Policy Brief 12: African Parliaments Need More Bite

African parliaments becoming more independent from presidents and executives is a prerequisite for improving the quality of democratic governance in Africa. This Policy Brief presents concrete policy actions that should be taken to improve parliament’s oversight capacity of the executive and independence from governing parties and sitting presidents.


Many African parliaments that are supposed to hold governments to account, defend the interests of ordinary people and make policy, are often impotent in the face of all-powerful presidents and executives.

A democratically elected parliament is the basic pillar of a democratic system. Parliaments are essentially the voice of citizens and the institution that holds leaders accountable on behalf of citizens (UNECA  2013). Through parliament, ordinary citizens participate in national governance.

Independent and effective parliaments, which allow for maximum participation of ordinary citizens and which hold leaders accountable are essential for democratic governance.

Many African countries now have constitutions which make provision for the separation of powers, responsibilities and accountabilities between the executive, legislatures and judiciary. Parliaments on paper can scrutinise the drafting and implementation of policies, the performance of the executive, the use of public funds and the appointments of public offices.

In reality, many African parliaments are often subservient to the president and executives. In most African countries power is centralised in the office of president and executive. This means that many African countries essentially have executive presidents.

In essence,  African parliamentary systems could best be described as what the former British Cabinet Minister Quinton Hogg called “elective dictatorships” (Kumarasingham 2013), because, in practice, parliaments are often subordinate to the president and executive.

African parliaments against African Presidents

Most African parliaments have, on paper, the power to remove the president. Equally, African presidents, on paper, do not have the power to dissolve parliaments.

African parliaments have rarely unseated undemocratic presidents. On the contrary, it is often autocratic presidents that dissolve parliaments.

In 2009, for example, Niger President Mamadou Tandja dissolved parliament after courts rejected a call for a referendum to agree to a third term, parliament, civil society and opposition parties were opposed to.

For long there has been criticism of the Nigerian parliament’s apparent lack of muscle to hold all-powerful executive presidents accountable when it comes to wasteful spending, mismanagement and corruption (Ehigiamusoe & Umar 2013).

African presidents and executives often have the power to appoint the heads of almost all constitutional, oversight and state institutions. Parliaments often only rubber-stamp such appointments.

An example is Ghana, which is one of the better-institutionalised parliaments in Africa. Ghana’s parliament’s appointments committee plays a crucial role in confirming the appointments of heads of state institutions, agencies and oversight institutions, as well as ministers and supreme court judges.

Although on paper, Ghana’s parliament’s appointments committee can reject nominations for appointments proposed by the president and the executive, this is rarely the case; because of the overbearing power of the president (Stapenhurst & Pelizzo 2012).

Africa’s party-states weakens parliaments

Most African countries are a (one) party-state, whereby the governing party takes full control of the state and becomes intertwined with the state itself (Gumede 2017). This extends to parliament also, with the governing parties often controlling parliament.

Most left-leaning African independence movements that fought colonial powers and white-minority regimes are often run along centralised lines, even more so, if they fought military campaigns, such as Mozambique’s Frelimo, Angola’s MPLA and Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF.

Similarly, opposition movements, especially those which had armed wings,  which fought post-independence governments, such as Uganda’s National Revolutionary Movement (NRM), and Eritrea’s Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), are also run along centralised lines.

In power, both these two different types of African governing parties run the party and state as if the party and the state are the same. Under these governing parties, the president (executive) and party dominate parliament. Parliament is subservient to the president (executive) and party.

Furthermore, under these movements, representatives of the party in parliament are expected to be accountable to the president and party leadership – not hold them accountable. Representatives of members of parliament, parliamentary offices, structures and committees are therefore often directly controlled by the party or the leader.

In addition, in most African countries power is personalised in the person of the president, whereby the president dominates the party, government and often also his governing party. Similarly, the president in many countries also dominates parliament. Both these practices undermine the independence of parliament in relation to the president and governing party.

Most African countries have a winner-takes-all electoral system, whereby the winner of an election, even if won by one seat, takes control of all levers of power, often appointing the heads of almost every public institution. This includes appointing the heads of all parliament offices, structures and committees.

In 2015, Ethiopia’s governing People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won all 546 parliamentary seats, in an election that was marred by the harassment of the opposition, civil society and the media. African governing parties, even if they win overwhelming electoral mandates, should also include opposition parties in governance.

Many African presidents and governing party leaders often see themselves as above the law with a separate set of laws applying for leaders than for ordinary citizens. This means that presidents and party leaders see themselves above parliament too.

Parliaments are supposed to adequately scrutinise new laws, policies and decisions. However, in the context whereby the president and executive dominate parliament, the institution cannot do so effectively. For example, Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos and his executive make most of the laws. The Angolan parliament only rubber-stamps these decisions.

African parliaments are often poorly developed institutions

Many African parliaments have poorly developed offices, structures and committees. In some cases, parliamentary committee systems are absent. Yet, parliaments must have effective committee systems, with the power to call witnesses, including ministers.

Select committees should be established to interrogate major draft policies, laws and decisions in detail. Government responses to parliamentary committee questions must be made public.

Appointments of the heads of democratic, constitutional and state institutions should be removed from African presidents and given to African parliaments.  Speakers of parliament, heads of public accounts committees and other significant offices should ideally be appointed from opposition party ranks.

In order to ensure parliament hold the executive accountable, MPs should have adequate time to question both the president and ministers and debate their proposals.

In most African parliaments, MPs from the governing party critical of the president and executive are likely to be quickly dismissed. Members of parliament should have freedom of speech to criticise the president and the executive, without fearing that they may lose their jobs or be prosecuted.

The power of parliaments to hold executives to account can also be measured in whether the parliaments have the power to scrutinise and reject national budgets drawn up by the executive. Most African parliaments do not have the power to effectively oversee national budgets. They must be empowered to do so.

The budgets of African parliaments, as institutions themselves, are mostly determined by the executive and are not independently drafted or self-determined, making such parliaments subservient to the executive. Parliamentary committees consisting of representatives from all parties could be established to oversee parliament’s own budget – which should not be vetoed by the executive.

African parliamentarians are generally poorly paid – and many seek to supplement their income by additional work outside the legislature. However, this can lead to corruption. In many African countries, presidents have “bought” parliamentarians by offering them financial inducements. It is crucial that African parliamentarians are reasonably remunerated – and their remuneration determined by agencies independent from the president and the executive.

In many cases, key parliamentary staff are appointed by the governing party. It is important that parliamentary staff is appointed on merit, to be non-partisan and professional. Staff in African parliaments are usually part of the public service. It is better for African parliaments to create a parliamentary service separate from the public service.

Parliaments must ensure rights-based societies

Human rights abuses in African countries are still all too frequent. African parliaments must oversee that governments protect fundamental human rights of citizens. Parliaments must also ensure that governments adhere to equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, religion, political affiliation or closeness to the leader.

Rights, access to opportunities and development in many African countries often depend on one’s closeness to the governing party or leader. This has been among the main reasons why marginalised groups have staged coups, joined religious fundamentalist organisations or have started their own ethnic, religious or regional-based parties – to secure access to development, opportunities and rights otherwise denied to them.

Many leaders and governing parties, rather than governing for all, draw their support from one ethnic group, religion or region. Their parliamentary representatives are often mirrored along these lines. This means that African parliaments are often also dominated, not only by one party but by MPs that are from the same ethnic group, religion or region.

As an example, criticism has been levelled at the current situation in Nigeria, where the northerners occupy the positions of president, senate president, speaker and chief justice. This means that no one from the country’s south occupies any of the key public positions. Nigerian President Muhammad Buhari comes from Katsina state in the north-west.

Nigeria has a long history of regional divisions between mainly the south and northern parts of the country. Whoever is in government must be seen to balance the interests of six regions: north-west, northeast and middle belt, the south-west, south-east and south (Niger Delta).

Most African countries are deeply patriarchal, women’s inequality lacking, and they cannot exercise their full, rightful and equal rights in societies. African parliaments in their scrutiny of laws, policies and decisions must ensure these benefit women equally.

It is crucial that African political parties introduce minimum quotas for women leaders and parliamentary representatives. Political parties should be ethnically, religiously and regionally diverse. Public funding to political parties should be conditional on this.

 Increase public participation in parliamentary processes

African parliaments must be more accessible to ordinary citizens. African parliaments should make provision for the public to make greater input into the legislative processes, which is currently not the case in many countries. Draft laws, policies and decisions must be publicly issued and citizens need to be given an opportunity to respond to these in public hearings.

They must hold regular public hearings on key issues. Such hearings must also take place in townships, rural areas and marginalised communities.

Parliaments should not be above legitimate criticism. Many African countries still have criminal and defamation laws that are used to restrict legitimate public criticism of parliament. The offence of contempt of parliament is often used to silence criticism of parliament.

In fact, the offence of contempt of parliament is often creatively interpreted to crush legitimate criticisms.  Furthermore, reporting on the proceedings of parliament are often restricted in many African countries.


African parliaments becoming more independent from presidents and executives is a prerequisite for improving the quality of democratic governance in Africa. Where parliaments fail to hold the president and executives accountable, judiciaries – the third branch of government must step up to do so.

But civil society, the independent media and democratic activists in many African countries has and are playing sterling roles in holding presidents, executives and parliaments accountable. They must continue to do so with increased vigour.

By effectively holding parliaments to account, civil society, the media and democratic activists also strengthen the capacity of parliaments to hold presidents, leaders and governments accountable.

Selected Bibliography

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (2004) Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles on the Accountability of and the Relations between the Three Branches of Government. Commonwealth Secretariat, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association and the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, London, April (http://thecommonwealth.org/sites/default/files/history-items/documents/LatimerHousePrinciples.pdf)

Economic Commission for Africa (2013) The Role of Parliament in Promoting Good Governance. UNECA, Addis Ababa

Ehigiamusoe, U. K., & Umar, A. (2013). Legislative Oversight and Budget Performance in Nigeria: Issues and Policy Options. IOSR Journal of Economics and Finance, 1(5), 01–12.

Gumede, W. (2017) Parliaments must clean up their act. African Independent, March 3

Gumede, W. (2017) William Gumede (2017) The Democracy Deficit of Africa’s Liberation Movements turned Governments. Politikon, 44 (1) (South African Journal of Political Studies), pp. 27-48


Kumarasingham, H. (2013). Exporting Executive Accountability? Westminster Legacies of Executive Power. Parliamentary Affairs, 66(3), 579–596. https://doi.org/10.1093/pa/gss008

Markham, S. (2012). Strengthening Women’s Roles in Parliaments. Parliamentary Affairs, 65(3), 688–698. https://doi.org/10.1093/pa/gss024

O’Donnell, G. (1998) “Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies”, Journal of Democracy, 9, pp. 117-119

Stapenhurst, R., & Pelizzo, R. (2012). Improving democracy and accountability in Ghana: the importance of parliamentary oversight tools. Governance, 25(2), 335–346.

Verwey, L., Lefko-Everet, K., Mohamed, A., and Zamisa, M., (2009), Parliament, the Budget and Poverty: A Shifting Perspective. Idasa, Johannesburg

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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