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The dusty streets of Ouagadougou teemed with people last August protesting against President Blaise Compaoré’s plans to create a Senate alongside Burkina Faso’s 111 seat National Assembly.
One of the demonstrators carried a sign reading: “Some are eating. Others are watching. This is how revolutions are born.”
It might seem perverse for opposition MPs and rights activists to demonstrate against a new legislative chamber. But the oppositionists, led by Zéphirin Diabré of the Union pour le Progrès et le Changement, described the proposal for a Senate as a trick, a colossal waste of money and simply a means for Compaoré to change the constitution to allow him another term in power after 2015.
In turn Compaoré dismissed the protestors: “Even in Paris, even in the United States, a march has never changed a law.” That may prove a serious mistake on Compaoré’s part.
In a poll 69% of Africans wanted parliaments, not presidents, to make the laws
Mass demonstrations helped promote civil rights in the United States, break down apartheid in South Africa and have helped win victories for advocates of trade-union and women’s rights in France.
And in Africa, the political map is changing. More street protests – whether against bad local services in South Africa or spiralling state utility prices in Ghana – are urging MPs to stand up for the constituents against overbearing party leaders and governments.
Last year civic activists worked closely with opposition MPs to fight South Africa’s secrecy bill, which they said would criminalise investigative journalism and protect corrupt public officials.
A similar alliance between youthful protestors and opposition parties organised mass protests in Nigeria in January 2012 to scupper the government’s attempt to end the fuel subsidy.
Then the opposition MPs demanded hearings in the National Assembly to investigate claims that much of the funding for the subsidy had been diverted to benefit cronies of the ruling party.
MPs drew up a list of companies benefiting from the subsidy and summoned them to the Assembly to answer questions at hearings broadcast live on television.
Bribery and anti-corruption
Serious problems continue on both sides of Nigeria’s National Assembly. In the past this prompted a widely-believed report that Assembly members had to be bribed to approve an anti-corruption law under former-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government.
But with the ruling People’s Democratic Party now losing its majority in the lower house of the National Assembly, opposition MPs hope the legislature will be able to assert itself against the executive.
If anything, civic activists are busier in Kenya but complain that MPs tend to be in thrall to the President. “The performance of parliament thus far has been shocking,” says John Githongo, the former anti-corruption czar who is now chief executive of the Inuka Kenya Trust, which campaigns for better governance.
“There appears to be a deliberate effort to rip up the constitution,” he says, pointing to bills introduced to muzzle the media and political activists.
Kenya’s parliament has done little to check the executive. “It’s back to the future” says Githongo, hinting at a return to authoritarianism.
Evidence from opinion polls suggest that African voters want parliaments to play a stronger role rather than act as a rubber stamp for presidents and their ruling parties.
In 2012 Afrobarometer surveyed 12 African countries and found that 69% of the respondents wanted parliaments, not presidents and their cabinets executive, to be in charge of making laws. That rarely happens.
In Uganda, 45% of respondents told pollsters that they thought the president always or often ignored parliament. Because of low expectations about what they can achieve, parliamentary elections attract a much lower turn out than presidential ones.
Measuring the quality and diligence of African parliaments is difficult, and voters differ sharply over the required political qualities.
Last year, Nigeria’s Senate passed 47 bills, and its House of Representatives passed 60: that’s an average of less than two bills a week in the parliamentary terms. In the United States, the House considers around 10-15 bills during a legislative week.
Nigerian MP Umar Barde explains: “I know for a fact that some people got re-elected not based on the ‘quality of laws I help make on the floor’ but because of ‘money I give out.’ That is what the electorate use to rate us.”
In 2013, South Africa’s parliament passed only 48 bills. It devoted just over 247 hours – or about 30 full working days – to plenary meetings and joint sittings. MPs also asked 3,207 written questions; most were answered.
Although South Africa’s MPs score higher marks than most, the country’s National Planning Commission raised “serious concerns about whether parliament is fulfilling its role adequately in the building of a capable, accountable and responsive state” – one that addresses poverty, inequality and the provision of public services.
To track MPs and ensure they are attending meetings and votes, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will use biometric measures to record their presence. The devices might promote greater political accountability, or they could alternatively be used to spy on party dissidents.
Jessica Musila, the chief executive of the non-partisan Mzalendo organisation, which monitors Kenya’s parliament, has produced statistics on MPs’ contributions to parliamentary debates in 2013 as reported in Hansard, the official record of the legislature.
“We had really hoped they would have worked in the public interest more,” says Musila. The figures show that more than 50% of the speeches are made by just 10% of the MPs.
“They are failing in their representation role,” Musila says, blaming the problem on the nomination process that political parties use to weed out problematic candidates. “That’s why we have the parliament we do. There are no independent thinkers. They are beholden to the party line.”
Kenya’s MPs are among the highest paid in the world, but the good salaries have neither improved their work ethic or dampened their appetite for political patronage.
Accusations of bribery, some involving sums as small as $200, are regularly made against MPs. Parliamentary speaker Kenneth Marende said in 2012 that he would “not condone the use of this house or the membership in it for purposes of, or as avenues for, corruption or other criminal conduct.”
Check your balances
On paper, at least, Western political systems are meant to preside over a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Activists complain that African parliaments rarely hold the usually all-powerful executive president to account.
Twenty years after South Africa’s first free election, opposition MPs complain that the ruling ANC with its 264 members often uses its huge majority to stifle debate and protect ministers from censure.
With opposition parties hoping to do well in the national elections due in April, some MPs are talking of a plan to impeach President Jacob Zuma if it is found that he had misled parliament on the $20 million security upgrade of his Nkandla compound in Kwazulu-Natal.
The probability is that the ANC will still win a comfortable majority of seats in parliament and the real threat to Zuma will come from his own party’s national executive committee, not from MPs.
“Parliament is not nearly as effective as it should be. We are not satisfied with the level of accountability of the government to parliament,” complains the Democratic Alliance’s Lindiwe Mazibuko, who is parliamentary leader for the opposition.
In Nigeria, MP Barde says the House of Representatives makes good enough laws but “maybe the executive lacks the will to implement them.” And reform often has to start with civil servants, he adds.
Ibrahim Ssemujju, an MP for Uganda’s biggest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, says MPs have lost their bite. “At the start [June 2011] this parliament had the ability to hold the executive accountable. Now they don’t have it. Towards the end, the MPs start to position themselves for the upcoming election. They are vulnerable to bribes and all sorts of inducements,” he explains.
Sometimes it’s a matter of political will: for example, Kenya’s new constitution offers MPs a greater chance to rein in the executive, according to political analyst Ken Opalo. “The constitution has given the institution powers over the budget, appointments and oversight,” says Opalo. “In my view, so far, parliament has not been using these to the extent that it should.”
Kenya’s executive currently seems to have most MPs well under control. Alphonce Shiundu, outgoing chairman of the Kenya Parliamentary Journalists Association, says the Jubilee government has persuaded parliament to approve everything it wanted, with one exception.
Parliament’s agenda last year was dominated by efforts to derail the trials of President Uhuru Kenyatta and deputy president William Ruto at the International Criminal Court and a push by MPs to beef up their already extraordinarily large pay cheques.
The MPs tried to ignore public outrage and swat aside attempts by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission to revise their terms but faced a huge and lively demonstration outside parliament in Nairobi in which protestors poured pigs’ blood.
“If they [the MPs] were actually working for the people, their attention would be on different things, like the Capital Markets Authority, which has not had a chief executive for 18 months,” adds Opalo.
Unlike the system in Britain or the US, MPs in Ghana cannot introduce their own bills or propose laws. Everything has to come from the executive in a system that gives the president massive powers of preferment and patronage, with little scope for parliamentary scrutiny.
So despite the praise heaped on Ghana’s multi-party democracy, its system is top-heavy and ensures the winner takes all, leaving the opposition fairly powerless.
No showdown in Abidjan
In neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, even some MPs outside the ruling party argue for a more supportive stance towards the executive to help the country recover from a decade of crisis.
“We are not going to go into a showdown with the government if it is not necessary,” explains Privat Oula, an independent MP from Duékoué (candidates from ex-president Laurent Gbagbo’s Front Populaire Ivoirien boycotted the parliamentary elections in protest at the government shipping out their leader for trial at the ICC).
“This year, we will keep putting pressure on the government on topics such as the cost of living, health and housing.” Last April, MPs approved a law allowing President Alassane Ouattara to issue decrees on economic and social policy, to quicken the pace of the reforms.
MPs hold differing views on responsibilities to their constituents. According to former MP and deputy minister Joe Annan in Ghana: “There is very little interaction on matters of policy between the constituent and his MP.”
Instead, he says, “the parliamentarian is good for making appearances at funerals, weddings, giving hefty donations, paying school fees and giving loans to people in distress and also finding jobs.”
Constituents talk about ‘protocol’ says Annan. That’s the idea that a parliamentarian will get allocated a number of positions for the army, the police, the fire service and can find a job for people in the constituency.
“So that’s what the ordinary voter is looking at. Virtually every cent that parliamentarians get paid gets sucked out of them at the constituency level,” says Annan.
Jaye Gaskia, head of United Action for Democracy in Nigeria, which campaigns for better governance, says that having more people does not necessarily help: “Too many legislators have just too many aides, and then too many aides have no relevant skills, competence nor experience to serve the need of the legislators.”
Research is power
Those MPs who want to hold governments to account are often hampered by the lack of good research facilities.
Auwal Ibrahim Musa of Nigeria’s Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CSLAC), says: “We have been calling for the establishment of a National Assembly Budget and Research Office to act as a think tank that will evaluate, criticise and make suggestions to lawmakers.” He says it would be an independent body that would produce white (or draft discussion) papers on topics of government policy.
The National Assembly Service Commission runs seminars every couple of months to educate legislators. Attendance is not compulsory and the seminars last four to five days.
Radical Ugandan MP Norbert Mao was especially critical of his parliament’s decision to equip all MPs with iPad tablet computers at a cost of $370,000, ostensibly for research. He said his country’s MPs are united only “when they are increasing their salaries and accepting iPads, which they will ultimately use to check [their] Facebook [accounts].”
Ghana’s parliament lacks its own re- search facilities to monitor the results of government programmes. Last year Vice-President Kwesi Amissah-Arthur admitted that no quantitative studies had been done to assess some government initiatives.
“They should ask civil society to help. We should work in tandem,” suggests Franklin Cudjoe, head of the Accra-based think tank IMANI.
In October, after a furore over illegal imports by the Food and Drugs Authority, Ghana’s ministry of health asked the think tank to list its recommendations and to write a petition.
“Parliament needs to be more active with executive oversight. They must use a robust cost-benefit analysis approach,” Cudjoe says.
Former MP Annan is sceptical. “Civil society is still organised along political lines. What is lacking in this part of the world is civil society organised along interest lines, in other words, miners getting together or people engaged in small-scale commercial activities.”
According to Annan, too many civic activists in Ghana are intellectuals claiming to speak for the people but really representing their own parochial interests or political ambitions.
two houses better than one?
Debate about the structure and cost of parliaments is heating up: some argue that abolishing bicameral systems hugely boosts efficiency. Fewer than half of Africa’s legislatures have an upper and a lower house.
In August 2012, Senegal’s President Macky Sall said he would dissolve the Senate so he could allocate more state funds to fight flooding.
CSLAC’s Musa says: “The cost of running the National Assembly is killing the economy of Nigeria. The cost of governance demands an uprising from its citizens – it is overbearing and underdeveloping the country. And until it is restructured, the Nigerian will continue to suffer for it.”
Musa argues that the House of Representatives is more in touch with the people than the Senate and that it passes better laws.
For Musa and others there can be some common ground between activists and opposition parliamentarians.
In South Africa, the joint street and parliamentary protests against the Secrecy Bill seem to have deterred President Jacob Zuma from signing it into law, although it was passed overwhelmingly in parliament by his ANC party.
That campaign – like the fuel subsidy protests in Nigeria or demonstrations against higher state utility tariffs in Ghana – show how popular activism can galvanise MPs into more effective political action.
Often, but not always, the successful campaigns involve cost-of-living issues.
In some of the many national elections to be held in Africa over the next few years it’s likely that one party may win the presidency and another win the parliament. That would greatly boost the prestige and authority of legislatures.
Meanwhile those MPs and activists in Ouagadougou are stepping up the pressure on Compaoré to abandon his bid to change the constitution in another test case for Africa’s new politics. ●