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When parliaments are like another workplace: the case of AU House

Sunday June 06 2021
Panafrica parliament pic
By Erick Mwakibete

Media reports showed chaotic scenes from sessions of Pan African Parliament in South Africa. In on session, a South African lawmaker is heard threatening to kill another legislator from Mali.

In another session, there are rowdy scenes, screaming and kicking among some legislators. The African Union’s legislative body was thrown into mayhem due to disagreements over the presidency between some lawmakers from Southern and Central Africa on one hand and their colleagues from West Africa on the other hand.

Lawmakers from Southern and Central Africa were unhappy that since 2004, the presidency had been in West Africa. They insisted that no election of the president will be held unless it was on a ‘rotational principle’.

Legislative violence is nothing new when talking and shouting matches fail.

Beneath the veneer of sophistication, legislative violence is as old as the system itself. From ancient Greeks to ancient Romans to what was bequeathed to the rest of us in various forms through colonialism, it has been a constant mainstay of proceedings in the august houses around the world. Time has done little to do away with that reality.

In Ancient Rome, Julius Caesar was lured and murdered in a legislative chamber. The plotters stabbed him to death in the (in) famous Ides of March. Such brutality is on the extreme end of violence in legislative bodies. On the other hand, it is a common sight to see lawmakers throwing furniture and fists flying in legislative chambers around the world.

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There are incidents where lawmakers are ejected from parliament, when marching orders go unheeded by the legislator, then reinforcement is called in to eject the particular member. In others, some lawmakers may boo or jeer or constantly interrupt a speech by one of their colleagues or a head of state. In the extreme, things fall apart.

The milder, ‘better’ version of the outcome where talking or shouting matches fail among legislators is one group walking out of the session or opt to boycott proceedings for prolonged periods of time.

In a different setting, threatening to kill another person could land one into serious legal trouble. Destruction of property could lead to serious repercussions to a mere mortal. However, it does not work out quite like that when the laws of politics are concerned. Even where these disagreements lead to some of those involved in the melee requiring medical attention, it is dealt in-house.

Context is important to understand the various reasons behind these acts of violence. Parliament is supposed to be hallowed grounds. They are supposed to be institutions where the rest of the people are represented. That their best interests are in the minds of those gathered to debate about important state affairs.

However, like much of anything that has to do with politics, not a single story is straightforward. More often than not, in national parliaments, the source of violence and disputes can be a policy matter or a bill presented in the legislative chamber. Things go south from there. If the issue is an emotional one, the ‘tyranny of numbers’ may lead to scuffles in parliament. Even where it is all about proportionality with no single political party enjoying an absolute majority, chaos can reign supreme with the increased number of actors and a more diverse set of interests.

For countries with a history of bitter divisions, parliaments are never a source of unity or stability because the issues debated will mirror or reflect the same reality. Like the case of the Pan African Parliament in South Africa, where some members called for the police to intervene, in other incidents, the police are unwanted guests. Their appearance in parliamentary chambers is seen as a step too far, one that is aimed at stifling the freedom of speech and conscious lawmakers enjoy.

All this might seem too far to most of us looked at such a distance. A better analogy would be to look at parliament like any other work place with all its tensions and delicate manoeuvres to get things going. The only difference being, those in parliament while they all claim to represent the people who voted them into office, they have another far powerful constituency in their political parties.

So, before you say rowdy scenes, chaos and fistfights are un-parliamentary behaviour, consider your own work place and you may sympathize with them. You can transfer to another workplace but these folks are stuck with each other for an entire political term. When parliaments become houses of shame, if anything, it is just a natural order of things.

Mr Mwakibete is a socio-political commentator and analys based in Dar es Salaam