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African parliaments: Do they carry any real political weight?

By Olivier Marbot
Posted on Tuesday, 6 July 2021 20:02

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari presents the 2021 budget to the national assembly in Abuja, Nigeria 8 October 2020. Nigeria Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Parliaments on the African continent struggle to fulfil their legislative role, with the overbearing figure of the head of state – seen as alone embodying public authority – often taking centre stage and relegating the legislature to the background as a mere rubber-stamp. But things are changing, says author Nayé Anna Bathily. 

Do parliaments occupy their rightful place in African political life? If you have to ask the question, you already know that the answer is “no”.

In many African countries, whether their institutions are modelled along British or French lines, political life often, if not exclusively, revolves around the head of state and his or her inner circle. But that is changing, according to Nayé Anna Bathily’s new French-language book, L’Eveil des Parlements Africains [Africa’s Parliamentary Awakening].

The Harvard-educated author has spent the last 20 years of her career working at the World Bank, where she long served as head of global parliamentary engagement. Since promoted to the role of manager of external affairs for West and Central Africa, the Senegalese-born daughter of Abdoulaye Bathily, a former government minister and current special representative of the UN secretary-general for Central Africa, has a thorough understanding of African parliaments and the officials who serve in them.

In her examination of the relatively low profile the legislative branch has in some countries, Bathily casts light on issues of representation and notes that very few citizens have a clear idea of the role parliamentarians and senators play in the public life of their respective countries.

Her book looks beyond the failings of legislatures, however, and offers reason for optimism. Indeed, although the situation may vary from one country to another, the role and powers of parliamentarians have been strengthened and fine-tuned in post-independence Africa.

Bathily’s book thus takes a sunny view of what lies ahead, ending with a manifesto that lists key areas for future progress, with her foremost priority being greater women’s and youth representation.

In many African countries, parliament is ineffective in checking the power of the executive branch. Is there reason to hope that the continent’s parliaments can achieve a better balance of power?

Nayé Anna Bathily: Of course. It’s true that the situation may at times look bleak in some countries, but you’ll notice that the title of my book references the idea of a parliamentary awakening without putting a question mark behind it. We’re witnessing a form of empowerment take root in African parliaments. Budget approval, for example, is no longer just the business of the executive. Kenya’s parliament recently rejected the government’s value-added tax proposal, while South African lawmakers precipitated the downfall of former president Jacob Zuma. Parliamentary action in Africa is definitely creating buzz.

African political life often remains centred around a president or prime minister, who is seen as the source of all authority. Why is so much power concentrated in one person’s hands?

That’s a valid point, but I’m not sure Africa is alone in this regard and the situation has evolved over time. In the aftermath of independence, many countries adopted what were essentially parliamentary systems of government that tended to be modelled on British lines. But their similarity with colonial era-institutions undermined the legitimacy of a certain number of legislative bodies, and in turn increased the power of heads of state in the 1960s and 1970s.

Once the Cold War ended, such leaders’ monopolies on power receded and today there are a growing number of presidents who previously served in parliament, such as Burkina Faso’s Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum. Being a member of parliament (MPs) can also shape a person’s political career and fosters local ties.

Is Africa still feeling the effects of the fact that post-independence institutions were inspired by Western models of governance or shaped by the biases of former colonial powers?

Absolutely. Prior to colonisation, Africa had democratic systems of government and deliberative institutions, some of which were highly sophisticated, such as in the time of the Oyo Empire, in what is now Nigeria, and the Buganda Kingdom. It’s also a shame that these topics aren’t covered in most schools in Africa.

Colonial rulers arrived on the continent with this distorted view of African leadership as being centred on a single male individual who exercised his authority around the palaver tree. On their departure, they left behind institutions that reproduced this system of “centralised despotism” that was the doing of colonial empires. Just look at the parliamentary buildings of most former British colonies and you’ll notice that they resemble Westminster Palace. Plus, the benches face each other, sometimes there are MPs wearing wigs!

Isn’t this issue of parliamentary weakness relative to the executive also rooted in the lack of presidential term limits?

I think the problem lies more so with the form of governance than with the number of terms a leader has served in office. In some countries where term limits don’t exist, parliament has real power. Take Rwanda, for instance, whose parliament is very diligent in its work. So the picture is more complicated.

You explain in your book that a lot of African citizens think MPs are local representatives of the executive branch, when in reality they are distinct from it. What’s the reason for this misunderstanding?

There are a number of reasons for it. I think the weakness of certain parliaments back when single parties were the norm led MPs to look for other ways to make themselves credible, such as through local engagement. The political arena is also sometimes plagued by clientelism, and people are in the dark about parliamentary work. But even the system in France was like that too, up until 2017, when the “parliamentary reserve”, which provided French MPs with a way to finance local projects while escaping rigorous oversight, was abolished.

If parliament’s role is first and foremost to pass legislation and serve as a check on executive power, why are such institutions in Africa so off the mark?

The situation is improving, especially in Southern Africa, where parliaments are a strong counterweight to the executive branch. And a growing number of countries now have parliaments that hold sessions on a regular basis, vote on budgets, bring in government ministers to have their agendas approved by the assembly, and so forth.

In many countries there is debate over the usefulness of having a second house of parliament. What’s your take?

It’s definitely a controversial issue, especially because of the cost, and it’s impossible to make any generalisations. In highly decentralised or even federal countries, the upper house often has a very important role. This is the case in South Africa, for example, where MPs engage in very lively debates and are often divided on geographic rather than political lines.

A second house can give representation to regions or local communities, but how can parliaments become more inclusive towards specific categories of the population, e.g., women, young people and economically disadvantaged groups?

I’m pretty much in favour of instituting a quota system, even if only on a temporary basis. So that’s a first step. A great many countries have already done so, including Rwanda and Senegal, and that’s allowed them to achieve a higher level of representation of these segments of society than in other parts of the world.

Africa is quite in the vanguard in this respect, with more than 15 women speakers or heads of parliament continent-wide. That puts Africa on par with Europe and ahead of the rest of the world. Several African governments have also created youth assemblies.

You also call for allocating more resources to African parliaments. But in some countries, including recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the consensus is that costs are already much too prohibitive.

There are a lot of disparities. Sometimes huge sums are spent on carrying out work that should – at least in theory – come under the responsibility of the executive. More oversight and transparency is needed in allocating resources. More generally, the technical skills of parliaments and parliamentarians are in need of a boost. Resources should go towards what matters most: talent recruitment, digitalisation, training and translation. As for this last area, a great number of countries are multilingual, which causes major problems during parliamentary debates – it would not be money wasted.

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