Image: Flickr, retnev
Image: Flickr, retnev

Over the past few days, elections were held to the European Union's (EU) transnational European Parliament (EP) - an institution largely unknown in Africa.

Does it have anything to teach Africa about its own continental parliamentary project – the Pan-African Parliament (PAP)? The EU is frequently seen as the inspiration for the African Union (AU), as a model of successful transnational integration and governance – supposedly an exemplar of cooperation breeding prosperity and shedding nationalist baggage. Indeed, some would suggest that the EU prefigures Africa’s future, and the prospect of a European superstate, an envisaged “United States of Africa”. The EP itself excites limited enthusiasm in Europe (in 2004, only 45% of voters turned out to elect its members), but it draws on a more mature democratic consensus. Democracy in Europe should not be romanticised: it has flaws and many of the EU’s members have had recent experiences of dictatorship. But a consensus on the importance of a properly functioning democratic framework exists – and over the years, new members emerging from authoritarian pasts were integrated into this consensus. In Africa, such a consensus has yet to be forged.

The AU’s PAP, established in terms of the Abuja Treaty and Sirte Declaration, has been operating since March 2004. It does not have legislative powers and shares the political weakness common to Africa’s national legislatures. Generally, African parliaments are dominated by their countries’ executives. Legislation is often passed through them, rather than by them. They are under-equipped and lack oversight and legislative capabilities. This is a common theme of political writing on Africa, and comes out strongly in all the published reports of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).

Currently, the PAP is only able to exercise consultative and oversight functions, similar to the EP in its early years. Its ultimate aim is “to evolve into an institution with full legislative powers, whose members are elected by universal adult suffrage.” However, little has been done to make the transition from a consultative body into a law-making one. It is also unclear whether the AU’s member states will allow the PAP to interfere in their domestic affairs. Although “time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty has passed” (to quote Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former United Nations’ Secretary General) and African states are willing to tolerate a degree of intervention (for example, through such initiatives as the APRM), agreeing to accept legislation passed by a supranational body seems unlikely. The EU has achieved considerable supranational power, in large measure because there is a general consensus on core values and a desire for cooperation, but not without enormous (possibly justified) controversy.

The first five years of PAP have revealed two key issues: membership and funding.  Currently, its members are elected by the parliaments of the AU’s member states, with five MPs representing each country. This means that instead of direct representation of the people of Africa, the PAP consists of representatives’ representatives, in contrast to the EP’s direct suffrage.  Although another goal of the PAP is to implement such direct representation, is it feasible? . Coordinating  elections in 53 countries  would be a very expensive and complicated exercise, given that Africa already holds about 20 national elections every year. 

The AU halved the PAP’s budget recently, preventing it fielding an observer mission to South Africa’s April 2009  elections. The bulk of funding currently comes from South Africa – which is also expected to spend an estimated R770 million on its new headquarters. A familiar pattern of dues in arrears is evident.

Moreover, many of PAP’s officeholders come from states with dubious governance records. The newly elected President of PAP is from Chad – a country ranked as 165th (out of 167), a mere two places above North Korea in the Economist’s 2007 Democracy Index. It scored zero for electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government and political participation. One of the institution’s vice-presidents is a Zanu-PF MP from Zimbabwe.

The parliaments from which PAP draws its members are bodies elected with varying degrees of credibility. While few African elections are without controversy, there is a wide gulf between elections in South Africa (where all parties accepted the outcome), in Djibouti (where the opposition boycotted in protest against the electoral system), in Swaziland (where parties are banned), and Equatorial Guinea (whose elections are widely condemned as fraudulent). PAP accepts parliamentarians elected in terms of what is acceptable in their own states, although there is little weight given to the quality of these elections. Indeed, the very concepts of democracy and multi-partyism (presumably axiomatic to modern democracies) have been questioned by some PAP representatives. Dispute over such fundamental questions is not a feature of the EP, but is a baleful threat to the viability of the PAP

On the positive side, the PAP provides an arena for African parliamentarians (including those from oppositions groups – a rare occurrence) to discuss common problems. It has sent fact-finding missions to Darfur and observed African elections. In the latter respect, it has taken at least one stronger stand than other bodies: it issued a fairly strong report on the presidential election in Zimbabwe, which detailed electoral abuses, and indicated that they were perpetrated mostly by the ruling Zanu-PF.

Can PAP’s flaws be remedied? Possibly, but with great difficulty. The PAP might more immediately be refocused on specific issues crucial for the continent’s development. The re-organisation could envision that only those African countries committed to good governance and democracy would join PAP and in time accept its decisions as binding. Initially, its competences would be limited, and they would always be carefully regulated by governance standards.

Making PAP work will a long-term process, possibly a multi-generational one. There is nothing shameful about this. Its European counterpart also has a great deal of work to do. The process should recognise that building democracy in Africa is a difficult and tedious process, but one worth doing properly.

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