The meeting, which brought together parliamentarians from twenty six African and northern countries and representatives of organizations which work with parliamentarians, was hosted by the Parliament of Zimbabwe. Hon. Cyril Ndebele, Speaker of Parliament of Zimbabwe, Hon. Frene Ginwala, GCA Co-Chairperson and Speaker of Parliament of South Africa, Hon. Thiémélé Boa, Vice-President of the Assembly of Cote dIvoire, and Ambassador Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, Executive Secretary of the GCA, all made remarks during the opening session, which was introduced by Mr. Austin Zvuma, Clerk of Parliament of Zimbabwe.
The meeting was organized primarily to facilitate discussion and exchange of experiences among African parliamentarians themselves, and between African parliamentarians and their colleagues from northern countries. The parliaments of participating African countries were all democratically elected, and delegations included members from minority, as well as majority parties, while a number of women participated either as members of delegations or as special invitees. Northern parliamentary delegations also included representatives of different political parties. The wide-ranging and informative discussion permitted participants to consider best practices as well as commonly-shared problems. Despite widely differing circumstances, it was apparent from the meeting that most parliaments in African and northern countries face very similar concerns.
Issues of parliamentary effectiveness and expertise, accountability and transparency, and representation and participation were among the issues discussed during the meeting. Both the role and function of parliaments in Africa are changing rapidly as a result of political liberalization, and parliaments and parliamentarians are increasingly asserting their independence and acting as a check on executive power. However, they face a number of constraints, not least prevailing political structures that continue to favor the executive at the expense of the legislature. For the most part, the effective functioning of parliaments is also hampered by lack of resources, limited technical expertise, and a relatively weakly developed culture of democracy and competitive politics in most African countries.
Effectiveness and Expertise
The effectiveness and expertise of parliaments depends on institutional structures, the technical capacity of parliamentarians, and the political circumstances which prevail. In most African parliaments, institutional structures are in place, but their effective functioning is constrained by lack of facilities, resources, and equipment. Library facilities and research services are generally extremely limited, and timely access to necessary information is frequently not available. In many African countries, the relative newness of democratic parliaments and processes exacerbates the problem, as there is little in the way of previous experience to draw upon. This is in contrast with the situation in most established democracies. In such countries, although parliaments have to evolve to meet new demands, procedures and structures are institutionalized and known, precedents can be recalled, and longer serving members can provide guidance to newly elected or inexperienced colleagues.
Developing expertise, especially of newly-elected parliamentarians, is a requirement of parliaments in all countries. However, the needs are much greater in African countries, where the role of parliaments is changing and where they are becoming involved with a range of new issues as a result of democratization. In most northern countries, party structures tend to provide training and orientation for new parliamentarians, who also have access to adequate research and library facilities as well as professional staff. Moreover, most parliaments have institutionalized orientation and training programs for all members, regardless of party affiliation. Indeed, improving the effectiveness of parliaments is a constant process in established democracies, and several examples of this were provided.
In established democracies, parliamentary expertise has been gained over time, often as a result of incremental steps. Experimentation has resulted in the development of cost effective options, such as the pooling of technical resources for committees. Furthermore, in established democracies many parliamentarians have gained experience at the local level, or within party structures, before attaining national office. Thus by the time they join national parliaments they are familiar with a range of issues and procedures. By and large, newly-elected parliamentarians in most African countries have not had similar experiences, although opportunities are likely to increase as a result of political transition.
Given the paucity of resources available in most African countries, the meeting gave specific emphasis to the need for training of parliamentarians and to the development of support services. Several parliaments in Africa have already benefited from training and technical assistance provided by international institutions, as well as from provision of equipment. Their experience indicates that focusing on technical areas, such as budgets, or on structures such as public accounts committees, is a useful strategy for developing the capacity of parliaments. It was suggested that such training be expanded, possibly through the establishment of a special fund to which Africas development partners could contribute. Additionally, although most parliaments in Africa currently have limited access, new technologies could facilitate information sharing and the development of expertise in specific areas.
Although building technical expertise is necessary for the effective operation of parliaments, it is not sufficient. Indeed, unless the political environment in which parliaments function is conducive, increased technical capacity will not necessarily result in greater effectiveness. Centralized executive power and strong presidential systems, still prevalent in many African countries, tend to work against the development of effective parliaments. In such circumstances, a strong executive and a weak parliament can in effect perpetuate the single-party state, though in a guise of multipartyism. Moreover, the parliamentary balance in most African countries remains heavily weighted in favor of ruling parties. As a result, parliamentarians from minority parties feel they have little influence, and little opportunity to gain expertise through participation in parliamentary structures.
In contrast, the situation in most northern countries tends to be more fluid, and parliaments enjoy a greater degree of political power. In some cases the formation of coalition governments is relatively common. In others, small majorities reduce the political leverage exercised by ruling parties and necessitate greater consensus-building over policies. Additionally, agreements are often reached across party lines to promote specific legislation, and certain issues can engender significant bipartisan support. Even where ruling parties enjoy a significant majority, the possibility of being voted out of office makes for a different political dynamic between the executive and parliament, as well as between majority and minority parties. As each one knows that its position could be reversed, it is in the interest of all to ensure that the political system works effectively and that rules and regulations are followed.
In established democracies, competitive politics also tends to promote political tolerance and respect for political institutions. Those out of power believe that they can gain it through elections, while those in power know that they have to compete to retain it. Moreover, although day-to-day parliamentary business, debates and voting may be conducted largely along party lines, neither the legitimacy nor the fundamental right of each party to exist are called into question. In most African countries, political tolerance and the idea of shared responsibility for governance are only now being learned, and the role of the parliamentary opposition is still not well-understood. In many instances, while minority parties have to understand their role and undertake it effectively, the executive and ruling party also need to recognize that minority parties are the legitimate, elected representatives of society.
Accountability and Transparency
Accountability and transparency are essential to the effective functioning of parliaments. Parliaments need to be accountable to the electorate, and at the same time able to hold the executive accountable. Institutionalized mechanisms to promote accountability are necessary, but will be inadequate in the absence of a conducive political environment. In established democracies, competitive politics and the real possibility of political alternation have reinforced notions of parliamentary accountability and transparency, in that ruling parties are more likely to accept the need for accountability if they believe they may one day be in the minority. In many African countries, without traditions of either political alternation or accountability and transparency, this change in mentality has yet to come about.
Most African parliaments, like their northern counterparts, have institutionalized formal structures and procedures such as question time and specialized committees to promote accountability and transparency. However, their effective functioning is frequently constrained by political realities. Thus for example, members of the executive do not always answer questions put to them, and committees lack the ability to ensure that recommendations are implemented. In part, this is due to the relative strength of the executive vis a vis the parliament, and also the newness of democratic political systems in many countries. The committee system requires a strong parliament if it is to function properly, while a weak parliament will experience difficulties in holding a powerful executive and president accountable. Similarly, the authority of independent agencies, such as the ombudsman or auditor general, has to be respected by both the public and the executive if they are to be effective.
Corruption and parliamentary ethics are of concern in all countries. Parliamentary codes of conduct and procedures which require members of parliament to disclose their assets and declare gifts and gratuities received while in office are standard practice in established democracies, but are quite recent in most African countries. The experience of established democracies suggests that these can be powerful tools for promoting accountability, and that their effective enforcement can help to change both the perception and practice of politics over time. In African countries, electorates, as well as politicians, have to become accustomed to more open and transparent politics and political campaigns. Indeed, in many African countries, attempts to promote accountability and transparency often run counter to the expectations of the electorate, long accustomed to patronage politics and to receiving rewards in return for votes. In contrast, in established democracies, the public is increasingly demanding higher standards of probity of politicians, and parliaments are constantly reviewing and refining accountability procedures.
Transparency and availability of information are essential for accountability. The public has to understand the role and function of parliaments if it is to hold them accountable. In established democracies, parliamentary information is publicly available and accessible as a matter of course through a variety of sources, including the press and electronic media. Additionally, public relations and outreach on the part of parliaments actively encourage transparency. In contrast, accurate information is still hard to obtain in many African countries. While this is partly a result of resource constraints, it is also in part a legacy of the tight control over information which characterized single-party regimes. Moreover, media coverage tends to be limited and journalists often lack the expertise to analyze and present information in an accessible fashion. As a result, the majority of the electorate in African countries do not fully understand the concepts of political choice and contestation, and have little information as to the functioning of parliaments.
Representation and Participation
Building democratic societies is a process, and even established democracies have to constantly evolve to meet new demands. One of the most significant challenges facing African countries in transition is how to integrate different social groups and interests into the political process, while at the same time maintaining political stability. In many instances, expectations are high but public understanding of the process of governance, and of representative politics, is limited. Furthermore, while those who had previously been excluded are keen to realign the political power structure, those who had enjoyed special privileges are reluctant to relinquish them.
Ensuring equitable representation and participation in the political process is a concern even in established democracies which have over time developed a variety of mechanisms and structures designed to facilitate it. To date, no perfect electoral system has been developed, and debates continue as to the relative merits of proportional representation, plurality-majority, or hybrid systems. Some countries, in both Africa and elsewhere, have established bicameral parliaments in an attempt to broaden the base of representation and strengthen the democratic process. African countries, like others elsewhere, have to adopt electoral and parliamentary systems which best meets their needs. However, if democratic politics are to be sustained and a culture of democracy built, such systems should encourage the formation of representative parliaments, which are responsive to the needs of all citizens, and not just to elites or to those with access to positions of authority.
Women generally remain under-represented in parliaments and in political life in both northern and African countries, and the problems they face are strikingly similar. Those countries which have made the most progress in terms of increasing the numbers of women have tended to adopt special arrangements such as quota systems, although not necessarily through legislation. However, such arrangements are at best temporary compensatory measures, and the fundamental constraints to womens participation in the political process still need to be addressed. Moreover, ensuring the adequate representation and participation of women is not simply a question of numbers, but also of ensuring that women are afforded equal opportunities to develop expertise and assume positions of authority. In most African countries, politics and political decision-making still tends to be male dominated, and women often face considerable cultural, as well as practical, constraints.
Political parties have a special responsibility for ensuring representation and participation. In principle, broad-based parties, established on the basis of political inclusion, should not be dominated by particular societal groups. In established democracies, although population groups may not be equitably represented in political parties, it is generally possible for them to make their interests known. Moreover, political competition has led mainstream parties to reach out to hitherto marginalized groups, while education and greater understanding of political processes has encouraged more active participation of society. In many African countries, this process is just beginning. Tradition, political patronage and the personalization of politics all tend to reinforce the dominant position of ruling parties and the fragmentation of opposition parties.
With the advent of political pluralism, issues of political party formation, functioning and funding have taken on increased significance in African countries. Given the newness of competitive politics, the high cost of campaigning, and the relatively limited resource base in most African countries, political party funding and campaign finance are of specific concern. In established democracies, rules governing political party funding and campaign finance have evolved over time. While they differ from country to country, they are all designed to limit corruption and undue advantage, and to promote transparency and accountability. Most countries also provide a degree of public funding to political parties which meet certain legally-mandated requirements. Political party funding has particular resonance in African countries, where the advantages of incumbency can often be overwhelming.
Participants agreed that the meeting provided an opportunity for a useful exchange of experiences, and the GCA indicated its intent to convene another similar meeting to further the discussions.