06/13/2014 06:55 pm ET

African Legislatures in African Democracies: The Need to Be Both Transformative and Transactional

A FEEEDS blogspot

Discussions about African democracies have generally focus on good governance, leadership, and transparency of the executive branches, with less attention on the pivotal role that legislatures (particularly at the subnational level) have to play in further advancing the continent's democratic processes today. So how can African legislatures enhanced good governance, improve social sectors, fight corruption, and address quality of life issues for many of the continent's evolving democracies?

Today's Africa and Its Legislatures

Africa has an upward spiraling population of 1.2 billion people, which reportedly will reach 2.4 billion by 2050. Of the 54 countries on the Continent, 26 have bicameral systems, 30 have unicameral, with South Sudan being one of the newest, and Kenya transitioning from a unicameral to bicameral legislature as part of its 2010 Constitutional changes. Tanzania, on the other hand, has a lot of executive power embedded in its legislature since the president appoints the chief executive of its National Assembly.

That being said, for the continent to move ahead, African legislatures must become truly transparent, and play a more significant role in the future of their nations, in some ways, even more so than their executive branches.

There are two things they have to be: "transformational," and "transactional," innovators to address good governance (political/economic areas), social sector issues, fight corruption, and also be avid, committed gatekeepers of those reforms.

Meaning they must have transformational, visionary ideas on these issues, while simultaneously transforming the social and economic agendas of their nations and putting or transacting these democratic ideas into legislation or constitutional changes. Recognizing that these two words -- transformational and transactional -- are not always used to explain the role of African legislatures, here are ways to think about them in this context:

The Transformational Ledger:

African legislatures must become the voice of the people, not the voice of the political so they need to:

--Interact regularly with their constituents;

--Seek to change the political, social and economic paradigms in their countries;

--Hold members of their executive branches accountable;

--Address wealth disparities of their nations. For example, the greatest wealth inequalities in the world are in Africa, and Asia, with South Africa and Namibia leading the way in the Africa region with this sad statistic;

-- Be independent and not an arm of their executive branch leader;

Transactional Ledger:

Legislation is a transaction, a social contract, and a commitment to protect and serve the people. Therefore to fulfill the social contract, African Legislators need to draft: rights-based constitutions; economic, labor and political party reform; anti-corruption laws, and appropriate budgets sufficient to support and expand health and educational services as part of their social contract with their nationals

Without these two synergistic roles of transformation and transaction (legislation), good governance, sustainable development, equality, and improved quality of life will continue to be elusive too many of Africa's people.

In general, legislatures today, struggle to not only draft but advance key pieces of legislation which truly change the social and economic paradigms of their countries. That being said, in less developed democracies, whether they are in African or elsewhere, this is far more problematic as the safety valves for people are insufficient and sustainable institutions are rare.

In Sub-Saharan Africa this is more the case because of the failure to address what this article is calling the Six Point Plan to Address African Legislative Wellness and Sustainability.

Here are the six areas where African Legislatures need to step up:

1.) Establish sustainable legislative institutions; as they are uncommon;
2.) Established fixed professional legislative and committee staffs that remain in place to provide institutional continuity;
3.) Establish independent research or budget offices (i.e. that perform roles similar to the U.S. congressional research or budget offices), which provide African Legislatures with the support they need to draft visionary laws on political, social and economic issues;
4.) Establish an institution for record keeping of past legislation, historical documents, etc., similar to a library of congress;
5.) Establish constituent offices; rarely do members have these mostly because of insufficient resources or lack of political will;
6.) Expand constituent outreach; rarely is this done now outside of elections years.

This last point is for donors as few provide assistance for educational training to change the culture of African Legislatures to one of institutional sustainability over personal political gain. And, fewer focus on subnational legislatures.

Institutional Challenges:

It is more common that when Africa legislative changes do take place a large part of the structure becomes dysfunctional since most staff is linked to politicians, leaving no institutional sustainability to provide best practices or institutional memory as to what has gone on before. In many cases each time there is an electoral change, new African legislators are reinventing the wheel because of this deficit in institutional sustainability, making both their transformational and transactional responsibilities difficult, even if the desire is there.

A Closer Look:

Transformational vision through transactional legislation is the only way African democracies can thrive. Countries like Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, to name a few, would not be as far behind on the 2015 Millennium Development Goals if their legislatures were more transformative in vision and transactional in legislative execution. The last five Nigerian legislative sessions (representing a decade) have passed very few laws ; Kenya's President may not have had his case referred to the International Criminal Court if the world community believed its national justice system was sufficiently independent to review the case. In Ethiopia, the legislature is a rubber stamp. South Africa is ahead of most, with better transparency, but more transactional legislation is need in social sector reform, particularly since the country has one of the greatest wealth disparities in the world.

In the end, both African legislators and donors need to focus on the areas in Six Point Plan to African Legislative Wellness and Sustainability, noted above in order to become truly independent, effective, and as transparent as they should want their executive branches to be. By way of commentary, the U.S. Congress needs to be reminded of these Six Points as well.