Using agriculture and natural resources to decolonize parliamentary debates
Except in Burkina Faso and Uganda, parliamentary debates in the majority of agro-based African economies are completely disconnected from issues that affect ordinary people daily. Ideally, Members of Parliament (MPs) from production zones should be conversant with issues in their constituencies to be able to articulate the situation convincingly. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Strengthening the role of Members of Parliament
Members of Parliament are key policy makers whose offices should be the hub for generating, processing and consolidating socio-economic knowledge and information in order to contribute to policy development or review. In most African countries, the participation of MPs in parliament is not guided systematically so that they are able to package their presentations into policy. The kind of knowledge and information they should bring to parliament is not clear.
If there is an organized way of gathering, processing and packaging knowledge and information, the speaker of parliament would facilitate thematic areas to be dedicated to specific sessions. For instance, MPs would be requested to go and look at how to handle a bumper harvest in their constituencies and gather information that would be turned into powerful parliamentary discussions. Since MPs come from different regions, information from diverse constituencies would easily be harmonized at national level into strategies that inform policy. Lessons would be drawn from short-term and medium-term strategies that will ultimately feed into a 3-5- year policy.
MPs are the bridge between parliament and the grassroots and that makes them true knowledge brokers. As they gather, process and package information from the grassroots, they can present this to parliament portfolio committees, for instance, on issues related to agriculture and food security. The office of the MP should not be too political to the point of excluding knowledge from alternative sources that should contribute to local development. Most MP offices are incapacitated with only a secretary when they should have experts in economic, social and development issues. These officers can also become watch dogs for government departments like agriculture and can also contribute their insights into the national budget processes.
Turning parliament into knowledge cafes
To enrich the process, there is need to capacitate political structures so that they are able to broker political, economic and social knowledge and information. The speaker of parliament should chair and facilitate dialogue from different themes unlike the current situation where most motions raised are more of witch-hunting as if seeking clarity when some have already shared incriminating information behind the scenes. A thematic area will guide conversations better unlike cases where most parliamentary debates focus on fault-finding and finger-pointing.
Due to lack of proper knowledge-based systems, most MPs only feature when campaigning, during which time they are not basing their campaign messages on the contribution to policy formulation but making false promises which are difficult to fulfill individually. Some end up using their own resources to buy votes. On the other hand, due to lack of knowledge, most voters end up voting for MPs with businesses although they know nothing about developing enabling policies that empower self-determination. Some MPs end up claiming that they are bringing food aid to communities. It should not be the role of MPs to look for donors who can provide food aid to communities that should be capacitated to produce their own food. MPs must strive to make policies that awaken people to existing opportunities and add value to abundant resources.
Need to let go of colonial institutions and systems
A major challenge is that most African countries that went through the colonial experience ended up adopting colonial systems at Independence. They did not examine how they could integrate pre-colonial structures into the modern African contexts without losing the past. The role of leadership is to respond to followers and their contexts. Currently, the majority of the population do not understand the roles and meanings of adopted structures. They know the role of a chief and a local village head but if you ask them about the roles of the Councillor, Member of Parliament, District Administrator and CEO of a Rural District Council, they are not sure. Ordinary people know more about government departments that provide them direct services. These include agricultural extension services, local clinics and offices where they get national identification documents.
When people who should benefit from policies do not understand roles of different policy drivers, that is a big knowledge gap because ordinary people are the implementers of policies. As if that is not enough, most government structures overlap in ways that increase confusion among ordinary people. For instance, pre-colonial African countries used to rely more on traditional structures like chiefs but now, although chiefs are still available, it is not clear what they are really supposed to do as well as where their roles begin and end. In most cases chiefs deal with agricultural issues, justice issues, health issues and many other domains. However, within the same community, some justice issues go to the magistrate’s court.
The transition from traditional leadership to modern adopted colonial structures has been fraught with gaps and no smooth pathway. Who has more power and how are their roles defined, for instance, between the Chief and MP? These leaders need clear TORs. More clarity is also needed between the councilor and the headman. More confusion has been introduced through new boundaries of wards and constituencies on top of boundaries of each chiefdom. A constituency can straddle several wards and two or more chiefdoms.
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