Almost every constitutional democracy vests vast and enormous powers in the office of the head of government. In either presidential or parliamentary system, such person exercises the “largest amount of authority ever wielded by any man in democracy” according to Patrick Henry.
If the constitution of the US, for instance, prescribes a great precision in the process of electing the president and as Hamilton assured Americans that it would “afford(s) a moral certainty that the office of the president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”, then it presupposes that presidential leadership extends beyond constitutional term limits – a president transitions to the important role of statesman upon the expiration of office.
Since presidential leadership requires a lifelong commitment of the president to certain leadership skillset for the benefit of country and humanity, and given that the office of the president is the highest level of leadership within the constitutional construct of any country, it can be reasonably argued that the role of a president is the most treasured political profession in any country. If we propose further that the role of the president is professional in nature, it then becomes important to have certain professional precepts that guide presidential leadership. These precepts may not necessarily include legal code of conduct as the constitution or public service rules require, but those etiquettes that define the prestige of presidential leadership.
Every country has its Machiavellian moment and therefore requires presidents with “an element of potential dangerousness”. The precept of political effectiveness requires presidents to take tough decisions and act decisively, though the heaven falls. Political realists want a president who understands the disciplined art of patriotic ruthlessness and is willing “to bargain with the devil” and can kill on behalf of the people and for the best interest of the country, if need be. Arthur Miller insists that unless we have a president who “hold in himself an element of potential dangerousness”, non-state actors will turn our country to a theatre of violence.
In almost every country, citizens are caught up in the web of judgement as to whether their presidents should be assessed by their puritanism in private affairs or by their principles, policies and public service delivery. Whereas enlightened electorate may not look to their presidents as moral models, they expect their presidents to perform their duties diligently, even if it takes them to do harm in the larger cause of national security and interest.
In almost all histories of democratic presidential leadership, effective communication has played a deciding role in who becomes a country’s president. Every word a president utters is analysed to situate its political reference, meaning, authenticity and impact. Presidential politics entails enormous level of persuasive advocacy, compelling debate and convincing speeches on key priorities of policies both in campaign and in governance. As the 2023 presidential candidates continue their campaigns across the country, they must come to terms that their communication should reflect specific policy innovation on how to implement the provisions of Chapter Two of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), on such core issues as productive economy, climate safety, rule of law, security, socio-economic infrastructure, system of government, anti-graft, population, poverty reduction, among others.
A to-be-president should be presidential and statesman like even before being elected into office. Unlike monarchical leadership where the throne can fall on a prepared or unprepared prince or princess, electability is a crucial core of democratic presidential leadership. As Thomas Cronin puts it, the person who wants to be president has to have a passion for the job, a passion for politics, and above all a magical ability to attract passionate followers. Without those, a would-be president will not only fail to lead but fail to win election in the first place. A person can either become a president by strategic construct or by accident. A conscious construct to the presidency prepares a president for leadership excellence more than the uncertainties around accidental presidential leadership.
Even in impossible circumstances, a president is expected to exude realistic optimism, hope and possibilities for the future. The only way to be visible as a representative of our national symbol for hope is when you have your residential address only in Nigeria except in exceptional cases, with your kids in Nigeria, attending same hospitals with us and apply the same road with the rest of us. To function as a country’s Optimist-in-Chief, you must be readily welcoming, as the entire nation, which is your primary constituency turn to you in search meaning, means, assurance and a sense of purpose in their aspirations.
Optimism will lead to two critical issues in presidential leadership – intentionality of a president in the pursuit of the development interests of the people and the capacity to dislodge systematic embeddedness through revolutionary and transformative leadership.
There is no end to the precepts but given the fast and dramatic pace of change, a president and presidential staff must be steadfast learners and listeners. Though a presidential candidate may have an extensive expertise about major policy issues during campaigns, many of the issues debated during campaigns ceases to be as critical as envisaged. President Goodluck Jonathan never debated much on the issue of subsidy in 2011 but that eventually was the first test of his executive competence in January 2012; John F. Kennedy only mentioned Vietnam just once or twice during his campaign in 1960 but Vietnam eventually became the truest test of his presidency. Though 2023 seems to be an exception but it provides similar context of the lesson of presidential learning – we may debate the issues of population, security, subsidy, revenue, wealth distribution, corruption, among others during this campaign but the next president must listen and learn from those with appreciable expertise on the issues.
- Ekpa is editor-in-chief, Nigerian Code of Conduct Law Report.