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Why Africa Needs Open Legislatures

This post was co-written with Gilbert Sendugwa, Coordinator and Head of Secretariat for the Africa Freedom of Information Centre.

Open government requires an open executive branch, an open legislature, and an open judiciary. Historically, however, global attention to government transparency and access to information has focused on the executive branch.

But this may finally be changing. In April of this year, 38 civil society organizations from around the world convened in Washington, D.C. and agreed to work together to advance open parliaments. In September, more than 90 civil society organizations from more than 60 countries launched the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness in Rome.

Civil society attention on lawmakers and legislatures is critically important—especially in Africa, where parliaments have long worked behind closed doors (most legislatures on the continent are parliaments). Transparency is needed for civil society to hold legislators accountable for their decisions and actions, and to ensure they are responsive to the needs and concerns of their constituents.

A History of Closed Government

In 2008, the World Resources Institute published On Whose Behalf: Legislative Representation and the Environment in Africa. The report identified a deep disconnect between African lawmakers and their electors. For various reasons, most citizens have a limited, often erroneous understanding of the formal lawmaking, executive oversight, and representation responsibilities of legislators. Rural people in particular view lawmakers principally as development agents and press them to bring projects to their districts. In response, many legislators work to find resources to build schools, dispensaries, wells, roads, and other infrastructure and assist their constituents with personal matters. As a result, however, elections are often referendums on how many projects lawmakers brought to their communities—not on which laws they supported or how effectively they shadowed line ministries to ensure effective performance.

Indeed, while many citizens are aware of the development efforts of their legislators, most do not know if they voted on bills or took other actions in parliament that are consistent with their campaign pledges, political party positions, or the priority needs of constituents. Few monitor the performance of their lawmakers in parliament and hold them accountable for their constitutional roles. When voters pay little attention to how legislators act in parliament, lawmakers can be influenced by government leaders, political party officials, and other powerful actors whose interests may diverge from those of their electors.

Citizens interested in monitoring legislator actions face difficulties because of the dearth of information in the public domain. In many African countries, parliamentary sessions are not broadcast live on television, radio, or over the internet; committee meetings are closed to the public; parliamentary inquiry reports are not public documents; and Hansards—the official reports of parliamentary debates—are not available in a timely manner or translated into local dialects. Of particular note, individual votes by African lawmakers on bills and motions are not commonly recorded and made available to the public.

Some civil society organizations, such as the Parliamentary Monitoring Group in South Africa, are making efforts to monitor the performance of legislators, select committees, and the full house. Given the lack of public information, however, their efforts must often rely on reviewing (frequently dated) Hansards and interviewing lawmakers and electors. These efforts are costly and time-consuming, and the data collected does not always provide a useful or accurate assessment of overall performance. In Kenya, Mzalendo examined attendance in parliamentary sessions, partly because such records are among the few available to the public. When their findings showed that many lawmakers rarely attended sessions, the resulting public outcry led to an immediate improvement in performance—a testament to the importance of parliamentary monitoring and accountability.

Ways to Open Up African Legislatures

For lawmakers to be accountable to their constituents, voters need information to evaluate legislator performance. In most democratic systems, legislatures are transparent in their proceedings. In the United States, United Kingdom, and other nations, lawmaker votes are routinely recorded and released to the public. Civil society organizations examine these voting records and other information to measure legislator performance. For example, the League of Conservation Voters examines voting records on critical environmental bills at several government levels to identify “green” and “dirty” lawmakers. Voters who prioritize environmental matters consider this information as they go to the polls. Also in the United States, the Participatory Politics Foundation established and manages OpenCongress—a free, open-source, not-for-profit, non-partisan public resource website.

Donor agencies, including some private foundations, are investing in efforts designed to strengthen legislatures in Africa. Few of these projects, however, focus exclusively on promoting transparency. More efforts are needed to open legislatures. These efforts include projects that support lawmakers in establishing rules of procedure that promote public participation and transparency, as well as projects that support civil society to press parliaments to become more open in their dealings.

Global transparency norms can also help African legislatures become more open. Efforts could focus on a single issue—such as a campaign to have all legislatures systematically record and release individual member votes on bills—or they could address a broader set of transparency measures. Both strategies are used in other contexts. The Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative is focused narrowly on the disclosure of company payments and government revenues from petroleum and minerals. In contrast, Open Contracting is a global campaign to increase disclosure and participation in public contracting, from the pre-award activity stage through contract award to implementation and maintenance.

Until legislatures become more transparent, citizens will be challenged to hold their lawmakers accountable. The time to open Africa’s legislatures is now. Only then will legislatures—the most direct line that government has to the people—become a truly effective branch of government.

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