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Lessons From The American Presidential Transition

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On January 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United State of America following a long tradition of Presidential democracy that has endured. The election of Donald Trump, for me, provides us another opportunity to review our democratic traditions as a country and begin the process of instituting traditions that limits discretion and enhance institutional framework. We copied the United States Presidential system of government in its flamboyance and high cost without any attention to the finer details and traditions that support the system.

By our level of development and economic situation we had no business copying the bi-cameral legislation of the American Presidential system, fallout of their peculiar political experience. Future constitutional amendment should address issues of reducing the size and cost of our democracy. But I digress. Today we are concerned with the traditions and rules concerning election and transition of the American President and the lessons for us in Nigeria.

In the last two months, we all saw the rigorous campaign and election of the US President-elect in clockwork manner displaying deep traditions and legal provisions that if we emulate will enhance our democratic experience. Some of the key lessons include the sacrosanct date of election, utilising the transition period for briefing by the outgoing administration and the bureaucracy, making key appointments of presidential staff and Senate approved positions and the nature of senate screening of appointees. We also saw the role of the General Services Administration in providing oversight and ensuring ethics compliance during the transition.

Particularly we note the screening of the appointees by the Senate that received the nominations with the portfolio of the nominee stated allowing the relevant senate committee to hold detailed hearings and providing the public with insights about the nominee’s political views. The Nigerian senate should consider amending their rules to allow for committee hearings for screening. Also, Presidents should forward their nominations together with Portfolio to allow for detailed confirmation screening. My confirmation screening as Minister bears no resemblance to what I saw the Trump nominees go through either in rigour or depth.

To manage transition in the United States Congress had passed legislations providing for the mechanics of transition. Providing an Overview of Federal Legislation Governing Presidential Transitions according to the GSA website https://www.gsa.gov/portal/category/105659 the following legislations govern the American transition.

Presidential Transition Act of 1963, (Public Law 88-277, 3 U.S. C. 102 note) was enacted to provide for the orderly transfer of executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a President and the inauguration of a new President. The objective of the Act is described succinctly in the first page of the 1963 Act thus “The national interest requires that such transitions in the office of President be accomplished so as to assure continuity in the faithful execution of the laws and in the conduct of the affairs of the Federal Government, both domestic and foreign. Any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.”

The next Act passed by Congress was the Presidential Transition Effectiveness Act of 1998 which amended the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 to provide for a more orderly transfer of executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a President.

To control appointments by the President-Elect Congress passed The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 sets requirements for reporting to Congress and the Comptroller General actions related to Presidential Appointment with Senate Confirmation (PAS) positions as well as the qualifications for and term limits on acting PAS officers.

Congress also passed the Presidential Transition Act of 2000, which amended the Presidential Transition Act of 1963. It authorizes the General Services Administration (GSA) to develop and deliver orientation activities for key prospective Presidential appointees, and requires GSA, in consultation with the National Archives and Records Administration, to develop a transition directory.

The Intel. Reform & Terrorism Prevention Act, amended the Presidential Transition Act of 1963. It authorizes the provision of security clearances for prospective transition team members who will have a need for access to classified information to carry out their responsibilities as members of the President-elect’s transition team.

Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010, amended the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 to provide that certain transition services shall be available to eligible candidates before the general election.

The first thing we should deal with in building our electoral tradition is making our election date sacrosanct and removing the wide discretion that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) currently have as it pertains to election dates. American Presidential election was conducted on November 8, a date cast in stone and known to all. After four election cycles, INEC should grow up and stop shifting dates for elections.  I think time has come for the National Assembly to fix the dates for elections and stop the vague not more than 60 days’ provision of the electoral Act.

Our recent history of transition from one party to another makes it imperative to articulate and define the process of transition and create a template for orderly transfer of executive power. The formation of transition teams, access to information and funding of the transition are issues crying for legislative attention.

The strange and unnerving situation where a President is sworn in and does not constitute a Federal Executive Council for as long as he wishes requires urgent attention and clear legislative provisions. Since we aped the American Presidential system it will not be out of place if we adopt the process where all Senate approved appointees are selected and cleared before the swearing in of the President.

The need for orientation and providing administrative support for incoming administration requires that an office under the Secretary to the Government of the Federation is made responsible for coordinating the transition activities and managing the budget appropriated for transition.

Our democracy is still evolving and we need to continually legislate on key aspects to entrench good practices, reduce discretion and build institutions that can support our national aspirations of democracy, good governance and law governed rule.

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