AFRICA’s parliament marked its 10th birthday on Tuesday, not with a bang and with little more than a whimper, but with some hopes that it is moving slowly towards independence.
Speaker after speaker wished the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) well, despite the blatant evidence that unless political leaders on the continent give it real teeth, it is bound to atrophy.
"This parliament is not supposed to be a department of the African Union (AU) — i t is supposed to be independent," the PAP’s first president, Gertrude Mongella of Tanzania, said.
Her remarks were applauded by parliamentarians and a smattering of current and former heads of state.
Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, a dashing young air force officer when he first seized power in a coup in 1979, conjured up some of the passionate and left-wing spirit of that era when he called for the PAP to be given legislative powers and for its 265 members to be directly elected.
Those reforms are way behind schedule because enough of Africa’s 54 presidents ensure they are never tabled at AU summits. So the PAP remains a merely consultative assembly, whose members are nominated by national parliaments.
"To continue to delay will condemn us to the depths of irrelevance," Mr Rawlings, now a heavily-built 66-year-old, told the audience.
The former president was almost shouting as he tried to raise the political temperature inside the Midrand parliament. "We cannot continue to allow outside countries to interfere and intervene in our affairs while we become mere observers," Mr Rawlings said, referring like several speakers to the spread of rampant capitalism and western influence in Africa.
South Africa was represented by Deputy International Relations and Co-operation Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim.
His minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, had been advertised as recently as Monday and indeed President Jacob Zuma was on the PAP’s original programme last week.
Why South Africa’s representation had been reduced twice was unexplained, but hectic schedules linked to the May 7 elections were unofficially invoked.
In fact, during this session, the PAP made some progress in its search for relevance. Last week, for the first time, the AU Commission submitted the pan-African body’s draft budget to its legislature for review, if not for formal approval. The 2015 proposed budget stands at $499m, a 20% increase over last year, but a sum unlikely to be achieved when the budget is finally approved.
At least 65% of the amount will be provided by donors — including more than 90% of the main component, the funding of programmes.
The speaker of Niger’s National Assembly, Hama Amadou, had strong words for the PAP’s virtual impotence.
"It is more evidence of the African mania to create new institutions which raise our hopes, but actually maintain the status quo which kills our hopes," he told the gathering.
The host nation’s absence at the most senior level yesterday did not deter Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the current AU chairman.
Mr Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, spoke much longer than expected, spending nearly an hour narrating Biblical parables and delivering a light-hearted lecture about how Africa allowed itself to be colonised and the need for vigilance to prevent a repeat in modern times.
"Now the former colonisers are coming back," Mr Museveni said, apparently referring to trade relations and corporate incursions.
It seemed he would return to the issue of gays and their alleged "un-Africanness" — views that shaped Uganda’s anti-homosexual legislation and led to a suspension of some foreign aid.
But Mr Museveni steered clear of that territory, instead criticising the poor electricity supply in many African countries.
An hour after Mr Museveni spoke, and right on cue, a power cut plunged the PAP was into darkness.