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AU parliamentarians scuffle while Africa’s progress lingers

By Olukayode Oyeleye
MAYHEM was the definition of the discordant meeting of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) some weeks ago at the end of May in Midrand, South Africa. PAP, established “to ensure the full participation of African peoples in the economic development and integration of the continent,” was engrossed in the comedy of the absurd at the meeting convened to take a crucial decision. But, not only was the gathering unable to reach a consensus on the main issue which was election, members threw caution, maturity, dignity, decorum and sense of responsibility to the wind by engaging in free-for-all scuffle within the chambers of meeting. The embarrassing experience exposed the weak underbelly of the parliamentarians and their poor understanding of their reasons for gathering in the first instance. Although, on paper, what has been stated was “the strategic importance of the parliament as one of the essential pillars to achieve the objectives of the African Union and achieving the aspirations in the developmental framework of Agenda 2063, the reality seems to be pointing in different direction. The obvious lack of purpose and direction was evident in the confusion that characterised that acrimonious gathering.

The sparring and feuding legislators were clearly oblivious of the enormity of Africa’s developmental challenges, the need for urgency in tackling many existential crises, the time dimensions to their interventions and the place of Africa in the unfolding global realitiesThey did not see a mid-year review of the nascent African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) trading platform as a priority. They failed to recognise the need for urgent intervention in the raging war in Ethiopia, the unresolved hostilities in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Eastern DR Congo, or the humanitarian crisis following the DR Congo’s Goma volcanic eruption. The growing and grim prospects of famine, drought, crop failures, locusts, climate change and COVID in many parts of Africa were not on their radar. The rising spectre of insecurity in Nigeria, unleashed by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen terrorists and the potential for upsetting the African economy were not considered relevant in their meeting. Their lack of knowledge, understanding and application of diplomatic finesse became so obvious in their poor handling of a contentious issue. Rather than seeking a common ground through negotiations, they chose to scuffle over electoral procedures. It is puzzling to think of how these parliamentarians would translate the nebulous and long-term Agenda 2063 of the African Union (AU) into reality.

The desperate plea for tranquillity by Moussa Faki Mahamat, AU Commission Chairman, was altogether ignored by the feuding parliamentarians. In his frustration after the failed meeting, he tweeted, stating that “the shocking scenes of violence at the Pan African Parliament today tarnish the image of this honourable institution.” The gladiators were oblivious of – or probably trivialised – the fact that politics is a game of numbers and that you need to do consultation and persuasion – not fight – to change things. What began as a disagreement between two blocs of countries – one from West Africa and another from southern Africa – over whether the presidency of PAP should move around the various regions of Africa on a rotational basis became a bone of contention. West Africa has produced the last two presidents of PAP since its establishment in 2004. It is interesting to note that the outgoing two-term president since 2015, Roger Nkodo Dang from Cameroon succeeded a Nigerian politician, Bethel Nnaemeka Amadi. Although Southern Africa is now very eager to have a shot at the position, it is operating from a weak point. What it lacks in number, it apparently wants to make up for by the use of force, threats, blackmail and sabotage.

A familiar event common within African countries’ elections played out as the process of election boiled over when the AU legislative arm could not succeed in electing a new president after two days of meeting that began on May 24. The Southern African leaders insisted on implementation of an AU resolution to rotate its leadership – an idea that was strongly opposed by the eastern and western African delegates, leading to the suspension of the election. Realising that the voting numbers were not in their favour, the southern African bloc disrupted the proceedings. They defended their actions by trying to use the instability in Mali and South as their excuses to forestall their candidate’s electoral loss in a three-way contest with representatives of the two countries. Their fight involved also the struggle to take control of the ballot box meant to hold the papers for the election as tempers rose. While delegates from west and east Africa – each backing a different candidate – demanded that the vote go ahead, the southern African representatives shouted “no rotation, no voting, no election.” Moloto Mothapo, South African parliamentary spokesman, reportedly complained that “the two caucuses’ attempts to continue with electing the new president and ignoring advice from the AU that the well-established principle of geographical rotation within the union be observed is a sign that they do not value unity in the continent.”

But that was one side of the argument as another commentator insisted that “if you want rotation, then you (every country will) have to ratify the protocol of Malabo. This second opinion appears to have some legal and procedural validity, probably inadvertently agreed and alluded to by Thandi Modise, another South African National Assembly Speaker, who stressed the “need to lobby for the outstanding counties to ratify the Malabo Protocol to enable the continental Parliament to deliver on its mandate more effectively.” The southern African bloc will continue to suffer a strategic disadvantage from the Malabo Protocol standpoint as long as the protocol has not enjoyed the required level of support. Till date, few states have signed the Malabo Protocol, and even fewer had ratified it. As of September 2017, it was reported that only 15 Member States had signed the Protocol and only five had deposited their instruments of ratification in a 54 member-continent. Pushing the current approach further will therefore not help the southern African bloc. It will only further destroy their chances, or the whole idea of Pan African Parliament will continue to suffer setback.

In the rancorous meeting of May, many legislators claimed that they were threatened by a group of South Africans with guns. And that was difficult to refute as Julius Malema, a South African feisty lawmaker, reportedly threatened Malian lawmaker Ali Kone in during the meeting, shouting “I’ll kill you outside. Outside this room, I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you,” while pointing his finger at Kone, rather than persuading him or gently canvassing support for Zimbabwe’s Fortune Charumbira, his southern African region’s candidate. To end the dominance of other regions, therefore, consultation, persuasion, negotiation and diplomacy still remain the more viable and peaceful means towards clinching the PAP’s president’s position of the 235-member parliament. The continental body brings together African legislators to implement the policy of the African Union has not made remarkable marks to justify its existence as the legislative organ of the AU despite the noble ambition of uniting the continent that underpinned its founding. The ugly scenes of May further exposed the sharp divisions within the continent. Whether expressed by those in favour of rotation or those still enjoying the advantage of its absence, the idea of division within the continent is still real and existential and will continue to dog Africa’s leadership and integration for some time.

“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’,” opined Professor Lesiba Teefu, a political analyst of the University of South Africa. The process that brings the parliamentarians together from various countries is quasi-democratic. The rancour witnessed in May should therefore come as no surprise. Rather than being elected directly by the people, PAP members are designated by the legislatures of their Member State and members of their domestic legislatures. Although PAP is yet to make impact on the African legislative landscape, the ultimate aim, as stated by founders, “is for the Parliament to be an institution with full legislative powers, whose members are elected by universal suffrage. Until such time, the PAP has consultative, advisory and budgetary oversight powers within the AU.” It is for this reason that the outcome of May’s election crisis will largely remain unnoticed even when it has sent a significant message to the whole continent.

As things stand now, their recent action casts serious doubts on their capacity to achieve anything reasonable. They are possibly unaware of the magnitude of Africa’s problem and the urgent need for solutions. And since they don’t seem to have compelling reasons to stand together, they have chosen the path of division along regional lines – and that will haunt the continent for a while. One thing that seems to be a consensus of opinions is that Africa, as a continent, was not helped by the parliamentarians’ mayhem in May. Nor, apparently, was this important legislative body helped in any positive way as PAP members still show signs that they populate an organisation without a clear leader until they meet, vote to resolve their differences and choose a new substantive president. Critics have described the actions of PAP members in May as “an embarrassing spectacle.” Senegalese MP Toussaint Manga, in a BBC interview, had stated that that a large part of the problem was the fact that only 11 of the AU’s 54 member-states had ratified a 2014 agreement – known as the Malabo protocol – needed to give the parliament legislative power, whereas at least 28 countries are needed. In Manga’s opinion, “if we really want to move this parliament forward, the countries need to ratify and grant the parliament full powers.” Muscle flexing, blackmail or threat will not solve the problem, putting the protocol to work will do. Until that is done, we should expect more fisticuffs, wrestling, or actual killings within the Pan African Parliamentarian chamber anytime in the future. And this should be avoided at all cost. But that is when the right thing is done.

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