The Role of Opposition Parties In Africa.

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The Role of Opposition Parties In Africa.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1912-78), perhaps one of the most studied and well known political philosophers of the 18th century. Rousseau is credited to have influenced the French Revolution and more notably the development of modern political, sociological and educational thought. `Common will`; he argued- that human beings are able to function with one common agenda shared amongst the people and their ruling class. Although he did less in explaining how this will be discovered and decided, he influenced a small niche of rulers to now fully determine the common will of all people-totalitarianism. This particular thinking by Rousseau influenced fully fledged totalitarianism regimes where deviations from the imposed mandatory `common good` – outlined by the ruling class- were not tolerated. This ideology influenced to some extent, thoughts around a more liberal concept of governing.

Democracy stands opposed to the idea of common will by all citizens in a state. Modern mass societies are characterised by a variety of interests, world views and beliefs; as such, no single government or political organisation can embody the interests of all society. Governance in the 21st century yearns for diverse political parties thriving towards common principles of freedom, justice and solidarity, for different causes and different groupings of society. It is now harder for homogeneity in any system of governance. A modern re-shared principle of term limits for presidents’ stems from the premise that societies evolve, interests shift and change is inevitable. It is important to note the synonymous nature of ideological progression and the rule of law.

Constitutions allow; through a majority vote- for the winning the party, and specifically its elected leader to be president or prime minister. Presidents, in most African countries are only allowed to serve two terms. Terms give an opportunity for leadership transition within the party and also for the country. It is now a logical conclusion amongst political pundits; that the world is changing faster and governing has to evolve in a similar fashion.

Political Parties and Governance

Political parties are social organisations with a representative function, they embody particular interests, aggregate and communicate them to political and government institutions. Political parties epitomize the fighting spirit; a readiness for political action and confrontation. It is the only avenue to institutionally organize around different views of society. In modern society, political parties in opposition have a crucial function in the state and future of governance in any particular nation.

The role of opposition is crucial to democracy and speaks directly to Africa`s future. Opposition plays varying roles in parliament, on behalf of their constituency, within policy, policy development and accounting for project implementation.

Some keys roles of opposition parties:

  • To hold governments accountable; they serve as watchdogs ensuring government functions within the confines of the law, exposing the likes of corruption, nepotism, and the abuse of power. They pursue justice upon any deviation from the law or constitution by government.
  • To serve as a credible alternative to the ruling government; this function is crucial because competition is healthy in ensuring better service delivery and preventing complacency by the sitting government.
  • To promote and stimulate debates in parliament; often after elections a quiet season descends, with the winning party and politicians resurfacing in the build-up to the next election. Opposition is in a privileged position to call for debate and media attention on key issues being debated in parliament. The opposition can further push for a national conversation while enhancing a culture of democratic discourse. It is opposition that can foster national debate and strengthen policy.
  • To be a training ground for future leaders; youth leagues groom young people on the values and principles of the party and leadership. Shadow cabinets are also a great platform for parties to teach members on ministerial and other government positions.

Opposition Parties and strengthening democracy

The tendency of some African Presidents refusing to stick to the commonly acceptable constitutional decree of two terms has been a major cause for concern in the continent. Most constitutional states in African have two terms limits, with the exception of Chad, Gambia, and Djibouti their constitutions don’t “espouse” term limits. The constitution also allows for amendments based on the legislative assembly`s majority vote. Ironically, ruling parties always have the majority vote in parliament because of the majority representation, as such they always dominate motions in parliament. Ruling parties rule through their majority in the legislative assembly-overwhelming opposition in decision making.

This tyranny of numbers in decision making has plunged the continent into detestable authoritarian rulers, violent protests, civil wars and in some occasions` secessions have been bred from this misfortune. Opposition parties, because of minority representation in parliament have little chance of winning the majority vote. Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi all have been accused of stifling the media and exerting government control within judiciary confines. Opposition, as a minority in parliament therefore finds itself continuously stifled even with great ideas by an unwilling majority.

In Rwanda, the opposition Democratic Green Party (DGP) has filed a lawsuit demanding the Supreme Court block any attempt by parliament to change the constitution, which would allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term. The success of this lawsuit will rely heavily on how independent the judiciary institutions are. If Burundi’s` constitutional ruling is anything to reference, there is not much faith in courts were government is run by a single dominant ruling party and one individual.

Article 101 of Rwanda`s constitution states that; “…the President`s seven year term can be renewed once and under no circumstances should a person hold the office of President for more than two terms”. President Kagame has been accused by civil society groups in Rwanda of stifling media and political freedoms. Despite numerous opposition parties, they offer no significant challenge; the DGP is a rare voice of criticism. Kagame was quoted saying ““I am open to going, I’m open to not going,”hinting that he might run again for office- essentially an unconstitutional third term. This is to the disappointment to many, especially those who admire his legacy on constitutionalism and rule of law. President Kagame`s Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) party has publicly said, they want him to run for a third term. 3.6 million People have so far signed a petition urging parliament to change the constitution.

In Uganda, President Museveni is the one who appoints poll officials; opposition has threatened to block any elections if there are no changes in the electoral systems. The opposition; the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), is demanding an independent electoral commission – a new and accurate voter’s roll prior to any conversation about conducting an election. Elections in Uganda have been marred by irregularities. Museveni`s influence on poll officials has helped him consolidate power. President Museveni has been in power for over 25 years and seems to be aiming for another quarter century as he refuses to make electoral changes.

In Burundi, the bid by President Nkurunzira to run for a third term sparked violent protests in April 2015, followed by an attempted coup. At least 300 of Burundi’s civil organisations started a campaign against President Pierre Nkurunziza running for a third term. The international community and the AU have condemned the violence and called on Burundi to respect the constitution. Against these diverse opposition forces, Nkurunziza has declared that the parliamentary vote will take place on June 26 with the presidential election to be held on July 15.

Consolidating democracy

In Burundi, popular rising had regional and international community’s throwing their weight behind opposition’s plea. The popular rising led by civil society groups has gained both continental and international support; this shows the ability of opposition to encourage and push for democratic change.

A domino effect spread to Uganda and Rwanda- opposition parties there moved swiftly, upon noticing events in Burundi, to try blocking any prospective election based on unconstitutional laws. Although there are no tangible gains in Burundi when it come to the President stopping his bid for a third term, there is now new momentum in condemning any head of state trying to run for a third term. This moderate gain is important in portraying commitment to democratic statutes, and this signal can serve as a deterrent to anyone else seeking to unconstitutionally hold onto power.

Gains from opposition parties standing tall against unconstitutional rulers are being seen in the Economic of West African States (ECOWAS); the regional economic body is in the process of considering a law banning member states from running a third term. This is a giant step towards strengthening institutions and upholding democratic principles on the continent; it is shift that all regional economic bodies should emulate.

Opposition parties in Rwanda, Uganda; and civil societies in Burundi have shown democracy can reign if the people want it. The gains might be minute, but the daring ability of opposition and civil society to stand for constitutional rule is what Africa needs.

The continent can thrive if democratic principles are taught and opposition roles are not stifled by government. Mauritius, Botswana and Namibia are classic examples of functioning states; they show vividly that the state ability is enhanced through an enabling environment that allows broad democratic participation and representation of opposition parties. There are inalienable benefits from opposition, their presence and voice have shown – in the above three countries – that opposition can nudge governments towards more people centred policies.

During the inaugural USA – Africa summit in 2014, President Obama reiterated the need in any country, not for strong men but rather strong institutions. Although there is desperate need for responsive leadership, Africa needs independent, formidable institutions. Without sound institutions, African countries will languish at the hands of self-imposed leaders with no respect for the rule of law or the people.