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Can parliaments enhance the quality of democracy on the African continent?
An analysis of institutional capacity and public perceptions1

CSSR Working Paper No. 160

Lia Nijzink, Shaheen Mozaffar, Elisabete Azevedo

Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR)
University of Cape Town

May 2006

SARPN acknowledges UCT's Centre for Social Science Research as a source of this document:
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While modern parliaments in Africa receive little attention in the scholarly literature, they are receiving considerable attention from the international donor community. Since the early 1990s, when many African countries resumed multi-party elections and democratic practices, legislative strengthening programmes have become an important part of international democracy assistance. Despite these programmes, our knowledge about Africa’s current parliaments remains limited. They seem to be widely regarded as potential agents for democratic change but whether national legislatures are in fact enhancing the quality of democracy on the African continent is far from clear. This paper discusses two important issues that lie at the heart of the democracy enhancing potential of Africa’s current parliaments: their institutional capacity and the way they are perceived by the citizens they represent. After a brief review of the existing literature on legislatures in Africa, the paper first considers whether parliaments have the institutional capacity to fulfill a meaningful role and then provides a detailed description of the autonomy of parliaments in 16 selected countries. The paper subsequently turns to the way Africans perceive and evaluate their parliaments. Do citizens see their legislatures as valuable institutions? Finally, we discuss the implications of our findings for the prospects of African parliaments becoming agents of democratic change.

What do we know about legislatures in Africa?

Africa’s legislatures are largely absent from the comparative body of literature about parliaments and their members. And although some parliaments in Africa have been described as ‘emerging institutions of horizontal accountability’, the growing literature on democratisation pays little attention to the representative bodies of Africa’s current political regimes.2 Most of the existing studies date from three or four decades ago and paint a bleak picture of powerless parliaments in Africa’s newly independent states. More recent contributions to the literature have only just begun to identify important variations in the strength of Africa’s current legislatures.

The scholarly literature on parliaments in Africa mostly dates back to the early years of independence and has its substantive focus on assessing the strength of the then newly established parliaments. This first generation of studies, comprising mostly case studies and contributions comparing a small number of cases,3 examined the impact of several key variables, such as colonial legacies, the appointment and dismissal powers of governing parties, executive control of state resources and role perceptions of legislators. They uniformly concluded that these factors contributed to the institutional weakness of the new legislatures vis-а-vis strong executives as well as to their limited role in policyand law-making.4 Other early studies that examined African legislatures in a broader cross-national comparative framework also emphasised their institutional and policy-making weaknesses, but stressed their roles in legitimising government policies, recruiting and socialising new elites, and mobilising public support for political regimes (Mezey 1970).

With the post-independence emergence of authoritarian regimes throughout the African continent, scholarly interest in African legislatures ebbed away. There are, however, a few studies of national legislatures in the context of a single party state (see for example Kjekshus 1974). Barkan showed that, even within the constraints of a single-party regime, the Kenyan legislature played an important role in the development of a largely agrarian society by linking widely dispersed local constituencies to the state. Barkan’s study is an important contribution to the literature because of its relevance to other African countries many of which still are predominantly, if not exclusively, agrarian societies (Barkan 1979).

More recently, the resurgence of democracy on the continent has renewed scholarly interest in Africa’s parliaments. Like the first generation of studies conducted soon after independence, the recent studies typically focus on single countries and routinely point to the institutional weakness and limited decisionmaking role of legislatures in Africa (Thomas and Sissokho 2005; Burnell 2002; Burnell 2003). In an innovative departure from previous approaches, Mattes and Chiwandamira surveyed not only members of and organisations working closely with the Zambian parliament but also members of the Zambian public. They found a ‘yawning chasm’ between citizens’ views of MPs and how MPs see themselves. The public opinion survey highlighted a widespread popular perception of the Zambian parliament as an unresponsive and opaque institution, while MPs reported that they spend most of their time listening to people’s problems and dealing with constituency matters (Mattes and Chiwandamira 2004: ii).

In another path-breaking study, Barkan, Ademolekun and Zhou (2004: 252) recently conducted the first systematic comparison of strengths and weaknesses of four African legislatures. Based on interviews with MPs and people working in or closely with parliament, they conclude that although legislatures in Africa are often labeled as weak, there are important cross-national variations. The study found that ‘the authority of the legislature ranged from being very weak in Senegal, to moderately strong in Kenya with Benin and Ghana falling somewhere in between’ and hypothesises about three sets of variables that might explain this variation: contextual variables relating to the structure of society, variables relating to constitutional provisions and formal rules and variables relating to the internal structure of the legislature and the resources available to members.5

Finally, there is a small but growing literature on the South African parliament pointing to the limited success of the National Assembly in terms of oversight and the problems it is encountering in terms of representation and building links with the people (Nijzink 2001; Murray and Nijzink 2003; Harvey 2002; Nijzink and Piombo 2005; Habib and Herzenberg 2005; Barkan 2005). This literature also points to the fact that the South African parliament might, in a number of ways, be different from other African legislatures.

Overall, the existing studies of African legislatures present us with, at best, sketchy evidence on the relative strength or importance of Africa’s parliaments in terms of law- and policy-making, oversight and representation or any other functions they might perform. Although these studies offer insights into the structure and operation of certain parliaments, most fail to take a cross-national comparative approach and find that African legislatures are weak and ineffective without offering criteria for conceptualising and measuring legislative strength and effectiveness. In other words, the virtually uniform finding that African legislatures are weak is premised on the notion of a strong legislature, yet, the literature offers little criteria for either conceptualising or measuring legislative strength in a way that enables cross-national comparison.

This problem is not only evident in the first generation of studies conducted immediately after independence, but also plagues some of the more recent studies. The study by Mattes and Chiwandamira (2004), however, while focused on Zambia, offers a research design that can be fruitfully applied in a comparative study of other African legislatures. It points us to the importance of public opinion; an issue we will discuss later in this paper. The four-country study by Barkan et al. (2004) also offers a useful framework for further crossnational comparison. It suggests a number of variables, mostly related to institutional capacity, that seem to influence the potential of parliaments to enhance the quality of democracy on the African continent.

  1. The authors would like to thank Professor Joel Barkan for his constructive comments on an earlier version of this paper; Professor Christina Murray for her input during two half-day workshops on ‘Executive-Legislative Relations and Coding African Constitutions’ organised by the African Legislatures Project; Mr. Glen Mpani and Ms. Colleen Mallahan for their input during the course of researching and writing this paper; and Chris Laurie for his technical assistance. Mozaffar would like to thank the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Research and the Center for Legislative Studies at Bridgewater State College for their financial support.

  2. Although the number of studies of legislatures in emerging democracies is growing, the literature is still dominated by analyses of parliaments and parliamentarians in the established democracies of Western Europe and the U.S. Gamm and Huber (2004) report that 85 percent of the articles published about legislatures in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science and the Journal of Politics between 1993 and 2001 dealt with the American experience. The American specialised journal Legislative Studies Quarterly (LSQ) shows a similar focus on American legislative politics. Less than 25 percent of the articles in Legislative Studies Quarterly between 1995 and 2002 dealt with the legislative experience outside the US. The British Journal of Legislative Studies (JLS), on the other hand, devotes most of its space to parliaments outside the U.S. However, African legislatures are absent from both the LSQ and the JLS. The LSQ has published no articles about African legislatures, while the JLS has only published one article on an African legislature by P. Burnell in 2002. Since the early 1990s, when a wave of liberalisation and democratisation started to change the political landscape on the African continent, many African countries resumed multi-party elections and democratic practices but even the growing body of literature on the so called ‘third wave of democratisation’ has paid little attention to legislatures. World Politics, one of the important journals in comparative politics, has published no articles on legislatures since 1992. Nor has the Journal of Democracy published any articles (since mid-1993) in which the legislature or the legislative process is the primary focus of discussion. See Gamm and Huber (2004).

  3. Loewenberg and Patterson (1979: 337) included the case of Kenya in their seminal work Comparing Legislatures. Their discussion of the Kenyan case was mostly based on the data gathered by Barkan, whose work is discussed elsewhere in this paper. Le Vine (1979) presents a comparative analysis of the development of parliaments in 14 francophone African countries in the period from independence until 1975 and concludes that parliaments in the former French colonies do not play an important role in policy-making. Instead, their main contribution has been in the area of nation building. Stultz (1968), looking at 12 ‘Parliaments in Former British Black Africa’ also points to a limited decision making role and identifies a number of structural and performance characteristics which parliaments in the former British colonies seem to share.

  4. Hakes and Helgerson (1973) looking at the first parliaments of Zambia and Kenya, explain how the executive’s control of state resources and powers to appoint and dismiss members are used as currency in a bargaining process, thus compromising the role of individual MPs. Stultz (1970) in his case study of the first Kenyan parliament, also emphasises the importance of executive-legislative relations and the partisan context in which parliament operates, as well as its function of legitimisation. Stultz concludes that the decisional function of the Kenyan parliament is relatively unimportant and that MPs are lacking a sense of meaningful participation in decision making. Hopkins’ (1970) study of Tanzanian MPs similarly reveals that in Tanzania’s first parliament the party exerts an influence which renders MPs ineffective: ‘the role of the MP in the actual legislature is quite minor’. According to Hopkins, Tanzanian MPs are generally supportive of cabinet ministers because anything to the contrary compromises one’s chances of being appointed to positions of influence.

  5. Another recently published comparative study describes the level of representation of women in Sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 1999, see Yoon (2001).

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