Home > Publications and Reports > GCA Publications > The Role and Functioning of Parliaments in Africa  

Harare, Zimbabwe, December 3-4, 1998

Functioning of Parliaments
Parliamentary Effectiveness and Expertise
Accountability, Openness and Transparency
Representation and Participation
Political Parties and Campaign Finance

The GCA decided to convene a meeting to discuss the role and functioning of parliaments in Africa in recognition of the importance of parliaments, as one of the fundamental institutions of democratic societies, in nurturing democracy in African countries. Parliaments have many roles in addition to legislating. Representing a nation in its diversity, parliaments are the repository and custodians of democratic values. They can strengthen respect for human rights and promote transparency and accountability of government. They also have a role of educating and training the leadership in political debate, tolerance and cooperation. Their oversight of the executive is especially important in fragile democracies, where authoritarian and autocratic practices can continue even though the trappings of democracy may be in place.

Well-functioning parliaments obviously cannot be created overnight, and established democracies have worked through many of the issues that now confront African countries. The meeting will enable African parliamentarians and their colleagues from other countries to consider how African parliaments can be strengthened by addressing the structures and services provided by parliaments, the responsiveness of parliaments to the demands placed upon them, and the skills and knowledge required by parliamentarians to enable them to function effectively. At the same time, the meeting provides an opportunity for parliamentarians from African countries to debate issues of common interest, share experiences and information, and establish networks for future collaboration.

Functioning of Parliaments

Parliaments in democratic societies have multiple roles. They represent the people, and have a responsibility to them. They have a lawmaking and governance function. They also act as a check on the executive branch and on the arbitrary use of power.

The challenges facing parliaments and parliamentarians in Africa are considerable. Most African countries are currently in the process of political transition. For many, this is the first opportunity to establish representative governments after a protracted period of single party or military rule. For some, it is also an opportunity to make the transition from war to peace, and to create mechanisms to resolve disputes through the process of governance, rather than armed conflict. Throughout the continent, multiparty politics and competitive elections have -- at least in name -- become the norm. But multiparty politics and elections alone do not constitute democracy. Nor will they change the status quo unless there is a real possibility of fair political contestation and alternation of power. In such circumstances, the role of parliaments is critical. How they discharge their functions will influence the trajectory of political transition and determine how well the political system operates.

Under single party regimes, the parliament was in effect an extension of the executive and the role of parliaments was in many cases reduced to rubber stamping policy developed by the government and party. Even when not taken to such extremes, parliaments enjoyed little independence and exercised no real authority. Parliaments in most democratizing countries also have to overcome the legacy of patronage politics and the personalization of political power -- both lingering features of single party systems which undermine the institutionalization of democratic processes. Where power is personalized, adherence to informal, rather than formal, rules, and reliance on contacts and connections are the norm. The already difficult task of parliamentarians, whether from ruling or minority parties, is frequently complicated by the expectations of constituents, who seek personal benefits in the form of jobs, money or scholarships in return for their support.

As a result of political transition, parliamentarians throughout Africa are learning how to function in more democratic societies. Those who served under single party regimes find that their roles and responsibilities are changing. Newly elected representatives have to learn how parliaments operate, as well as their own role in them. Even those parliaments composed predominantly of ruling party members have greater independence, and parliamentarians are also much more likely to have to account for their actions and to demonstrate that the parliamentary freedoms and immunities afforded to them are not abused. Countries coming out of conflict face special difficulties. The elections that tend to form the end point of peace agreements in effect mark the beginning of democratization, sometimes with relatively little in the way of preparation. In extreme instances, post-conflict parliaments have to begin anew, defining the rules and procedures under which they will function. Sometimes they lack even the basic physical facilities and other essential resources to function properly.

In a large number of African countries, the ruling party enjoys a significant parliamentary majority, even though there may be considerable popular support for the concept of multiparty politics. Newly democratizing countries are not well served if ruling parties are so predominant that other views are not heard, or if political alternation and sharing of power are all but impossible. Coalition governments, strong and responsible parliamentary oppositions, or the election of presidents from one party and the majority of parliamentarians from another are quite common features of a number of established democracies, and serve to ensure that a range of views are taken into account. In the vast majority of African countries, however, the political establishment and the public still have to be educated that political challenge, contestation and political inclusion are part of the fabric of democracy.

The effective functioning of parliaments in democratic political systems is dependent, not only on the quality of the majority party, but also on the existence of a serious and appropriately involved opposition. However, the role of the parliamentary opposition is not yet fully understood in some African countries, largely as a result of their recent political history. Consequently, it is not always recognized that minority parties and independent parliamentarians broaden the spectrum of political choice, offer legitimate dissenting views, and provide a check on executive power. At the same time, minority parties themselves need to develop democratic institutional structures and advance clear political platforms and policy positions if they want to garner popular support.

In established democracies, accustomed to political contestation and alternation of power, leaders of the parliamentary opposition tend to be afforded considerable status. Minority party members can also enjoy real authority through their membership of parliamentary committees, while it is in the interests of all concerned that both majority and minority parties are afforded the staff and resources they need to function adequately. This is yet to happen in quite a number of African countries, where the benefits of incumbency can be considerable, and political inclusion is still being learned. Minority parties often complain that they are not adequately informed or consulted, and that they do not have access to the range of resources available to ruling party members. Lack of equitable treatment is accentuated when parliamentary facilities and resources are limited and political parties fill the gap in providing assistance to parliamentarians.

Relations between the executive and parliament affects how parliaments function. If there is too close a relationship, the parliaments ability to check on abuse of power or question policies is minimized. On the other hand, an overly adversarial relationship is not conducive to effective governance. Though politically difficult, minority parties have to accept that being in opposition to the government does not mean that they must oppose all government policies and suggestions -- or subvert the party in power. At the same time, the executive has to recognize the legitimacy of the parliamentary opposition. Clear lines of authority, separation of powers, and parliamentary independence are necessary even where the ruling party has a significant majority. The balance of power between the executive and the parliament is also an issue given that many African countries have adopted presidential systems. In some instances, the constitutional powers given to presidents are significantly greater than those afforded to parliaments. In such situations, without a clear commitment to political tolerance and space for opposing views, governments can continue to function like one-party states.

Given limited resources and overwhelming needs, parliaments and parliamentarians in African countries have to define their priorities and determine what their primary role will be. Like governments, they have to ascertain what they can reasonably achieve. Failure to accomplish a too-ambitious agenda can, over time, erode credibility and public support. On the other hand, apparent inattention to pressing needs can also lead to public dissatisfaction.

Parliamentary Effectiveness and Expertise

The effectiveness of parliaments is to a considerable extent dependent on the parliamentarians themselves, and on-going capacity building is a priority in many cases. However, the human and financial resource constraints faced by most African parliaments limits their ability to strengthen institutional structures and develop needed expertise.

Against this background, many African parliaments have an overwhelming legislative workload. They are not only faced with a backlog of laws which require revision, but also with the need for new legislation to keep up with changing demands. Security and defense, trade and investment issues, scrutiny and approval of budgets and taxes, and financial and economic policy are key areas for most African countries, and yet these are also the areas in which parliamentary capacity is frequently most limited. For example, even parliamentary committees dealing with defense and security may lack the expertise and access to data necessary to make informed choices, or to challenge assertions made by military establishments. At the same time, parliamentarians are often unaware of the nature and extent of new demands placed on African militaries, such as involvement in peacekeeping operations. Similarly, many parliamentarians are ill-equipped to comment on budgets, macroeconomic policy measures, or agreements reached with international financial institutions. At times neither the necessity of fiscal or economic policies, nor the longer-term implications of failure to pursue them, is well-understood.

In established democracies, individual members and parliamentary committees can draw on staff to provide technical assistance. They have recourse to research services and libraries, as well as to a range of expertise from outside parliament itself, including the analysis and publications of independent policy organizations and think tanks. Party structures are another source of valuable information and expertise. Parliamentarians can also benefit from hearings and the testimony of experts on specific issues, while their own parliamentary records are an additional source of information.

The majority of African parliaments, in contrast, have few of these resources, and those which exist are not always easily accessible. In many instances, members and committees lack sufficient qualified staff or the financial resources to draw upon outside expertise. With few exceptions also, political parties have not developed or institutionalized a broad-based research and analytical capacity which parliamentarians can draw upon. The relative dearth of independent policy organizations in most African countries compounds the problem, although the number of such organizations is steadily increasing. Access to parliamentary records and library information is frequently constrained by lack of modern equipment such as computers or photocopying facilities, and use of electronic information systems is generally limited. At times telephone and fax systems are inadequate, and even paper is in short supply. While parliamentarians and their staff throughout the world complain about their physical working conditions, scarcity of equipment and facilities are real burdens faced by most African parliaments.

Although the constraints to parliamentary effectiveness in African countries are significant, they are not insurmountable, and indeed considerable progress has been made in both developing capacity and strengthening institutional mechanisms. Some parliaments have sought to overcome the skills gap through specialized training programs, and by drawing on external sources of expertise. In other cases, the impetus to provide information has come from civil society groups. There are also a multiplicity of international organizations, some of which specialize in parliamentary affairs, which can be drawn upon. Additionally, the importance and utility of networking and sharing information between parliaments, both within Africa and elsewhere, should not be under-emphasized.

Africas development partners also have a role in strengthening parliamentary capacity, as in the immediate term many African parliaments will probably need to access outside financial support. In addition to funding training programs for parliamentarians, development assistance agencies have financed such activities as study tours to enable parliamentarians to visit their counterparts in other countries, as well as the research efforts of policy organizations that provide technical support. In some instances equipment has also been provided and physical facilities and communications systems improved. As such funding is relatively limited and will not continue indefinitely, the challenge for parliaments is to use it to its maximum advantage and to ensure that expertise is shared and institutionalized.

The growth of independent policy organizations and think tanks in a number of African countries is also of significance for African parliaments. Such organizations can and do provide a range of services from research on specific topics to specialized seminars on budget issues or open debates on proposed legislation. While local organizations can provide country-specific expertise, the increasing number of African-based research and policy organizations with a broader focus can be a useful source of information on issues as diverse as macroeconomic policy, trade and investment, or defense spending. Parliamentarians can also draw on non-governmental organizations and the private sector. While the former often have valuable data on access to public services and issues which affect ordinary people, the latter have first hand experience of policy constraints to doing business. Moreover, they can provide useful insights into how proposed policies will affect specific constituent groups.

Accountability, Openness and Transparency

Accountability is one of the cornerstones of the democratic parliamentary process. Parliaments should be accountable to the electorate. At the same time, they should ensure governmental accountability. For this, mechanisms and procedures which facilitate accountability and transparency need to become part of the fabric and functioning of parliamentary institutions.

Parliaments everywhere, not only in fledgling democracies, face issues of parliamentary ethics. Throughout the world, connections are used to gain access to politicians to promote causes or lobby for specific issues. Ethics rules, disclosure procedures, and parliamentary codes of conduct serve to define the parameters of acceptable behavior and responsibilities. While parliamentary codes of conduct can be helpful, both they and the provisions for censure need to be publicized and clearly understood. Many parliaments also require declaration of assets on the part of their members, and have rules governing conflict of interest and undue influence. Not only is the acceptance of bribes prohibited, but there are also limits on the receipt of gifts and favors. While these differ from country to country, the intent is the same -- to limit corruption and promote accountability. A basic premise of all rules and codes of conduct is that they must be uniformly enforced in accordance with established practices. Arbitrary, capricious or partisan application will undermine accountability.

Elections are a basic mechanism for ensuring accountability, in that the possibility of being voted out of office acts as an incentive to respect rules. But successful elections in part depend on an informed electorate, accustomed to the idea of competitive politics. Otherwise there is a chance that elections will return the same people to office, regardless of performance, or will be won by those who can distribute the greatest amount of gifts and political favors at election time. Civic education would, over time, help to change the expectations of the electorate and create a normative environment which encourages and rewards accountability and transparency. However, poverty and underdevelopment can make individuals and communities susceptible to campaign gifts and election promises.

In both African and non-African countries, specialized independent agencies such as electoral commissions or the offices of the auditor general or ombudsperson exist to promote accountability. Most of the time they are expected to report to parliament, which can then act on issues. However, if they are to be effective, such agencies need to be professionally respected, and have sufficient resources to undertake their tasks competently. They also need to be taken seriously by all parties: governments, parliaments and the public. This is not always the case. Sometimes, such agencies do not report regularly to parliament. In others, their reports receive little attention and follow up. Moreover, their reports are often not made public, or covered by the media. Rather than promoting accountability, ineffective bodies lacking in any real power can actually undermine it and contribute to public cynicism about politics and governance.

Accountability is not possible without openness and transparency. While not all of the work of parliaments can or should be public, most democracies operate on the principle of parliamentary openness. This is in direct contrast to the lack of transparency which prevailed in a number of African countries under single-party regimes, and which contributed to popular disaffection with governments. Public access to parliaments and parliamentary procedures is important for both openness and confidence building. While this varies from country to country, it is accepted as a general principle of democratic societies, and promoted through such mechanisms as public hearings, expert committees, public galleries, televised debates and political commentaries. Not only the parliamentary process, but parliamentarians themselves, have to be accessible to constituents. This is made difficult in many African countries by financial constraints, poor communications, and inadequate staffing. At the same time, care is needed to ensure that access is not abused and that accountability is maintained.

The public availability of legislative information is crucial to parliamentary openness. In most established democracies parliamentary information is generally available, whether or not the public chooses to access it. All countries have limitations and restrictions, but the basic premise is one of openness. In many African countries, this is not yet the case. While in some instances this may be due to resource constraints, it is also often due to a lingering tendency to restrict information and control access. And yet openness can help parliaments function more effectively. Media coverage and informed commentaries from think tanks can increase public awareness of important issues, while public opinion polling can help parliamentarians gauge public reaction to proposed legislation. Consultations with constituents before legislation is passed can build public support for policy measures, or at least minimize negative reactions.

One of the challenges facing parliaments is how to make information accessible. Use of electronic communications is becoming increasingly popular in some countries, but cost, coupled with limitations in coverage, mean that it is not currently an option for many in Africa. Beyond technology, low levels of formal education present another challenge for African parliaments. Information about legislation, if not the actual legislation itself, has to be easy to understand, if it is to be accessible beyond a small circle of educated elites. This is complicated by the fact that many people outside of capital cities do not necessarily speak the official language used in parliament. While translation into local languages can be helpful, there are obviously resource constraints on the extent to which this can be done. Although some parliaments themselves have taken on the task of making constitutions or important legislation widely available with explanatory materials, others lack the resources to do this. The media, which can perform an important public education function, remains under-utilized in many instances.

Representation and Participation

Issues of representation and participation are at the core of democratic politics. In principle, all eligible members of society should be able to freely choose their representatives from a range of candidates.

Over time, established democracies have created mechanisms to broaden participation in the political process. Although some population groups may still be under-represented, the concept of political inclusion prevails and societal groups are not excluded on the basis of religion, ethnicity, resources or geography. People seeking national office come from a variety of professions, and many have experience in local government or civic activism. At the same time, the available pool of candidates is constantly renewed, thus broadening the electorates choice, and elections are an accepted part of political life.

Concerns about representation and participation have focused attention on electoral systems. As yet, no ideal electoral system has been found, and debates continue over the relative merits of unicameral and bicameral legislative structures. Proportional representation can assure losing parties with a share of seats in parliament commensurate with the percentage of the vote won, and thus broadens the base of representation. The list system also allows members of different groups to be represented. The disadvantage is that parliamentarians do not belong to specific districts or identify with the needs of specific populations. There is also the danger of splintering of parties, many of which have narrow bases, and as a consequence, stable government is not necessarily ensured. On the other hand, plurality-majority systems have the advantages of ensuring that representatives have a responsibility to their constituents. They encourage the formation of broad-based parties, single party governments and a clear parliamentary opposition. They also facilitate the election of independent candidates. However, minority parties are not necessarily awarded seats commensurate with their share of the vote. Moreover, parties can rely on a regional vote, while such systems are also vulnerable to manipulation of electoral boundaries. Some established democracies have developed hybrid systems which appear to be working well, although they can be quite complicated to administer.

Political transition has opened up the political space and provided options for political competition in many African countries. At the same time, economic reform has increased economic opportunities. In other countries, similar changes, along with improvements in education, enlarged the political class and broadened the base of participation. The same thing is likely to happen in African countries over time. However, in the immediate term, a small, mostly urban political class, coupled with poverty and low levels of formal education, present additional challenges to political inclusion and equitable representation in most African countries. Increased opportunities for participation in governance at local levels could help overcome educational limitations and ensure that representatives of remote, impoverished rural areas and hitherto marginalized population groups develop the experience that would allow them to file for national office.

Ensuring representation and participation of all groups is a challenge facing multi-ethnic societies throughout the world. It is a particular challenge in countries which have a history of domination by one societal group, or of political exclusion on the grounds of religion or ethnicity. Minority groups do not need to be represented by their own political party. However, they do need to believe that they enjoy equal rights, that their interests and needs are taken into account, and that they can be included in mainstream political parties. Indeed, identity politics in which parties or politicians are explicitly affiliated to ethnic, religious or cultural groups is usually socially divisive, and can exacerbate existing societal cleavages by marginalizing or excluding certain groups and favoring others. Unfortunately, this is a legacy of single-party politics which a number of African countries have inherited. While most democratizing countries have adopted legislation which encourages the formation of broad-based political parties, political affiliation and voting is in many instances still affected by group identity of one sort or another.

In African countries, as elsewhere, much attention has been given to the equitable participation of women in parliaments. With the exception of Nordic countries, women throughout the world tend to be under-represented in parliaments and political life, even when they have made significant gains in other professions. Public attitudes toward politics and political office affect the electoral chances of women. As elsewhere, many women candidates in African countries argue that men do not take them seriously, however competent and informed they are, and however strong their political platform. Furthermore, the support of women voters cannot be taken for granted, even though women candidates are usually more aware of their concerns. Women also feel that they are disadvantaged when it comes to raising campaign finance, although in some countries special funds for women candidates have helped.

In an attempt to level the playing field, strategies such as establishing quotas for women candidates, or reserving a number of parliamentary seats for women have been employed in a number of cases. While these may help in the short run, they are probably best seen as temporary measures. Quotas can easily become the maximum, rather than the minimum threshold, while affirmative action can undermine meritocratic competition. What is required is for women to be seen as legitimate and equal candidates in their own right, not as special cases, excluded from the mainstream. For this, political parties have to include women in activities, to raise their profile and help them to gain experience. Furthermore, adequate political representation and participation of women is not only a function of numbers, and attention has to be paid to promoting the effectiveness of women parliamentarians and the ability of women voters to make their concerns known and exercise their choice freely.

Political Parties and Campaign Finance

Although a number of factors limit political participation and competition, access to financial resources is perhaps one of the most significant. Debates continue as to whether or not governments should provide funds to political parties.

The cost of elections and election campaigns in African countries have to be brought to manageable levels, if elections are to be sustained without massive donor support. In many African countries the costs of campaigning are very high compared to their level of economic development and available resources -- indeed, they are often as high as in much richer countries. The high cost of campaigning in effect undermines political competition by excluding those who are unable to access sufficient resources. Even for those who can participate, the tolls are often inordinately high. Candidates sometimes have to personally borrow or mortgage possessions to run for office. Once elected, however, the salaries and allowances are for the most part too low to adequately compensate for the costs and debts incurred.

Political campaigning in many African countries is expensive in part because of widely dispersed rural populations, poor transportation and communications, and limited media coverage. In some cases campaign costs are driven up by traditions and expectations of political patronage. This not only distorts the political process, but also increases public tolerance of corruption. Once accustomed to political largesse, constituents tend to expect it on a regular basis, not just during campaign time. In all countries, politicians are expected to do their best to promote and obtain additional resources for their home areas. But this is qualitatively different from the personal supplication which many politicians in African countries are subject to, or the often excessive demands to provide money, jobs or access. In established democracies, more open and transparent political systems and enforcement of legislation and regulations governing the actions of politicians, along with greater public information and awareness, have created barriers to political patronage. Over time, they can be expected to do the same in African countries.

Political party funding and campaign finance are obviously not issues for African countries alone. Countries throughout the world grapple with problems of political corruption, party contributions, and the cost of campaign financing. In African countries these issues have particular resonance given the relative newness of competitive politics, and procedures and practices are only now being established to address them. Parties outside of government complain that ruling parties divert public funds for campaign purposes, while ruling parties at times argue that NGOs are established to receive donor funds which are then channeled into support for opposition parties. While most countries have passed legislation governing funding of political parties, greater public awareness would help ensure that it is adhered to. At the same time, greater transparency of funding procedures, together with more stringent disclosure and accounting requirements, would go a long way to addressing real or perceived problems surrounding party funding.

Most political parties in African countries do not have a broad support base of individual financial and volunteer contributions to draw upon. The relative shallowness of the private sector also reduces the potential for obtaining funding from a variety of corporate sources. At the same time, there is an incentive for private firms to support ruling parties, given that government contracts continue to provide a lucrative share of business. In some instances, newly formed parties rely on a limited number of wealthy patrons, while others are funded largely by their founders. This increases the tendency for personalization of politics, and for parties to be associated with individuals rather than platforms. In some cases, political parties have attempted to establish business ventures to generate resources, but this can lead to serious conflict of interest, particularly when the parties are in government.

In addition to funding of political parties, the issue of campaign financing also has to be addressed in some way in most African countries. It is not only a matter of whether and how to provide state funding for political campaigns, but also of establishing parameters covering both the source and amount of contributions, and the use of public resources. A legislated upper limit on the amount which can be spent on political campaigns could help to control the cost of election campaigns and broaden the pool of candidates, while measures to ensure appropriate and frequent access to media channels by all parties would guarantee a degree of public exposure at a fixed cost. There is also need for better monitoring and accounting of campaigns. In many instances, lack of proper records and audited accounts make the actual costs of campaigns and the source of funds difficult to accurately assess.

Proponents of state funding of political campaigns argue that this is the only way to ensure a level playing field, at least in the early days of democratic transition, as well as to guard against corruption and enable a wider range of candidates to stand. They contend that otherwise only those with access to resources would be able to run for public office. Others, however, counter that African countries are too poor, and have too many demands on already limited resources to provide public funding for political parties and election campaigns. They also caution that state financing can encourage the proliferation of parties, and where public funds are provided for campaigns, regulatory measures are required to prevent the formation of parties around election time simply to obtain funds.


The main objective of this paper was to raise some of the issues faced by parliaments in democratizing African countries in order to facilitate discussion. The difficulties that undoubtedly still exist should not detract from recognition of the progress that has already been made. As elsewhere, democratically elected parliaments in Africa will be strengthened as experience is gained and public awareness of parliamentary functions increases. In turn, their effective functioning will help to create a normative environment of accountability, tolerance, and political inclusion. Building democratic societies is an on-going process, and like parliaments throughout the world, those in African countries will have to continue to adapt and develop the capacity to meet new challenges.


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