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The wave of popular pressures for political reform that spread across Africa in the period stretching from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s culminated in the restoration of electoral pluralism in most of the countries of the continent. This development went hand-in-hand with the adoption of constitutional frames that, nominally at least, guaranteed an important role in governance to the legislative arm of government. The particular form, content and scope which legislative power and mandate took differed from country to country, as did the structuring of its relations with the executive and judicial arms of government. However, in every African country, as democratic forms of politics were re-introduced on the back of the collapse of military and single party rule, there was a strong accent placed, formally at least, on the role of the legislature in the building and consolidation of democracy. Implicit in this was the position, broadly, shared, that the legislature is the embodiment of the sovereignty of the people. In this role, it was expected not only to make laws for the welfare of the generality of the populace but also to serve both as a democratically-empowered agency of restraint on the executive arm of government and a forum for the mobilisation of popular participation in the broad governmental process. Needless to say, the robustness with which it could carry out its functions was always going to be a function of its ability to maintain a degree of internal coherence, relative autonomy vis-à-vis the executive arm, and proximity to the pulse of the electorate. Also important is the extent to which the legislature is itself representative as an institution that captures the diversities of society.
Ordinarily, the important role assigned to the legislature in the renewed quest for democratic governance in Africa, and the high hopes of the populace in the office of the elected representative are issues which should be considered a routine part of democratic politics. However, in the context of Africa, they carried an added significance deriving from the fact that the legislative arm of government was perhaps the biggest loser from the decades of military and single party rule that pervaded Africa from the second half of the 1960s to the mid-1990s. All over the continent, as political authoritarianism took hold, the legislature was either proscribed outrightly or completely subordinated to the executive arm of government; legislative politics came to be severely underdeveloped in every sense. It is in part because of this underdevelopment that many (donor) initiatives were introduced in the period from the 1990s onwards to “build the capacity” of parliament in different parts of Africa. And without doubt, there were, indeed, technical capacities in need of being developed. But clearly, the issues arising from the weaknesses of the legislature are not simply or only technical in nature; in fact, they are mainly – and perhaps overwhelmingly political in nature. These problems have manifested themselves in a variety of ways, including through the struggles for relative autonomy from the executive, tensions arising from the tendency towards presidentialism in Africa’s new democracies, the instability and fragmentation of political parties, the poor structuring of the relationship between elected legislators and party bosses, the easy vulnerability of electoral systems to various kinds of manipulation, the frequent resort by the executive to a “security” cover for riding roughshod over parliament, the under-funding of parliament and poor harnessing of the funds available for deepening the foundations of democratic politics, the erosion of the domestic policy environment by donor conditionality, etc. In many ways, the institutional experiences of the legislature in the contemporary quest for democratic renewal both mirrors and summarises the entire record of the politics of the democratic process itself.