It took a stern intervention from African Union (AU) Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. But eventually the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) in Midrand, South Africa, managed to elect its president and four vice presidents this week – one year late.
A year ago the attempted elections collapsed in farcical chaos, verbal abuse and even violence. The Southern African region had insisted that the general AU principle of rotation among the continent’s five regions should be applied to the PAP.
Southern African MPs prevented elections that would probably have elected a Malian candidate from going ahead. They said West Africa had already held the presidency, as had Central Africa (twice) and East Africa. So it was now the turn of the South and the North.
The South put up a candidate, Zimbabwean Chief Fortune Charumbira – a traditional chief and senator nominated to the Zimbabwean Parliament by the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front government. The others would have none of this, saying no AU rotational principle could be forced on the PAP, which was an autonomous body that had never adopted this principle itself.
Faki meanwhile ordered his legal advisers to investigate the issue. They advised that the rotational principle be applied. This was endorsed by the AU’s executive council and its Assembly of heads of state, Faki said at the PAP this week.
South Sudan’s government claimed this decision had never been endorsed by the AU and insisted on the legitimate candidacy of its MP, the former child soldier Albino Aboug.
A year ago the attempted PAP elections collapsed in farcical chaos, verbal abuse and even violence
‘The unbearable scenes projected on TV and social media, which were seen by Africans, belittled the Parliament. It was a disgrace for the continent,’ he lectured from the podium.
Thus suitably chastened, the PAP adopted the principle of rotation, South Sudan stood down and Charumbira was duly elected unopposed, with 203 votes for, 161 against, 31 abstentions and 11 spoilt ballots. He declared: ‘I am a president for all of you, despite how you voted,’ and urged MPs to put aside linguistic and other divisions and conflicts.
The unseemly 2021 non-elections merely served to reinforce the widespread perception that without any real purpose, the PAP had simply degenerated into an arena of contestation over positions, per diems and patronage rather than programmes and principles. The non-elections had already been preceded by a hiatus of almost a year when the previous president resigned under a cloud of corruption.
The PAP was launched in 2004 as part of a panoply of pan-African institutions of the newborn AU. It was conceived by the AU’s founding fathers (mainly South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika) as an august body that would help Africa’s people hold their leaders to account and eventually attain legislative and not just consultative and advisory powers.
It is almost impossible to imagine AU member states conceding any real powers to continental legislators
In any case it is almost impossible to imagine AU member states conceding any real powers to continental legislators. Most leaders, arguably, don’t concede such power even to their own legislatures.
Which, as Institute for Security Studies (ISS) senior researcher Liesl Louw-Vaudran points out, lies at the heart of the problem. How do you get a legitimate Parliament continentally, when democracy is so weak in many countries? How can one really believe in a supposedly democratic institution that will now be headed by someone appointed by his government, not elected? And in a country not well known for the legitimacy of its elections anyway?
Charumbira will have to rise well above his national limitations if he is going to make an impact.
Louw-Vaudran nonetheless believes that the PAP, even without such far-off legislative powers, could still serve a useful purpose by functioning as an oversight body, mainly holding the institutions of the AU to greater account. She finds it telling that it took Faki to come to Midrand this week to tell the PAP how to conduct its elections.
That was a reversal of the proper roles, she noted, as the AU Commission – after all merely the bureaucracy of the AU – should be taking advice from the PAP. But because of the undignified spectacle of its elections last year, Faki’s adult supervision was unfortunately necessary.
African governments no doubt see little benefit in a strong PAP which would hold them to better account
It has in the past scrutinised AU budgets, but this role should be strengthened and given institutional status, one should add.
The East African (EA) Legislative Assembly – the continent’s most successful multilateral legislature – monitors the East African Community’s (EAC) economic functions. Ideally the PAP should play a similar role over the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, say – though this would require great technical skills.
The EA Legislative Assembly, incidentally, is directly elected by voters of the EAC constituent countries. Whatever its powers, the PAP would surely benefit from similar direct elections, versus the present indirect elections through national parliaments, which appear to have diminished opposition representation over the years.
As Louw-Vaudran notes, African governments no doubt see little benefit in a strong PAP which would hold them to better account. It must surely then be Africa’s citizens – particularly its national legislators – who bear the responsibility to shape the PAP into something worthwhile. Though in its usual rumbustious way, the MPs of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters have played some of that role in the PAP by questioning its purpose.
She also notes that at their summit in Lilongwe last August, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders resolved to transform the existing SADC Parliamentary Forum into a Parliament, albeit as ‘a consultative and a deliberative body.’
If the PAP is anything to go by, that would be a terrible idea. At the very least, SADC should be embarking on a region-wide campaign to seek the advice of its citizens on whether this would be a good idea; and if so, what would be necessary to make it work.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria