Parliaments must clean up their act

Many African parliaments, which are supposed to hold governments to account, make policy and defend the interests of ordinary people, are impotent in the face of all-powerful presidents and executives.

Many African countries now have constitutions making provision for the separation of powers, responsibilities and accountabilities between the executive, legislatures and judiciary. Parliaments, on paper, can scrutinise the drafting and implementation of policies, the performance of the executive, the use of public funds and the appointments of public offices.

In reality, parliaments are often subservient to the president and executive. In most countries, power is centralised in the office of president and executive.

Most African parliaments have, on paper, the power to remove the president. Presidents, on paper, do not have the power to dissolve parliaments. However, parliaments have rarely unseated undemocratic presidents. It is often presidents who dissolve parliaments.

African presidents and executives often have the power to appoint the heads of constitutional, oversight and state institutions. Parliaments often only rubber-stamp such appointments.

Most African countries have the phenomenon of the party-state, whereby the governing party takes full control of the state and becomes the state itself. This extends to parliament, with the governing parties also often controlling it.

Most left-leaning African independence and liberation movements are run along centralised lines, even more so, if they fought military campaigns.

Opposition movements which fought post-independence governments, especially those which had armed wings, are also run this way. In power, both party and state become interchangeable. Under these movements, the president (executive) and party dominate parliament. Its offices, structures and committees are often directly controlled by the leader and the party.

In addition, in most African countries, the president dominates the party and government.

These practices undermine the independence of parliament.

Most African countries have electoral systems where the winner, even if by one seat, takes all levers of power. This means appointing the heads of most public institutions, including those of parliamentary offices, structures and committees.

Yet, for the sake of peace, inclusiveness and development, governing parties, even if they win overwhelming electoral mandates, should include opposition parties in their governments.

Equality before the law in many countries is absent. A separate set of laws applies to leaders, compared to ordinary citizens. Presidents and governing party leaders often see themselves as above the law – above parliament. This must change.

Many parliaments have poorly developed offices, structures and committees. These need to be effective, with the power to call witnesses, including ministers.

Committees should be established to interrogate draft policies, laws and decisions. Government responses to parliamentary committee questions must be made public.

In order to ensure parliament holds the executive accountable, MPs should have time to question the president and ministers and debate their proposals.

Appointment of the heads of democratic, constitutional and state institutions must be removed from presidents and given to parliaments. Speakers, heads of public accounts committees and other significant offices should, ideally, be appointed from opposition party ranks.

In most parliaments, governing party MPs critical of the president and executive are likely to be quickly dismissed. MPs should have freedom to criticise without fear.

Most African parliaments do not have the power to effectively oversee national budgets. They must be empowered to do so.

It is vital for parliamentary staff to be appointed on merit, to be non-partisan and professional, not appointed by the governing party.

Parliaments must allow the public to have greater input. There must be public hearings on draft laws, policies and decisions.

Rights, access to opportunities and development in many African countries often depends on one’s closeness to the governing party or leader. This is one reason why marginalised groups have staged coups, joined fundamentalist organisations or have started their own ethnic, religious or regional-based parties.

Many leaders draw support from one ethnic group, religion or region and most African countries are deeply patriarchal. It is crucial for governments to introduce quotas to have women leaders.

Civil society, the independent media and democratic activists play sterling roles in holding presidents, executives and parliaments accountable. They should continue to do so. Parliaments should not be above legitimate criticism. Many African countries still have laws that are used to restrict legitimate public criticism of parliament.

*This article was published in African Independent. To view the article on their website click here.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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