Unchecked Executive Powers: Lessons in Effective Government Design

How do we constrain executive power while not diluting its ability to fulfil its constitutional obligations or political mandate? Can we design better systems in Africa?

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) system is designed to improve governance through a mix of public participation, expert external reviews and high level peer pressure. The six country reports completed so far offer valuable perspectives on the patterns of African governance. This first paper grew from the oft-cited problem that African constitutions and political systems confer disproportionate power on the executive branch of government. Governance problems frequently arise because of weak or absent checks and balances on the executive. Professor Ahmed Mohiddin has been a participant in the APRM system since its inception and was part of the expert review team in several APRM countries. In his paper, he explores one of the most vital challenges in African governance today.

Instead of redesigning governance structures, many African countries adopted the laws and structures left by colonialism, which built institutions to retain control rather than limit executive power. Over time, many restraints on executive power and accountability systems have been weakened.

Professor Mohiddin argues that an effective and independent legislature and judiciary are essential as counterweights and need to be bolstered. But he believes that another key lies in the hands of Africa’s vibrant civil society institutions. Poverty, illiteracy and ignorance of the real role of government have kept ordinary people in awe of authority, and made them subservient. Properly armed with information about the obligations that governments have to their citizens, effective civil society organisations can better call the executive to account, leading to better governance and greater human rights.