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What is the point of the Pan-African Parliament?

It is easy to forget that the Pan-African Parliament exists. Since its inaugural session in March 2004, the institution that was intended to be Africa’s highest legislative authority has struggled for impact and relevance. And judging by the sparse attendance at its parliamentary sessions, held several times a year, that forgetfulness extends to its own members.

The parliament doesn’t even have permanent headquarters. After 17 years, it is still operating in a converted conference venue in Midrand, a nondescript South African commuter town.

Perhaps the problem is that it has no real power. It is meant to be the legislative body of the African Union. But its decisions are “consultative” and “advisory”. They are easily and regularly brushed aside by the heads of state who really control the union. Or perhaps it is that its members, while drawn from across the continent, are not elected by the people they are supposed to be serving. Instead they are appointed by their own national legislatures, meaning they answer not to citizens but to governments – few of whom have any genuine interest in citizen oversight.

This week, however, there was finally some activity for long-term watchers of the legislature – at least for those of us who had not already fallen asleep.

Something actually happened!

There were scuffles. There were shoves.

There were insults and punches – and even a death threat. “I’ll kill you outside. Outside this meeting, I will kill you,” shouted South Africa’s Julius Malema at Mali’s Ali Koné (Malema, reverting to that classic playground excuse, said that Koné had threatened him first).

Suddenly, and for the first time, the eyes of the continent are on the Pan-African Parliament. Even AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat was moved to comment: “The shocking scenes of violence at the Pan African Parliament today tarnish the image of this honourable institution.”

This is a man who rarely indulges in condemnation, despite the best efforts of, say, the survivors of sexual harassment within his own organisation; or the victims of the ongoing atrocities being committed in Tigray.

No power, but plenty of privilege

What could possibly have got tensions running so high? It was not anything to do with improving governance or fighting corruption or holding our leaders accountable. Instead, the parliamentarians were squabbling amongst themselves over who gets to preside over their chambers.

At stake is the position of president of the Pan-African Parliament, which was occupied until earlier this year by one Roger Nkodo Dang, who certainly appeared to enjoy his six years in the job. And why not, when much of it was spent in a suite at Johannesburg’s ultra-luxurious Michelangelo Hotel – with another eight rooms booked for his retinue, all paid for by African taxpayers.

Dang was driven around town in a Mercedes-Benz ML sport utility vehicle, after rejecting as substandard the Mercedes-Benz E-class that was initially allocated to him.

When he finally did move out of the hotel, he occupied a residence in an exclusive housing estate in Pretoria that cost nearly $6,000 a month and came with two full-time chefs and two cleaners, all on the AU payroll.

It is not just the luxuries that make the job so attractive – it is also the near-total lack of accountability.

When staffers accused Dang of sexual harassment, bullying and nepotism in 2019, the Pan-African Parliament voted in secret to bury these allegations. This was against the recommendation of an internal inquiry, which found there was “good reason” to conduct a full investigation. The vote was only revealed to the public – whom the Pan-African Parliament is supposed to serve – after several whistleblowers raised the alarm to the South African newspaper, Mail & Guardian.

Southern Africa, supported by North Africa, is pushing for its candidate (Zimbabwe’s Chief Fortune Charumbira) to be installed as Dang’s successor, saying the position should be rotated through the regions; while the West African bloc, supported by East and Central Africa, wants direct elections which will likely result in another West African candidate (Mali’s Haïdara Aïchata Cissé).

This, then, is the dream job that fuelled the fighting in Midrand this week: lots of luxury, little responsibility, total impunity. No wonder that the (dis)honourable members want it for themselves – no matter what the cost to the parliament’s reputation, and their own dignity. — With additional reporting by Mako Muzenda.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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