Does the Pan-African Parliament serve a purpose?

By Romain Chanson
Posted on Friday, 4 February 2022 19:31

Cameroon’s Roger Nkodo Dang, president of the Pan-African Parliament
Cameroon’s Roger Nkodo Dang, president of the Pan-African Parliament, in Midrand, 1 June 2021. © Phill Magakoe / AFP

The Pan-African Parliament, which is based in South Africa, has been at a standstill since June 2021, as it has been plagued by internal conflicts, accusations of mismanagement and has no real power. Its status is expected to be discussed at the African Union summit on 5 and 6 February.

Already a rarity in current times, the Pan-African Parliament chairperson has disappeared from the streets of Midrand. He has been absent from the legislative body following a June 2021 dispute. The task of electing a new chairperson turned into a tug-of-war between representatives from the different geographical blocs, as Southern African parliamentarians feared that the chairmanship would once again elude them (they have not even held the position once since the Pan-African Parliament was established in 2004, neither has North Africa.)

On that day, voting turned into a free-for-all, with the ballot box seen as the object to protect. Outraged, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, immediately suspended the assembly’s proceedings to give it time to “resolve problems and organise peaceful and credible elections”. This is a language typical of coups d’état. Eight months later, there are still no plans to return to Midrand. The last working session took place in October 2019.

‘Bad faith’

“We are at a standstill, nothing is possible at the moment,” says Cameroon’s Roger Nkodo Dang, who served as parliament president between 2015 and 2020. “They want to take us into a kind of rotation that has never existed.”

Dang denounced the AU’s adherence to this “bad faith”, which “does not allow the Parliament to rise up”. For their part, the South Africans feel like the matter has been arbitrated and that rotation is necessary. “We have done research and consulted with Addis Ababa, the issue has been resolved so there is no crisis,” says Mathole Motshekga, a parliamentarian and member of the justice and human rights committee.

As a matter of fact, the AU’s Executive Council has sided with the rebels and firmly supports the principle of rotation that governs the functioning of the AU. “But the executive council cannot dictate to us,” says the Central African Aurelien-Simplice Zingas, outgoing chairperson of the health, labour and social affairs commission. He insists on the strict separation of powers between Parliament and the union’s other bodies. He also denounced a “manipulation” of Southern Africa and regretted the resulting “mischief”.

To implement the rotation principle, all that would need to be done is to ratify the Malabo Protocol, which was adopted in 2014. This document aims to transform Parliament into one of the continent’s true legislative bodies – which is its original raison d’être, but only 13 out of 55 countries have ratified it, and Southern Africa is not among them. The majority of states would not welcome the creation of a supranational assembly, as this independent pan-African parliament could end up meddling in internal affairs and exercise more freedom than some might wish.

This was the case during election observation missions. Before 2010, parliamentarians could conduct these missions autonomously. “It was a success,” says Dang. “We were doing in-depth analyses to advance democracy, but once[…] parliament made a report against Zimbabwe, which turned out to be a bad report, they withdrew the election observation mission from us.” From now on, observation missions will be supervised by the AU Commission.

The Pan-African Parliament is the AU’s poor cousin. It has no real power and is chaperoned by the AU which is headquartered in Addis Ababa. “The idea was to have a real balancing and monitoring role,” says Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a researcher at Pretoria’s Institute for Security Studies. “But now it’s impossible. The heads of state and the AU Commission are far too powerful. In an ideal world, the president of the African Parliament would deliver a speech at every AU summit. There has never been one because he has no recognised status or legitimacy within the union’s structures.”

Appetite for power and money

However, the position is highly coveted. This is evidenced by the debate on rotation, which is a “smokescreen” for obtaining power by any means necessary, says South Africa’s Zwelethu Madassa, a lawyer and former secretary of parliament between 2010 and 2015. “They [West, East and Central Africa] want power for local ambitions. When they are president or vice president, they use that title when they are back home and they benefit from it. The smart ones have used it very well.”

Along with an appetite for power, should we add a taste for money? “It’s part of the problem, but I wouldn’t put everyone in the same basket,” says Madassa. In fact, the vast majority of parliamentarians are not paid by the pan-African organisation, as their respective countries take care of their mission expenses.

On the other hand, the members of the executive board (5) and committees (38) are supposed to receive allowances according to a grid validated in June 2019. Officially, they receive $150 per day of attendance, i.e. €9,000 per year if they actually participate in the four annual sessions. Members of the executive board, the president and vice-presidents receive an additional $300 monthly allowance.

Financial abuses

Although every penny spent seems to correspond to a pre-established budget line, parliament was investigated for financial abuses during Dang’s presidency. In its February 2019 report, the AU Executive Council called for a halt to the payment of “special allowances” to staff, parliamentarians and bureau members that have not been approved. The council also asked the AU Commission to take legal action against those responsible for “illegal payments”.

Dang had already attracted attention by making headlines for his lavish lifestyle. The president spent his nights in a luxury hotel in Johannesburg and drove a large motorbike, despite the fact that his host country, South Africa, had provided him with accommodation and a company car. Dang claims to have paid for the hotel and car out of his own pocket, using his per diem. According to him, the house offered was not functional. “I can’t be accommodated everywhere, I keep my standing,” he says.

If you’re looking for waste, look elsewhere, says Dang. “It is a disgrace that the African continent has a parliament that does not legislate and that has not had a parliamentarian for three years. Africa should not have such a luxury. Incompetent officials are receiving large salaries that have been paid for by the African taxpayer. What is the point of this parliament?” he asks.

Although the Midrand-based legislative body rings hollow, the work continues. In the parliamentarians’ absence, the officials carry out technical missions with the member countries. One of the stated objectives is to encourage national parliaments to ratify AU treaties and incorporate them into their legal systems, with a view to continental harmonisation. The parliament’s motto is ‘One Africa, One Voice’.

This ideal is far from being achieved, says former secretary Zwelethu Madassa. He denounces the bad governance and selfishness of its leaders, who have made parliament “the expression of the various dysfunctions that run throughout the countries of the continent”. “People come with their culture of governance. They do not read the statutes to see what unites the continent, what are the values and principles that underpin the parliament,” he says.

As the AU celebrates its 20th anniversary in its current form, will it decide to disintegrate the institution? The Pan-African Parliament is like an unwanted child. “The supreme political decision is that it should remain on the sidelines and not have all the power of an institution,” says Tunisia’s Jamila Ksiksi, former chair of the Pan-African Parliament’s women’s caucus. “This is a deliberate situation. People didn’t want the Pan-African Parliament to exist,” says Dang. “What happened in June [the stalled vote] was almost an excuse to dismantle the parliament,” says researcher Louw-Vaudran.

It was “a disgrace”, according to several parliament members. “The AU’s founding fathers must be rolling in their graves,” said Zingas. Senegal’s Macky Sall, who is due to take over the AU’s rotating presidency, is aware of the situation, according to his compatriot Djibril War, chairman of the committee on rules, privileges and discipline. He himself has taken the matter to the Senegalese National Assembly. “We demand that the next election be held outside Southern Africa,” he said, differing from the decision made by the executive council in October 2021.

The election will take place in Midrand, in Mahamat’s presence. “This move risks being perceived as interference. Either we are members of parliament or we are subjugated by AU officials,” says War. “We would rather parliament die than it be dishonoured.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options