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Fistfights in African Parliament expose fault lines in continent’s quest for unity

July 07, 2021
tags:#Pan African Parliament, #Africa, #African Union, #elections
located:South Africa, Ethiopia
by:Cyril Zenda
The sitting of the Pan African Parliament (PAP) was suspended indefinitely in early June after its 235 members violently disagreed over the procedure for electing its president and other office bearers.

The source of friction was the demand by member countries from the Southern and Northern regions of the continent that these leadership posts rotate among Africa’s five geographical regions. 

Although this requirement is entrenched in the broader African Union (AU) system, it has not been formally incorporated into the parliament’s rules of procedure.

When the numerically superior members from the West African and East African regions, who have held the parliament’s four-year presidency in the past, insisted on fielding candidates again, the response of the Southern and Northern regions was to physically stop the voting while chanting “No Rotation, No Election” slogans. 

This violent bickering, which even degenerated into a physical fight, went on for three straight days, prompting the parliament’s clerk, Vipya Harawa, to indefinitely suspend this fourth ordinary session of the PAP fifth parliament. The PAP presidency is a posh post with plenty of perks and other featherbeddings. 

PAP Chaos Was Avoidable

Former PAP clerk Zwelethu Madasa said that the violent disagreements could have been avoided. “The chaos we saw at PAP over rotation and elections was preventable,” he stated. “The Southern caucus should have done diligent preparations before attending the session. As host of PAP, the Southern region should have been exemplary in following the rule of law and worked to have the rotation inserted into the PAP rules of procedure.” 

The PAP has its seat in Midrand, South Africa.

Disunity On Display

Disagreements are not uncommon, but it is the manner in which African leaders had disagreed that raised questions about the true contribution of the body to a culture of democracy in the continent.

The PAP was set up to “cultivate human rights and democracy in Africa and ensure good governance, transparency and accountability,” among other noble goals. But 17 years after its establishment, analysts say that the body - commonly known as the African Parliament - has turned out to be a platform showcasing how difficult it is for African leaders to work together. 

“The behaviour of PAP parliamentarians reflects Africa’s crisis of leadership and governance,” noted Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies (ISS). 

“The debate about the institution’s utility and whether it should be maintained also exposes fault lines that precede the Organisation of African Unity’s formation. Some favour a gradualist approach to creating effective African institutions; others want more steps to achieving African unity,” Louw-Vaudran added.

A Graveyard Of Good Intent?

The formation of the African Parliament in 2004 was part of a grand plan promoted by some of Africa’s then-leaders, including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, to unite the 55-nation continent.

These leaders envisaged that the AU would spearhead the formation of a single government, with the parliament serving as its legislative arm. However it appears like the body is facing an extension of the same divisions that exist between the various regional blocs of the AU itself, divisions that have made it difficult for the 58-year-old continental bloc to function as effectively as the European Union and other blocs that the African continent has sought to emulate.

False Solidarity?

Professor Lesiba Teefu, a political analyst attached to the University of South Africa argues that the ideals behind this type of body have not been realised. “Instead we have regional blocs working for self interests instead of working together,” Teefu said in an interview for IOL. “The Pan-African Parliament represents a costly and worthless talkshop. We are more divided as a continent than we ever have been - that’s the reality. We parade this false solidarity in the face of great injustice. We have ‘sit tight presidents’ and ’presidents for life’. We don’t criticise each other. We have been experimenting with liberation for almost 60 years now and we are no closer to unity,” she added.

An Unwanted Baby?

The PAP is, to a certain extent, AU’s unwanted baby, having been conceived without the full consent of most African governments to whom accountability is still anathema. 

Whenever African leaders have gathered for their regular summits thus far, they have pointedly ignored it out of existence. 

This attitude is shown by the fact that only 11 of the AU’s 54 member states have ratified a 2014 agreement - known as the Malabo protocol - to give the parliament legislative powers. At least 28 countries are needed for this to happen. 

According to Louw-Vaudran, there are reasons for that. The PAP tries to play an oversight role on a leadership that has no culture of being held accountable to anyone. The insistence on the inclusion of opposition members also miffs many African governments that come to power - or retain it - through questionable elections.

“The PAP has since suffered from a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of citizens and the AU Commission in Addis Ababa, ” Louw-Vaudran noted. “On the one hand, African governments (which constitute the AU Assembly - the body that directs the AU Commission) are averse to giving the PAP legislative powers. This reflects a situation in many countries where parliaments seldom play their oversight and legislative role and are often considered a nuisance. On the other hand, the PAP doesn’t have citizens’ support, as MPs are often there as a result of fraudulent elections.”

Image: Paul Kagame

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
South Africa Ethiopia
Chaos erupts at the Pan African Parliament in Midrand, Johannesburg following the refusal of some members to vote.
© SABC News
Embed from Getty Images
Violent scenes at the PAP had raised questions about the true contribution of the body to a culture of democracy in the continent.
© Phill Magakoe
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