Death in the House and other goings on in African politics

An MP collapsed and died in the Nigerian parliament recently. To those who keep track of the continent's political temperature, this was as dramatic an incident as you are likely to find anywhere else in the world - "A Death in The House".

An MP collapsed and died in the Nigerian parliament recently. To those who keep track of the continent's political temperature, this was as dramatic an incident as you are likely to find anywhere else in the world - "A Death in The House".

Apparently, the tragedy occurred in the midst of a debate on - what else - corruption. In Nigeria, cynics would say a discussion on corruption is about as extraordinary as a debate on pizza or spaghetti in Italy or steak and kidney pie in Britain.

In this instance, both the speaker and her deputy were accused of having additions made to their official houses, without the permission of the House.

Exactly why this particular episode in the never-ending saga of corruption climaxed with the unfortunate - and most decidedly, untimely - demise of the MP has so far not been explained to us ordinary, simple-minded non-Nigerians.

In time, we are certain to be enlightened. Meanwhile, for me, Nigeria has just won first prize for having a parliament "where things happen", even if some people might say this is a ghoulish choice.

South Africa takes second prize: MPs are almost in revolt over their pay. In case you are under the misapprehension that these parliamentarians, anxious to save money which might then be diverted to the construction of much-needed houses in some seedy shantytown in Johannesburg, are demanding a cut in pay, think again.

They want it all for themselves. Before you curse them as those-miserable-sons-and- daughters-of-so-and-so, let me remind you that the South African parliament is second only to the Nigerian one as a place "where things happen".

Like the Nigerian one, it has a gutsy opposition which is not too timid to scare the pants off the government with embarrassing questions about corruption and other such goings-on in the country's exciting political safari.

Hardly much action goes on in many other African parliaments.

Another exception is Kenya where the MPs, taking a leaf out of the South African wananchi (a generous term for them), are almost always demanding more pay.

Unfortunately, in many other African countries, the institution which passes for parliament has long been rendered moribund by either a strong-willed, no-nonsense president (Zimbabwe), or a man who sees expenditure on parliament as unnecessary and decides to rule by decree, although no such law has been passed (DRC).

Almost every African country has an institution vaguely representing a parliament. A few, such as Mauritius, Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria and South Africa, do have real parliaments "where things happen". Most, however, are content to have a mild version of the real thing to represent them.

Yet democracy in Africa could be entrenched if we insisted on performance-related parliaments.

Parliaments which make a distinct difference to the lives of ordinary people through their most visible and vigorous intervention on behalf of the people.

For most African leaders, reared during the struggle against colonialism, parliaments are useful if they are no more than rubber stamps, as in Zimbabwe.

We may have elections and all the traditional paraphernalia of a parliamentary democracy. But in the end, nothing happens unless he who cannot be defied, gives the okay.

It's probably a form of political therapy for us - and many other Africans with only virtual parliaments - to pretend that we do have democracy. We're in denial. In our parliaments, "nothing ever happens".

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