Deepening democratic practice in Africa, the NILDS example

Last week in Abuja from Monday to Friday, the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS) organised workshop for Ugandan parliamentarians on capacity building for opposition members. Taiye  Odewale reports.

Why the workshop

The workshop was aimed at strengthening the capacities of the opposition in parliament as a way of deepening the practice of democracy in Africa not only set the benchmark for constructive engagements at the parliament between members of the ruling and opposition parties, but also stressed that politicking generally in the continent, should be issues based as it is, in most developed democracies.

In his remarks at the opening ceremony on Monday, June 24, 2019, the Director General of NILDS Professor Abubakar Sulaiman said: “as desirable as opposition is, in democracies daunting challenges still face it in most countries in Africa”.

Therefore, according to him, the objective of the  5-day benchmarking workshop was to strengthen the capacities of the opposition in the Ugandan parliament in undertaking oversight of government programmes and projects. 

“Provide a forum for Ugandan MPs to deliberate among themselves and with resource persons and their counterparts from the National Assembly on strategies for constituting an effective opposition”.

Handicaps for opposition in Africa

In his dissection of the practice of democracy in Africa, Professor Sulaiman posited thus: “several scholars have observed that most of the transitional democracies in Africa are one-party dominated states where opposition parties existed, ran campaigns, field candidates, but are not permitted to win elections or take-over the government. 

“Thus, in many African countries, being an opposition is a very risky undertaking even after the introduction of a multi-party democracy in the 1990s. As noted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) opposition political parties in Africa are forced to function under severe political constraints imposed by the electoral authoritarian governments.

“In Nigeria, the April 2015 general elections ushered in fundamental changes in Nigeria’s political history and future. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, the ruling party at the national level, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), lost out to the opposition party- the All Progressives Congress (APC). 

“In the just concluded 2019 general elections, the APC was again returned to power at the national level. This means that the PDP has been the minority and opposition party in the National Assembly and nationally. This development placed the burden of providing effective opposition on the PDP”.

Basis for opposition

According to him, effective opposition in democracies plays several vital roles culminating in good governance which makes them to be very necessary.

His words: “Distinguished MPs, ladies and gentlemen, effective opposition in democracies serves several functions. Firstly, it constitutes a counterweight: it makes it possible to guarantee transparent and responsible government serving the public interest. 

“More specifically, the opposition’s role is to: criticise government’s programme, decisions and actions by closely examining its policies, draft laws and budget; offer political alternatives by developing its own programmes and proposing alternative solutions to the decisions planned by the government.

“Improve the parliamentary decision-making procedure by ensuring debate, analysis and the presentation of divergent opinions, monitor and oversee the activities of the government and the administrative authorities, and strengthen the stability, legitimacy, accountability and transparency of the political process”.

Rights and privileges

Further emphasising the need for deepening the practice of democracy in Africa particularly at the parliament, Professor Sulaiman surmised: “members of the opposition should enjoy the same status and rights as members of the majority.

“Secondly, members of the opposition are entitled to receive the same government information as members of the majority. In addition to these, those in the opposition should have the right to ask members of the executive, parliamentary questions and receive replies (written questions, oral questions and questions on current national or international issues).

“Similarly, members of the opposition have a right to be represented on parliamentary governing bodies and decision-making bodies and in working groups. 

“They are also equally entitled to participate in the law making process and in the organisation of legislative proceedings. Finally, opposition MPs should be allowed to participate in inter-parliamentary delegations in accordance with the proportionality principle”.

Building capacity

Stressing the purpose of the capacity building cum benchmarking workshop further in his own remarks at the occasion, the director, Legislative Support Services at NILDS, Professor M. T Ladan said opposition in politics should in all ways be played without destructive antagonism or militancy but constructive engagement anchored on superior arguments or ideas driven by development oriented issues.

Role of opposition
“Playing the role of opposition in parliament is not synonymous with destructive antagonism or militancy and lawlessness in parliament that hinder smooth legislative process or shuts down government. 

“Rather, it is more about exhibiting maturity in debate, articulation of balanced ideas and necessary cooperation with the majority in discharging your constitutional mandate in the best interest of the people, that you  all represent”, he said.

Using Nigeria as example in his own remarks, the director of Research and Training (NILDS), Dr Adeyemi Fajingbesi, said: “Currently in the African political space, Nigeria offers one of the best avenue to draw lessons of change management and the role of opposition in that regard as political activities characterizing the nation’s polity since 2015 offers vast examples to learn from”.

The leader of the Ugandan opposition, Hon Betty Ocan in her remarks at the end of the workshop Friday last week, said the 11- member delegation had no doubt been well equipped with functional knowledge on parliamentary practices which, according to her, will be brought to bear in their participation in governance in Uganda as an opposition in parliament.

Resource persons at the capacity building workshop included members of the academics, who have researched and worked extensively in the area of political participation and the role of opposition parties in Africa.

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