Tuesday, March 25, 2014

African Legislatures in African Democracies: The Need to Be Both Transformative & Transactional

A FEEEDS series BlogSpot

The discussions about African democracies have generally focus on good governance, leadership, and transparency of the executive branches of governments, but hardly regularly zero key roles that legislatures (national and sub national) have to play to further advance the democratic process on the Continent today. So how can African legislative responsibilities be enhanced and improved to support good governance, improve social sectors, fight corruption, and address quality of life issues for many of the Continent’s evolving democracies?
Today’s Africa and its Legislatures
Africa has an upward spiraling population of 1.2 billion people, which reportedly will reach 2.4 billion by 2050. Of the 54 countries on the Continent, 26 have bicameral systems, and 30 have unicameral, with South Sudan being one of the newest legislatures, and Kenya transition from a unicameral to bicameral legislature as part of the changes in its 2010 Constitution. For Africa to continual move forward, African legislatures must truly be transparent, and play a more significant role in how the future of their nation will be shaped, in some ways, even more so than in established democracies, or their executive branches.

There are two things they have to be: “transformational,” and “transactional,” innovators to address good governance (political/economic areas), social sector needs, and fight corruption, and then avid, committed gatekeepers of those reforms. Meaning African legislatures must have transformational, vision ideas to and expand good governance, fight corruption, and encourage good leadership and transparency, while simultaneously transforming the social and economic agendas of their nations and execute or transact this into legislation or constitutional changes. Recognizing that these two words – transformational & transactional - are not always used to explain the role of African legislatures, here are ways to think about the role of African national assemblies or parliament in a new more progressive manner, and what they mean in this context:

The Transformational Ledger:
African Legislatures (as do others) need to keep in mind  they are the voice of the people by which they need to interact regularly with their constituents; focus on visions that change the political, social and economic paradigm of not only their constituents but their nation. Hence, visions for the future which they work toward to fight corruption, including holding members of their members and members of their executive branches accountable, and begin to fundamentally address the wealth disparities of their nations. The greatest wealth inequalities in the world are in Africa, and Asia, with South Africa and Namibia leading the way in the Africa region for this worrisome and sad statistic. 
In addition, internally Africa legislatures need to be more reflective of a democracy themselves as far too many are arms of the executive branch leader, and whose members have no responsibility to local constituents as they are not elected in their individual capacity for job performance.

The Transactional Ledger:
Legislation is a transaction, a social contract, and the manifestation of the commitment to protect and serve the people. African Legislators collectively need to work together to draft legislation (the transactional element), to include rights-based, inclusive constitutions; economic, labor and political party reform; anti-corruption laws as part of their social contract with the people of their nation. Admittedly, here in the U.S. elements of our Congress have gotten away from this fundamental duty as part of the American dream.
Without these two synergistic roles of transformation and transaction (legislation), good governance, sustainable development, and forward movement toward long term democracy will continue to be elusive as many African nations will continue to struggle to ensure that quality of life and equitable wealth distribution become the order of the day for their people.
In far too many cases, African legislatures, and this applies to the U.S. Congress, struggle to not only draft but advance key pieces of legislation which truly change the social and economic paradigms of their nation-state. That being said, in less developed democracies this is far more problematic because the life safety values are insufficient and sustainable institutions are rare. In Sub-Saharan Africa this is more the case and this article is highlighting what it is calling the 7-Point Plan to African Legislative Wellness and Sustainability that need more attention:

1.) Legislatures must become sustainable; sustainable legislative institutions are not common;
2.) Rarely is there fixed professional legislative or committee staffs who remain to provide institutional continuity for the legislative institution;

3.) Most do not have independent research or budget offices (i.e. that perform roles similar to the U.S. congressional research or budget offices) to provide them with the support needed to draft good legislation to address key social and economic issues.

4.) Most do not keep (or do not have accurate) record keeping or a library of past legislation or a repository similar to a Library of Congress.
5.) Rarely do African legislators have constituent offices in their districts; if they do they lack sufficient resources to be effective;

6.) Constituent outreach during non-elections years is rare, and in places where it is good doesn’t translate often into legislative action or long term social change for the region;

7.) Lack of donor assistance focused on educational training to address changing the culture to demonstrate the import of institutional sustainability over personal political gain.
Institutional Challenges:
It is more common that when legislative changes do take place in African nations a large part of the legislative structure becomes dysfunctional for a time since most staff is linked to the life of a single politician and because there is no professional committee or subcommittee staff that provides continuity. Thus, no institutional sustainability that provides not only best practices, but has some institutional memory as to what has gone on before. In many cases each time there is an electoral change, new African legislators are in reality reinventing the wheel because of this deficit in instructional sustainability. This makes their ability to meet their transformational and transactional responsibilities difficult, even if the desire is there.  Even for repeat members this lack of institutional sustainability is a problem. There are a few exceptions on the Continent; but, for most of Africa this is quite rare.

A Closer Look:
Transformational vision through transactional legislation is the only means by which African democracies can thrive and move forward. African and donor nations must refocus on these two roles for sustainable democracy as an additional development area. Countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, to name a few, would not be as far behind on implementing the 2015 Millennium Development Goals if their legislatures were more transactional with the goal of transforming their nation. The last five Nigerian legislative sessions have passed very few laws (representing more than a decade); Kenya’s President may not have had his case referred to the International Criminal Court if the international community believed that the national justice system with laws legislated by the parliament were sufficient enough to independently review case.  In Ethiopia, the legislature is a rubber stamp being neither transformative nor independently transactional on behalf of the people. South Africa is ahead of most, with better transparency, institutionalization, but there also more transactional legislation is need in social sector reform, particularly since the country has the greatest wealth disparity in the world.

In some countries, African legislators receive enormous salaries.  Nigeria is a case in point, where anecdotal information suggests that members received $104-106,000 per quarter in salary and allowances.  Yes, the argument that these salaries cover running of their offices, staff salaries, and supporting (undefined) constituents. But really, if so more transparency and oversight are needed to demonstrate this? African legislators have to be just as transparent as they should want their executive branches to be.  The examples on the continent of nations that fail to have truly independent legislatures with the goal of being transformative through transactional legislation are far too many to name, and rarely do Africa’s friends place enough attention and funding on assisting African legislatures at the national, and particularly at the subnational level. Yes, there is some assistance, but small, compared to need, and cannot always targeted in the key areas mentioned above in the 7-Point Plan to African Legislative Wellness and Sustainability. In addition elements of the U.S. Congress need to be reminded of these as well.

African legislators (national and subnational) could use a checklist that looks 7-Point Plan in order to better fulfill both their transformative and transaction roles. Donor nations, as they continue to stress good governance and leadership, should expand and be more creative in their training of African legislatures, particularly looking at areas seven areas noted above.