Which way Africa? Parliamentary or Presidential System?

Peter Anyang Nyongo

is professor of political science, written and published widely on Africa, now Governor of Kisumu in Kenya, this article abridged from speech given at 7th Annual Milton Obote Memorial Lecture in Kampala

Upon attainment of independence, Uganda like Kenya, embraced a parliamentary system of governance. This was soon replaced by a presidential system.

Could this have been driven by the need to consolidate and exercise absolute power? Kenya, is now engaged in a debate on constitutional reform intended to amend the 2010 constitution. Which had been generally hailed as an example in democratic constitution making. Many scholars have argued that what African countries need are constitutions which provide sound frameworks for creating a democratic and prosperous state. I have always argued for a parliamentary system of governance as the best means of addressing the challenges Africa faces.

It is interesting to observe the similarities that exist between Kenya and Uganda. In the runup to the 1962 elections that brought independence, Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress party, formed a coalition with Buganda’s royalist party, Kabaka Yekka [The King Alone]. The two parties commanded a Parliamentary majority, and Obote rode to power as Prime Minister.


The following year the position of Governor-General was replaced with a ceremonial President elected by Parliament. Parliament elected Kabaka Mutesa, the king of Buganda, as the new ceremonial President, while Obote continued as executive Prime Minister. It could be argued that it was during this period that Uganda was ruled as a parliamentary democracy that marked its highest economic growth. Under a parliamentary system, the Legislature tends to enjoy that autonomy that enables it to perform its due function of as a check and balance on the Executive.

As prime minister, Obote was implicated in gold smuggling along with Idi Amin, then deputy commander of the armed forces. Parliament demanded an investigation. Obote appointed a commission of 3 distinguished judges led by Chief Justice of the Nairobi based East African Court of Appeal who cleared him of wrong doing. Nevertheless, Obote went ahead and suspended the constitution and declared himself President with sweeping powers. Obviously under pressure, Parliament, approved a new constitution that created an executive presidency. It was a mistake.

The sweetness and power of the executive presidency began to wet people’s appetites and created tribal inclinations in politics. Earlier at independence, it had taken the corporation of the nationalist Uganda’s People’s Congress and the royalist Kabaka Yekka Party to put together the majority needed to command a parliamentary majority and thus form a government. This was a coming together of equal partners in a democratic venture.

In Uganda the challenge created by an imperial presidency became clear in January 1971 when the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting was set to be held in Singapore. African leaders were of the opinion that this would be the opportunity to make Prime Minister Edward Health of the United Kingdom, change his ways and stop the arms sales to apartheid South Africa, which was disastrous to the cause of freedom struggles in Africa.

Obote, facing an election that was coming in April of 1971 and having to contend with problems in the army, was busy planning for elections and managing the army. General Idi Amin was consolidating his position in the military. Obote opted not to go to Singapore. However, his friends, Nyerere and Kaunda, and other African leaders, felt his voice was going to be critical in confronting Prime Minister Heath in Singapore. Obote’s love for Africa, made him change his mind and he accordingly left for Singapore. It was tragic decision. With the support of British and Israeli governments, Amin took the opportunity to engineer and execute a successful coup.

It did not matter that in Singapore, Obote delivered one of his most powerful speeches. The coup that would remove him from power was already under way. “I wonder how many of you will return to your countries as presidents”, Prime Minister Edward Heath told the conference. A short while later, Obote learnt that Amin had overthrown his government. Obote had sacrificed his position in Uganda, for South Africa’s freedom.

Would this have happened if Uganda had stuck on to a parliamentary system? Was Amin’s appetite wetted by the powers he saw vested in the presidency?

In Kenya, the parliamentary system of government lasted a much shorter period. The founding father Jomo Kenyatta was elected the first Prime Minister in 1963. In 1964 the constitution was changed to introduce a presidential system of government. The 1963 election was probably the only democratic election in Kenya until much later on in 2002, when Arap Moi finally relinquished the Presidency, and a popular vote brought Mwai Kibaki into office.


Subsequent Kenyan elections that followed in 2007, in 2013 and in 2017 merely deepened Kenya’s fragmentation as a conglomerate of tribal entities. The winner-takes-all nature of a presidential system does not give room to the growth of a cohesive, democratic and development-oriented statehood.

The constitutional debates that Kenya had between 2002 and 2010 were centered on the need for a more democratic constitution. It became very clear, that elections alone, without changing the rules of the game, merely perpetuated the one-party system already in place, regardless of the presence of several opposition parties taking part.

In my book: “Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Kenya” I show how this happened. I show how both Moi and his ruling KANU party managed to retain political power for 10 long years, despite multiparty elections between 1992 and 2002. At each election, the majority of the votes cast went to the multiple opposition parties, but each time around Moi still won. The figures and the records are there.

Dissatisfied with multi-party politics per se, Kenya fought for a new constitution which would better guarantee democracy, national unity and development. The resultant presidential democracy, born out of the 2010 Constitution, has proven totally unsatisfactory. The presidential system undermines the possibilities of developing a united, democratic and prosperous state even when the country has high potential in terms of natural and human resources to do this.

Most African States started off with parliamentary systems following independence but went presidential soon after. They all soon sank into authoritarian regimes known for oppression, human rights violation, corruption. Presidential politics never build political parties but destroy them. Presidential politics create a one-man show, complete with personality cult along with the politics of sycophancy.


We salute the role that brave, principled, progressive and democratic individuals have played in the struggle for democracy and national liberation in Africa. However, we must acknowledge how authoritarian presidential politics always destroyed them. Such is what happened to Milton Obote in Uganda. If Obote had not entered the morass of presidential politics but remained loyal to the parliamentary system the history of Uganda might have been very different.

If Kenya had been a parliamentary democracy and not a rigid authoritarian one-party presidential system, Raila Odinga’s organizational talents and inspirational leadership would have been available to serve Kenya. Instead under the dictatorship of the presidential system Odinga went to jail without trial and languished there for nine years. I submit that, with proportional representation, political parties in parliamentary democracies have a much better chance of nurturing leadership and democracy than in a presidential system.

Elections under parliamentary democracies tend to be less inconclusive than in presidential democracies. Even where they are inconclusive like in the recent case of Israel, constitutional mechanisms exist for peaceful resolution and consensus building than in presidential regimes in emerging democracies.

When a parliamentary system incorporates proportional representation, it tends to produce a much more inclusive and legitimate polity. South Africa today is a good example.

One of the reasons why people vote in democratic elections is this, in losing there is always the possibility of winning the next time around. Wahere thle threshold of forming a government is raised high enough to include the widest majority of the voters, coalition building easily becomes the political culture for promising inclusivity and minimizing alienation from the political system