TCS Daily

The Dubious Debut of Africa's Parliament

By Richard Tren - October 11, 2004 12:00 AM

The African Union's Pan African Parliament (PAP) has just completed its first session in Johannesburg. The PAP actually closed early because it didn't have any budget to pay translators. This led to demands for financing from the private sector. The shortage of funds may actually have been a blessing in disguise as the sooner we get away from this idea that endless talk among a few political elites will create development, the better: The African Union may have grand ideas of becoming something like the European Union, but it has a long way to go and some fundamental problems to fix first.

The PAP's speaker and president, Tanzania's Gertrude Mongella suggested that a special levy be placed on the mining and airline industries to pay for her parliament. According to Mongella, it was "high time" that the rich made a contribution to development and she insisted that "development means sacrifice." Her statements reflect the fundamental problem in the way that Africa's elite view development and, unfortunately, the African Union and PAP look set to maintain Africa's status quo of poverty and strife.

The members of the PAP are not voted in by the electorate in any of Africa's 53 nations; rather they are appointed by the sitting governments. The PAP doesn't have any legislative powers but seeks to act as a forum of consultation in order to bring Africa's nations closer together - a talk shop in any other language. The PAP is paid for out of taxes, mostly from South Africa's heavily taxed citizens, me being one of them.

Even the most optimistic commentator would have to concede that Africa is a strife torn continent. Perhaps attempting to solve some of these conflicts through the PAP is a good idea and there is no doubt that if conflict were reduced, the continent would stand a better chance of actually developing and turning around the slow decline that has been a feature of so many of countries. If fewer countries were at war with each other and themselves, more goods could be traded and people would able to travel more freely.

However the chances of any real conflict being resolved are limited by the structure of the PAP. Much of Africa's conflict is civil and given the fact that the parliamentarians are appointed, not elected, means that the incumbent regimes are hardly likely to criticise themselves at the PAP or show any actual commitment to stopping war.

Two urgent conflicts that the PAP could address are the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan and the ongoing brutalisation of Zimbabwe. On Sudan, the PAP voted to send a mission to the country to investigate the atrocities in Darfur. Perhaps this is a good start, but whether it helps bring peace is anybody's guess. I steeled myself to watch some of the PAP proceedings on TV and found the Sudanese representative condemning in the strongest possible terms the foreign interventions to help the unfortunate refugees in Darfur. I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, as the Sudanese government is widely recognised as a major sponsor of the ghastly goings on in the region. Foreign troops attempting to protect innocent civilians might actually hinder Sudan's government in completing its grisly and murderous task.

The closest that the PAP seemed to come to helping resolve the conflict in Zimbabwe was when some protestors stood outside the building chanting "we need food not violence" and "democracy now." Zimbabwe was not even on the PAP agenda and Mongella says that, as the country's problems are "raised more outside the continent than within," it isn't one of her priorities. Only a handful of Africa's leaders has actually criticised President Mugabe's destruction of democracy and reign of violence and systematic torture. Given that free speech is not widely guaranteed in Africa, it is hardly a surprise that most criticism of Zimbabwe only happens outside the continent.

Despite its apparent limitations in stopping conflict and its budgetary problems, the PAP is here to stay. If, as Gertrude Mongella suggested, the PAP intends to promote development, there are some useful things that it could do. The PAP would be off to a good start if it were to recognise the importance of reduced government and free, open market economies to development. Several countries in Africa, such as Mozambique, are firmly committed to increasing economic freedom and are taking basic, but crucial steps in the right direction, such as improving the security of property rights.

Yet the PAP's inadequate approach to Sudan and Zimbabwe and Mongella's assertion that "development means sacrifice" do not augur well for the continent. Mongella seeks to tax industries that are currently employing people and creating wealth so that she and her parliamentarians can continue to talk in grand style in Johannesburg. It may not have occurred to Mongella, but there are countless Swiss bank accounts that have been filled by Africa's ruling elite over the decades that could be sacrificed without scaring off already wary investors.

Increasing economic freedom means decreasing bureaucratic control and scrapping the rules and regulations that give discretionary powers to unelected and unaccountable officials. The African Union and the PAP need to understand and promote these basic conditions of growth and development. Then perhaps they might have some authority and may actually say something worth listening to.


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