an old issue. It is said of a British monarch today that she or he reigns but does not rule. In the past monarchs both ruled and reigned and sometimes they ruined as well.
In the 18th century Britain, there was a good deal of wrangling over the crownâ€™s powers. We met this in James Boswells biography of Dr Samuel Johnson.
One day, Sir Adam Fergusson called at Samuel Johnsonâ€™s house while Boswell was there. They were discussing the powers of the monarch when Sir Adam said: â€œBut Sir, in the British constitution, it is surely of importance to keep up a spirit in the people so as to preserve a balance against the crown.â€
Johnson would not hear that. Said he: â€œSir, I perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the powers of the crown? The crown has not powers enough. When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny that will keep us safe under every form of government.â€
Dr Samuel Johnson is the most famous conversationalist in the Anglo-Saxon world. He was often witty, wise, at times, rude as in this quotation where he called a knight of St Michael and Saint George, a vile Whig.
For starters, the Whigs were ancestors of Britainâ€™s current liberals. They advocated a constitutional monarchy. Their opponents, the Tories, to whom Johnson belonged, are what we currently call conservatives. They believed in a strong monarchy.
People will usually support a strong monarchy if they derive advantages from it, and advocate a weaker monarchy if this too will be to their advantage. Who are the people who say a Malawian presidentâ€™s powers should be reduced? What disadvantages in the present set-up? Do they experience?
Whatever constitutional and legal changes we make, they must be booked by a philosophy of sorts, changes for the sake of changes or by mere imitation of something else will take us to a blind alley.
During the Stone Age, most human beings lived in small communities which were self-contained. They did not have anything like governments or rulers as we know them today. They saw the need to place themselves under a ruler called chief or later king because of the risks they went through when everyone was a boss on his own.
Stone Age people enjoyed no real freedom. The strongman or stronger community robbed and persecuted the weaker one at will. The oppressed had no one to appeal to. One day leaders of these little communities sat together and signed a contract to place themselves under one man to whom they would surrender their own powers. This ruler would be supported with weapons and food so that he could become the strongest of them all. He would then prevent anyone else from bullying or robbing another.
This is an imaginary scenario, but it approximates to reality then and now. We elect someone as president to protect us all and lead us. The president can do this only if he or she is provided with men and materials to bolster his powers. It is necessary, however, to make sure that he does not abuse his powers.
Here then is the point. A president must have enough powers to protect the nation from enemies within and those from without. If you reduce this power too much, you risk the formation of warlords, the brotherhoods and other factions that are out to pursue their interests at the expense of weaker members of society.
A president must not have his powers so reduced that he is prevented from using his discretion, and has to be dictated all the time by lobbyists or pressure groups. A president must indeed pay attention to what member of civil society are saying, but must be a leader not a follower. If you reduce him to a position where he is prevented from making final decisions, you risk turning him into a puppet of some interest groups.
Where a presidentâ€™s powers are absolute, they must be watered down, but a presidentâ€™s leadership should not be unduly checkmated. Where monarchsâ€™ powers have been drastically reduced, there is a prime minister who provides clear leadership and shoulder responsibilities.
Those who are going to discuss powers of a Malawian president should go and spare time for the revised Constitution which is apparently gathering dust in the Cabinet office.