The latest in a succession of scandals in the UK House of Lords is a reminder that oversight and restraint are crucial ingredients of strong democratic institutions.
Willful neglect of effective checks and balances on the executive and legislature has been widespread in the post-independence era in sub-Saharan Africa.
The imperial ambitions of presidents need to be curbed by law. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya pushed through reforms to abolish presidential term limits in 2008, enabling him to lead the country for his sixth consecutive term.
Senegalese incumbent Abdoulaye Wade ran for a third stint in office in the 2012 elections, despite having introduced a two term cap on presidential tenure. Bicameral parliaments are seen as one way to provide a check on the executive, averting undue concentration of power in the hands of the president and cabinet.
An unrestrained executive
In Malawi, during the presidency of Hastings Banda, the country’s legal system was routinely manipulated and used for political ends. The promulgation of a new multi-party constitution in 1994 was an important step in the creation of a new political and socio-economic order.
Amongst numerous reforms, it provided for a directly elected National Assembly and an upper house in the form of an appointed Senate. The Senate was envisaged as a forum in which the traditional authorities, all of Malawi’s districts, women and the youth would be represented.
The upper house was also to perform an important oversight function, providing a check on potential abuses of power by an unrestrained National Assembly.
The Malawian Constitution was initially introduced for a period of one year. By the time of its permanent adoption in 1995, the constitutional provision for the Senate had been removed.
Abandoning the Senate was defended on the grounds of high running costs – the same reason would also be given in the case of Burkina Faso in 2002. Civil society groups criticised the decision, questioning the authority of the National Assembly to amend the constitution without public consultation.
They voiced concerns about returning to a system with an overly powerful executive. In 2001, the provision for the Malawi Senate was repealed permanently.