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Is the executive killing independence of Africa’s parliaments?

By Bob Roberts Katende

It was Uganda’s turn last week to host a conference that brings together Commonwealth speakers and presiding officers of parliament in Africa. Over 20 speakers and officials turned up for the six-day event at Speke Resort Munyonyo. The delegates were here to share experiences with their counterparts in various countries and to implement the recommendation that would accrue from the meeting.

Uganda’s Vice President Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, who officiated at the opening ceremony, urged the delegates to consider discussing other topics like poverty which are common in Africa. He later left.

The next day business began. In the presentation of her paper: The Authority and Jurisdiction of Parliament and its relationship with other arms of government under the principle of separation of powers, Senator Gelane Zwame, the president of the Swaziland Senate, said if there is any system that was designed to compromise the principle of separation of powers and in some cases put a kibosh on the legislatures oversight authority over the executive, the Westminster parliament model is such.

She gave reasons to support her argument. “The executive is an integral part of the legislature in that members of the executive are drawn from parliament.  This means, there is first integration then differentiation. But never separation, she adds. Amusaa Mwanamwambwa, speaker of Zambia’s national assembly, said that in Africa, the executive continues to be more powerful than any other arm of government. For example, in West Africa, there is a president who tried twice to change the constitution and rule for another term. When that failed, he dissolved parliament and organised a referendum that scrapped the term limits.

In my own case, Amusaa says, “I almost lost my job when I refused to yield to the pressures of the then president (Chiluba) to amend the constitution to lift term limits,” Unlike Amusaa who weathered the storm, his Ugandan counterpart Edward Ssekandi and his fellow members of the 7th parliament succumbed. They were too weak to resist the pressure from the executive to remove the term limits to allow President Museveni rule in perpetuity.

Rebecca Kadaga seized question time to save the face of her parliament.  She said, “In Uganda it cannot happen. The president has no powers to dissolve parliament.” But she was silent on whether he has the powers to bribe it.     Â

Discussing the topic: “The dilemma of a speaker retaining constituency seat on being elected,” Amusaa Mwanamwambwa urged individual countries to use what works for them. “There is no such a thing as a perfect model to suit all. In countries like Australia and the USA, the Speaker of the House is in a position of leadership in the majority party, just like in many countries, and actively works to set that party’s legislative agenda,” he argued.Â

This begs questions; how can a speaker be impartial, how can a position holder distinguish between their political allegiance and the importance of observing the principles of the impartiality of a speaker in handling the agenda of the House which puts national interests first before their political party considerations? For example in Uganda’s case, Speaker Ssekandi is the leader of the business committee in parliament, is member of the ruling party. “This is a myth,” Nomaindia Mfekethu, South Africa’s Deputy Speaker remarked. “There is nobody who is neutral- not even judges.” All we need to do, she says, is to understand that we preside over a House not by our choice but the people’s [wish]. “We need to treat all (members) with respect.Â

To put to rest the paradox of speakers’ neutrality, there have been suggestions to have him or her relinquish both his membership to the party and representation of a constituency to concentrate on the demanding role of a speaker.

If this is not done, and the speaker continues to hobnob with the executive to ensure that his constituents’ needs are addressed, such practices, Amusaa argues, are likely to make the speaker develop “close relationship with the treasury and the executive to provide the necessary resources thus compromising his/her relationship with executive in terms of the implementation of the principle of separation of powers.”

In Zambia, Amusaa said, the speaker doesn’t attend caucus meetings nor welcome the president from official visits. The same happens in Uganda. “This is meant to insulate us from manipulations from government,” Kadaga says. Though this may be the case in either way, politicians are asking whether they are the only ways of compromising speakers.

Amusaa said that to avoid compromising the speaker, in Zambia “the speaker is elected from outside a constituency to avoid tying the speaker to any specific local interests, because his or her interests should be the interests of the House and the nation at large.”Â

Kadaga and Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi said an MP should relinquish her duties as a representative of his or her constituency after being voted speaker of the House.

So is it possible to have separation of powers when we have partisan politics? Asked Seychelles Speaker Dr Patrick Herminie.

“Yes, we can,” said Ntlhoi Motsamai, Lesotho speaker. “It is (incumbent upon) us to fight for the independence (of parliament) and power.” Amusaa said most parliaments in Africa are not independent. “You cannot strengthen others if you are not strong yourself.”Â

On a recent visit to Ghana, US President Barack Obama said, “Africa doesn’t need strong men, but strong institutions.”  How can strong institutions come about if its individuals are weak?

In discussing the Role of Parliament in enhancing sustaining democratic electoral systems in Africa, Nigeria’s speaker for the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, said the role of parliament is crucial in the development and consolidation of democracy anywhere in the world. “Parliament is a major democratic institution where elected representatives of the people come together to promote democracy by representing the views of their constituencies as well as hold governments accountable to the electorate,” he said.

Dimeji cited some of the obstacles to democratic systems in Africa and building of strong institutions as corruption and the incumbency factor, where the ruling elite abuse the country’s security apparatuses to suppress or outdo their opponents.

Nigeria’s experience fits well in Uganda’s case.  One of the critical impediments to free and fair elections in Uganda, as courts have held, has been a partisan  electoral umpire. Just as the referee is the most important official in a game and determines the tempo and nature of the game, Dimeji said the electoral umpire [electoral commission]  is the most critical factor in any electoral process.

He said Nigeria’s failure to organise free and fair elections is because the federal electoral commissions were compromised as a result of weak political will on the part of the national electoral commission chairman to do what is right. Also because of the dependency of the electoral commission on the executive for funding and the electoral commission’s chairman being appointed by the president.

Last week’s speakers’ conference coincided with the reappointment of Uganda’s Electoral Commission executive for another seven-year term despite persistent calls by the opposition and the civil society to review the appointment of the chairman and composition of the EC executive.

In South Africa, Nomaindia Mfekethu said it is done differently. “We call for applications from the public and establish a multiparty committee that vets the applicants and shortlists successful ones whom they forward to the president to choose from.”  It is incumbent on the chairman to form his cabinet from the rest of the nominees,” she added.

In regard to the composition of the electoral commission,  Ekwee Ethuro from Kenya said it should be a representative of all political parties taking part in the election. Failure to do that, he says, “It becomes the bedrock of electoral malpractice as the incumbent seeks refuge in the commissioners once they sense that they are bound to lose the election.”Â

Probably one of the most interesting topics of discussion was: Resolving post election violence through coalition government in Africa: A case for African parliaments to consider home grown democracy for peace. Speakers were roundly opposed to the move to adopt coalition governments in Africa as a way of solving political crises.

The Deputy speaker of Namibia, Doreen Nampiye said: “Smallest political parties create chaos with the view that if government is willing to work with us, then the chaos would stop.”  She added that if this is allowed to go on, “we shall be giving room for political opportunists.” Â

But what happens if there is no ultimate winner in the election? I think it works for particular people, said Mfekethu, but It should reflect the will of the people and not individual politicians.

“We should create strong institutions that administer elections like the judiciary such that people have trust in them and this will make results uncontestable,” Samuel John Sitta, speaker of Tanzanian Parliament, advised.

Cameroon speaker Cavaye Yeguire, gave good advice. “Let us not look at such occasions or gatherings as opportunities to travel but to learn. In my country, every Wednesday, the leader of delegation to any international event presents a report to the House and discusses what they learnt.”

It is hoped that Uganda listened and learnt something from hosting the event. And that the scramble to attend events of this kind will shift from the attention at how much per diem and other allowances will be given but to search for knowledge to improve government performance.

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