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date: 02 April 2023

The Rise of the African Legislature?free

The Rise of the African Legislature?free

  • Ken OpaloKen OpaloAfrican Studies Program, Georgetown University


What explains contemporary variation in legislative strength and institutionalization in Africa? Contrary to the widespread belief that African legislatures are uniformly weak, there is significant variation in both the institutional forms and powers of these institutions. Colonial institutional development and the nature of postcolonial single-party autocratic rule partially explain the variation in legislative strength and institutionalization in Africa. Legislative development (or lack thereof) under colonialism bequeathed postcolonial states with both institutional memory and intra-elite conceptions of executive–legislative relations (how legislatures work). The nature of postcolonial autocratic rule determined the upper bounds of legislative development. Relatively secure presidents tolerated legislative organizational development. Their weaker counterparts did not. These differences became apparent following the end of single-party rule in much of Africa the early 1990s. Legislatures in the former group exploited their newfound freedom to rebalance executive–legislative relations. Those in the latter group remained weak and subservient to presidents. In short, strong autocratic legislatures begat strong democratic legislatures.


  • History and Politics
  • Political Institutions
  • World Politics


The early 1990s were a watershed period in African politics. Between 1989 and 1994, the share of African countries under single-party rule fell from over 75% to under 15%. The adoption of electoral multipartyism throughout the region altered executive–legislative relations in important ways (Opalo, 2015). In the preceding three decades, single-party rule in most states forced all aspiring legislators to be members of the region’s ruling parties. This reality enabled African presidents to make and unmake the political careers of fellow elites serving as legislators. Through their dominance over ruling parties, presidents could influence the composition of legislatures by ensuring that only loyal politicians got nominations to contest legislative elections. In extreme cases—like in Ghana in 1965 (Welch, 1972) and Côte d’Ivoire before 1980 (Crook, 1989)—presidents simply appointed legislators through the party nomination process.

Among incumbents, the threat of expulsion from the ruling party (and hence the legislature) kept politically independent legislators in check and helped to enforce party discipline in African legislatures. Executive dominance in this manner reduced African legislatures to little more than constitutional conveyer belts for presidential policies and legislative proposals (Sissokho & Thomas, 2005; Tordoff, 1977). This changed with the advent of multiparty politics in the early 1990s (Barkan, 2009; Opalo, 2012; Salih, 2005). The presence of opposition parties afforded African legislators the chance to build political careers that were independent of presidents (Opalo, 2017). Legislators’ individual political independence, in turn, increased both their individual and collective bargaining powers and the possibility of legislative institutional independence vis-à-vis chief executives.

Yet not all legislatures exhibited an increase in institutional independence or strength following the end of single-party rule. In some countries, legislators exploited the increase in their bargaining power to demand greater input in the lawmaking process, more resources for constituency service, more staff, higher levels of remuneration, and bigger budgets for the organizational operations of legislatures (Opalo, 2014). In others, legislators remained largely subservient to chief executives in ways similar to those of the single-party era (Burnell, 2002; Opalo, 2019b). The result was significant variation in measures of legislative strength and institutionalization across Africa (see Figures 3 and 4). This raises a question: What explains this variation in legislative development in Africa following the end of single-party rule in the early 1990s?

Answering this question is important for understanding not only legislative development in Africa but also the role of legislatures in midwifing greater democratic consolidation in the region. As shown here, both de jure (Figure 3) and de facto (Figure 4) measures of legislative powers and institutionalization in the region (and the rest of the world) are positively correlated with levels of democracy. Addressing the question is also important for understanding the dynamics of the institutionalization of politics in Africa. As Posner and Young (2007) observe, the last two decades have seen significant advances in the institutionalization of politics in the region. This is reflected in the Africanist literature, with ever more studies focusing on the institutional underpinnings of (presidential) elections and party politics. There is a small but growing literature on institutional politics in Africa. See, for example, Ariotti and Golder (2018), Bogaards (2008), Cheeseman (2016), Ferree (2010), Pitcher (2012), Elischer (2013), and Riedl (2014). Works on African legislatures hold the promise of adding texture to our understanding of both the conduct and effects of politics in Africa.

This article argues that the contemporary variation in legislative development in Africa has deep historical roots. Contingencies of political development in the late colonial period, including the degree of elite socialization in colonial legislatures and of institutional continuity at independence—conditioned postcolonial intra-elite ideas of how legislatures work. At the same time, strategies of elite control by postcolonial autocratic African presidents determined their willingness to tolerate legislative organizational independence. African presidents who were secure enough (from elite challenges) to grant legislative operational independence fostered legislative organizational differentiation and development. Those that did not stunted these processes. Despite the appearance of uniform weakness among African legislatures under single-party rule, these institutions varied in levels of operational independence and the prevailing nature of executive–legislative relations. Thus on the eve of multipartyism in the late 1980s, African legislatures were at different levels of organizational development on account of their colonial histories and the nature of postcolonial intra-elite politics in the preceding three decades.

By removing the veil of single-party rule, multipartyism under electoral democracy in the early 1990s created opportunities for legislators to collectively assert their institutional autonomy from chief executives. Yet their ability to do so was conditioned by the accumulated history of legislative organizational development and institutionalization going back to the colonial era. Overall, organizationally strong autocratic legislatures begat strong democratic legislatures capable of exploiting their newfound political freedom to further entrench legislative institutionalization and independence.

It is important to note that the changes in executive–legislative balance of power that followed the advent of multiparty electoral politics are a necessary but insufficient condition for the consolidation of legislative strength and independence in Africa. As documented by Opalo (2017), high turnover rates in legislative elections in the region continue to limit the accumulation of institutional memory, the emergence of experienced legislators with independent bases of political support, the internal differentiation of legislatures, and the development of a corporate identity among legislators. These factors are indispensable in the process of legislative institutionalization (Polsby, 1968).

This article contributes to the literature on African legislatures in important ways. Over the last four decades conventional wisdom has held that African legislatures are uniformly weak and peripheral to politics and policymaking (Mezey, 1983; Ojwang, 1980; Sissoko & Thomas, 2005; Stultz, 1968; Tordoff, 1977). As such, much of the scholarship on African politics tends to focus on presidential politics.1 More recently, scholars have examined the dynamics of legislative development following the end of single-party rule. For example, Barkan (2009) argues that the advent of multiparty electoral politics brought young and reformist legislators into office whose agenda included investing in legislative strengthening. Yet as Collord (2018) observes, a gap exists in the literature on the fundamental drivers of legislative development in Africa. This article contributes to this literature by examining the historical origins of legislative development in Africa. In doing so, it explains both postcolonial legislative development in the region under autocratic single-party rule and why the advent of multiparty politics in the early 1990s yielded meaningful legislative reforms in some countries, but not in others.

Conceptualizing Executive–Legislative Relations

Strong and independent legislatures necessarily limit presidential powers and discretion. All else equal, presidents prefer to have the ability to limit legislative strength and independence. At the same time, presidents face incentives to govern with legislatures. Even under autocracy, legislatures serve as a credible presidential commitment to share power and governance rents with fellow elites (Gandhi, 2008; Myerson, 2008). The outcome of the balancing act between presidents’ desire to limit legislative institutionalization and the need to govern with legislatures defines the nature of inter-branch relations.

In general, inter-branch relations have a structural imbalance in favor of presidents. Through public bureaucracies, presidents have access to more staff, information, and material resources, and enjoy a bully pulpit from which they can set the political (and legislative) agenda (Krehbiel, 1991). These structural advantages have been particularly pronounced in postcolonial states. Colonialism bequeathed most of these states with overdeveloped executive bureaucracies and relatively under-developed judiciaries and legislatures (Alavi, 1972). Therefore, postcolonial legislative development in Africa (and elsewhere) took place in the shadows of much stronger presidents with control over the coercive apparatuses of states. In addition, instead of relying on legislatures for budgets, postcolonial presidents invariably sat atop patronage networks through which they engineered legislative statutory outcomes that were consistent with their preferences (Arriola, 2009; Joseph, 1987).

However, this does not mean that postcolonial African presidents completely dominated their respective legislatures. This is for two reasons. First, in order to credibly share power and access to governance rents, presidents were forced to allow for the recruitment of fellow elites into legislatures through autocratic elections (Blaydes, 2011). Second, the colonial inheritance of an established Montesquieuan idea of three constitutional branches of government guaranteed that legislatures had a monopoly over the passing of executive legislative proposals (Opalo, 2019b). These dual demands ensured that although presidents could dominate their respective legislatures, they did not do so under circumstances of their own choosing. The manner of legislative recruitment (elections) and the constitutional authority of legislatures (lawmaking) defined both the functions and powers of postcolonial African legislatures. Elections incentivized individual legislators to build local bases of political support and signal their popularity (to presidents). Popular legislators were likely to be co-opted by presidents in a bid to buttress their regimes’ popularity. Constitutional monopoly over lawmaking granted legislators an important veto and therefore bargaining power. Despite being largely reactive institutions, the mere fact that legislators had to vote on presidential legislative proposals altered the behavior of presidents (Cox & Morgenstern, 2001). In other words, presidents were incentivized to introduce legislative proposals that had a high likelihood of garnering legislative majorities or to directly lobby legislators via presidential appointments to the cabinet, boards of parastatals, or diplomatic posts (Bates & Collier, 1995).

Individual legislators spent their time in office working to win re-election. To this end, they channeled targeted clientelistic benefits and government “pork barrel” expenditures to their constituents (Barkan, 1979; Barkan & Holmquist, 1989; Lindberg & Zhou, 2009; Wantchekon, 2003).2 Clientelism being the currency of legislative politics, legislators’ chances of re-election improved with their ability to provide visible and easily attributable targeted material benefits for their constitutuents (Opalo, 2017). The need for material resources to invest in re-election exposed legislators to presidential influence. Presidents could ration access to resources (through targeted appointments and dismissals) in order to enforce party discipline within legislatures. Legislators, in turn, sought to invest in their popularity with a view of boosting their bargaining power vis-à-vis presidents. In any given state, the realized inter-branch balance of power and the nature of executive–legislative relations reflected the sum total of these different specific incentives and considerations.

It follows that the typical African legislature performed four important functions. First and foremost, they were agents of “development,” expected to channel material resources to their constituents. Second, they were representatives of their constituents and served to integrate specific regions and ethnic groups to the center. Third, they provided a check on executive power—by being an institutional enforcement of presidential commitment to share political power and governance rents. Finally, they were lawmakers, charged with debating and passing statutes.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, African legislators have historically had incentives to collectively invest in their bargaining power. As formally demonstrated by Myerson (2008), collective bargaining, as opposed to bilateral arrangements with presidents, makes intra-elite commitments to share power and governance rents credible. Examples of collective bargaining by African legislatures include explicit legislation to curtail executive rule-making in Kenya (Opalo, 2019a) and the spread of Constituency Development Funds (CDFs) across Africa (Tsubura, 2013). The adoption of CDFs across the region was driven by African legislators’ desire to acquire material resources needed to invest in their re-election and to decouple the availability of these resources from presidential control. In other words, legislators sought to strengthen their bargaining powers both collectively and individually by de-linking their political careers from presidential control. As argued by Opalo (2015) and Collord (2018), legislators’ ability to cultivate a personal vote and independent bases of political support increased both their collective and individual bargaining powers vis-à-vis presidents.

In summary, executive–legislative relations can be viewed as inherently conflictual and marked by constant bargaining over the acceptable inter-branch distribution of power and governance rents. And although presidents enjoy immense structural advances over legislators, political events may, on occasion, create opportunities for legislators to increase their bargaining power. Legislative empowerment can occur through an increase in legislators’ access to material resources needed for investment in re-election (such as CDFs), control over the legislative agenda as well as calendar and budgetary autonomy (from presidential control), and the strengthening of legislative oversight functions through investments in bigger staff and better capacity for research.

Across Africa, an opportunity for rebalancing executive–legislative relations emerged following the economic crises of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union that triggered the end of single-party rule in much of the region. The advent of multiparty politics in the early 1990s granted legislators outside options through which to gain membership in legislatures, and multipartyism freed legislators to actively invest in their independence and ability to extract concessions from presidents (Opalo, 2014). But to do so, they had to marshal historical organizational resources and political culture. Autocratic legislatures at greater levels of organizational development on the eve of transition were better able to achieve these objectives relative to their developmentally stunted counterparts. The next two sections, “Historicizing Legislative Development in Africa” and “Legislative Development Under Multipartyism,” provide both historical and contemporary material evidence to back these claims.

Historicizing Legislative Development in Africa

Legislative institutional development takes time (Pierson, 2004). As such, in order to understand the evolution of African legislatures and the possibilities for their future development, it is important to also understand the origins of these institutions. Two important features of this temporal aspect of legislative development are of particular importance. First, the prevailing nature of intra-elite politics at the founding moment of legislatures structures elite-level political culture and the realized executive–legislative balance of power. Legislatures are likely to be stronger if founded under conditions of intra-elite balance of power, and weaker if founded under preponderant presidents. At the same time, once established, ideas about how legislatures work are persistent. And even when legislative reforms take place, the new institutional forms and functions are often layered on the old, thus ensuring non-trivial levels of institutional continuity (Thelen, 2004).

In order to explain contemporary variations in the legislative strength and institutionalization in Africa, this section examines the historical legislative development in the region during both the colonial era and the first three decades of independence. African legislatures were founded in the colonial era and explicitly designed to maximize executive domination in the form of colonial governors serving as direct agents of metropolitan governments. Because of the relative imbalance of executive–legislative relations under colonial rule, at independence these institutions found themselves in the shadows of relatively “overdeveloped” executive branches headed by founding presidents who considered themselves to be the very embodiments of their respective states. For these reasons, postcolonial legislative development in Africa can be characterized as institutional catch-up in the face of structural executive dominance.

Colonial Origins of Institutional Forms and Functions

Colonialism created African legislatures ex nihilo. Although precolonial legislative institutions—such as Buganda’s Lukiiko, Tswana chieftaincies’ Kgotlas, and the Ashanti Confederacy’s Kotoko Council—existed in the region, their jurisdictions were often limited to specific ethnolinguistic or cultural groups. Furthermore, in nearly all cases, membership into these precolonial institutions was through inheritance or appointment. They also had very minimal influence over policy.3

European colonialism in the late 19th century created territorial units that a few decades later provided the basis for the creation of legislatures. The first of these institutions emerged as advisory councils to governors, with virtually no legislative authority. And even after colonial legislative councils (LegCos) and conseils généraux were founded, the metropolitan legislatures in Europe retained ultimate lawmaking authority. To enforce this form of remote control over colonial legislatures, governors were typically empowered to appoint a plurality of legislators (Ojwang, 1980; Okafor, 1981). In most cases, membership to colonial legislatures was initially limited to European immigrants and business interests. Substantive African membership became commonplace after the Second World War as nationalist fervor swept across the region.

Different colonial powers in Africa varied in the timing of the creation of legislatures. On average, the British saw the establishment of colonial legislatures much earlier than their French, Portuguese, or Spanish counterparts. This was because of variation in the nature of colonialism among these European powers. Interwar dictatorships in Portugal and Spain stunted institutional development in their respective colonies—including legislatures. British colonies in Africa were founded at a time when the institution of the LegCo had undergone tremendous development in other British possessions elsewhere (Burns, 1966; Wright, 1946). This was in contrast, for example, to the French, who, because of their unique history, instituted direct representation of their colonies in the metropolitan legislature in Paris. The lack of direct representation in London forced British authorities to establish LegCos in the colonies earlier and to grant them relative autonomy (under the supervision of colonial governors) to enact local policy.

In French colonies, direct representation in Paris tempered demands for fully fledged local legislative assemblies. This was further complicated by the organization of French possessions in Central and West Africa into federations—French Equatorial Africa (AEF) and French West Africa (AOF) with capitals in Brazzaville and Dakar, respectively (Fink, 2015). These added layers of representation stunted both political and legislative institutional development in the individual territories that would emerge as independent francophone states after 1960 (Idowu, 1968; Johnson, 1966).4

The colonial experience with legislatures in African reverberated into the postcolonial period. Exposure to these assemblies was a critical part of political development in much of the region. For example, among British colonies the practice of packing colonial LegCos with officials (appointed members representing the executive) to balance unofficials (elected members) persisted in the form of presidential nominations of members of parliament following independence. Similarly, the skewed balance of power between colonial legislatures and governors—designed to maintain metropolitan control over colonial parliaments throughout the region—was mirrored in the nature of executive–legislative relations after independence. This institutional path dependence was propagated both through independence constitutions and African elites’ mental models of how legislatures work, in many cases based on their own experiences serving in the colonial legislatures right before independence.5

Colonial legislative institutions also structured the forms of African political mobilization in the late colonial period. Among French colonies, federation in AEF and AOF and direct representation in Paris created incentives for elites to form pan-territorial political organizations—such as the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) and the Comités d’Etudes Franco-Africaines (CEFA). These pan-territorial forms of political mobilization attenuated subterritorial divisions in French colonies (such as along ethnic lines) well into the postcolonial period (Basedau & Stroh, 2009). In British colonies, the early creation of LegCos meant that African political mobilization took place primarily at the territorial level. The resultant intra-territorial jostling for power accentuated subnational divisions in the late colonial period.

The presence (or lack thereof) of “settlers” added another layer to the development of forms of political mobilization in British colonies. Colonies with significant populations of European immigrants saw the development of relatively institutionalized colonial legislatures on account of the bargaining power of their membership vis-à-vis the metropolitan parliament in London.6 African membership in these legislatures before independence served both to socialize future independence leaders on Westminster parliamentary practice and to impart mental models of how legislatures work (Opalo, 2019b).

Overall, the experience with colonial legislatures determined the menu of institutional options available to postcolonial African political elites. Most former British colonies adopted the Westminster model and, with the exception of Zambia, gained independence under parliamentary systems of government. In addition, all of them adopted first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral systems with single-member districts. Similarly, the postcolonial constitutional order in most former French colonies mirrored key parts of the Fifth French Republic. Nearly all adopted mixed systems of government (with presidents and prime ministers) and mixed electoral systems (with both proportion representation and majoritarian single-member districts). However, having inherited European legislative institutional forms and functions designed to propagate colonial domination, postcolonial African elites had to adapt them to their respective local political economies. And as will be shown, this process reflected the inherently conflictual dynamics governing executive–legislative relations. In some cases, intra-elite conflicts over the distribution of power and governance rents resulted in the disbandment of legislatures.

Autocratic Domestication of Imported Legislatures

The process of adapting inherited colonial legislatures to African political economies reflected the structural imbalance in executive–legislative relations. First, due to differential institutional development under colonialism, Africa’s executive branches were substantially overdeveloped relative to judiciaries and legislatures (Alavi, 1972). This was in part because colonialism fused executive, legislative, and judicial functions in colonial governors and field administrators (Mamdani, 1996). Postcolonial inter-branch relations were structurally skewed in favor of presidents, many of whom, in addition to their coercive powers, had the constitutional authority to call, prorogue, and dissolve legislatures. Bent on curtailing legislative institutionalization and independence, African presidents strategically deployed these powers with a view toward setting the legislative agenda, rationing the amount of plenary time available for legislative debates and scrutiny of executive actions, and keeping legislators in check with the threat of snap elections.

Second, most constitutions denied legislatures a critical source of legislative ability to check executive authority: the power of the purse. For example, in former British colonies only presidents (through their cabinets) could originate money bills.7 The lack of fiscal powers severely limited African legislatures’ ability to balance and sanction presidents through the credible threat of withholding of revenue as part of the budget process. It also limited their ability to use state budgets to distribute pork barrel expenditures as part of intra-legislative logrolling, with an eye on re-election. Instead, African legislators became largely reliant on executive favors and largesse—including appointments to the cabinet or the boards of parastatals—in the quest to obtain financial resources needed for targeted clientelism benefits and constituency service.

Postcolonial African constitutions did not fully reflect the structural imbalance in executive–legislative relations outlined earlier. In most countries, membership into the founding independence legislatures was determined through competitive elections. In addition, legislatures had a monopoly over the passing of legislation. These two factors set the stage for inter-branch conflict in the immediate postcolonial period as legislators sought to assert their authority vis-à-vis increasingly authoritarian presidents. In most cases these conflicts were resolved in favor of presidents on account of their structural preponderance. In a number of cases inter-branch conflicts led to constitutional crises and the dissolution of legislatures. For example, a conflict between President Leon M’Ba and the Gabonese legislature in January 1964 (over the question of single-party rule) led to the dissolution of the legislature and a coup (Reed, 1987). Similarly, in Uganda, Prime Minister Milton Obote executed a self-coup in 1966 and suspended parliament in the face of a potential legislative indictment over smuggling of Zairean (Congolese) coffee, gold, and ivory (Uzoigwe, 1983).

Figure 1 (left graph) provides a general summary of the fall and rise of postcolonial African legislatures. The graph indicates the proportion of African states in a given year that had a functional legislature. The trends indicate that immediately after independence, conflicts such as those in Gabon and Uganda precipitated the dissolution of legislatures. Some of these dissolutions resulted from auto-coups, whereas others were the result of military coups that characterized the autocratic post-independence period in Africa (Posner & Young, 2007). It was not until the early 1980s that African political elites appear to have reached a settlement on how to govern with legislatures. From then on, the number of operational legislatures in the region rose steadily until their current peak.

Figure 1. The fall and rise of African legislatures and multiparty politics. The graphs show the decline in the proportions of African states (each year) with open legislatures (left graph) and whose constitutions permitted multiparty electoral politics (right graph).

Source: Figures from author’s calculations using data from Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland (2010).

Invariably, these settlements reflected executive dominance. To start with, presidents freed themselves of legislative influence. Perhaps the best illustration of this was the rapidity with which former British colonies shifted from parliamentary to presidential systems of government. In The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, among others, moderately constrained prime ministers (responsible to parliament) became largely unaccountable presidents for life (elected through popular vote).

Next came the imposition of single-party rule. As shown in Figure 1 (right graph), the share of African states under single-party rule steadily increased following the independence wave of the early 1960s. The adoption of single-party rule reinforced executive dominance over legislatures in the region. Through ruling parties, presidents were able to address their adverse selection problem by screening candidates in legislative elections. Those that were not sufficiently loyal were barred from running.8 Single-party rule also helped presidents mitigate against problems of moral hazard after elections through the threat of expulsion from parties.

In this manner, presidential tolerance of legislatures was accompanied by the weakening of the same institutions through single-party rule. In a number of countries, organizationally strong parties—such as Ghana’s Convention People’s Party (CPP), Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), and Zambia’s United National Independence Party (UNIP)—emerged as substitutes for legislature and became the focal arenas for intra-elite bargaining over power and the distribution of governance rents (Opalo, 2019b). In countries with weak ruling parties—such as the Kenya African National Union (KANU) and Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)—legislatures were able to retain their role as the primary loci of intra-elite political bargaining, despite executive dominance. Overall, the lack of bargaining powers left most African legislators underpaid and starved of much-needed resources for committee work, research staff, and constituency service (Barkan, 2009).

Single-party rule ended abruptly across much of Africa in the early 1990s. The confluence of economic crises in the late 1980s, domestic protests against structural adjustment programs, agitation for multipartyism among disaffected elites, and the collapse of the Soviet Union forced one president after another to permit multiparty electoral competition (Bratton & van de Walle, 1992; Brown, 2001; Posner, 2005). As a result, the number of African states under single-party rule shrunk from a high of over 75% to less than 15% between 1989 and 1994 (see right graph in Figure 1). With regime change across the region came a structural adjustment of executive–legislative relations.

Multiparty electoral politics exposed presidents to political pressure both within their own parties and from opposition politicians. Ruling party legislators could credibly threaten to defect to the opposition and retain their seats (even if required to seek a new electoral mandate). Opposition legislators had no reason to signal political loyalty to presidents. Combined, these two factors led to an increase in the collective bargaining power of legislators—in several countries African legislatures successfully passed laws establishing CDFs—slush funds that financed constituency service and targeted clientelistic benefits to voters (Tsubura, 2013). As will be shown, presidents could no longer simply order legislators to pass statutes or amend constitutions. Instead, they had to actively bargain and lobby individual legislators and give costly concessions and side payments (Opalo, 2014). And unlike in the early postcolonial period, presidents could no longer simply disband intransigent legislatures. As a result, a number of them resorted to using their powers to call, prorogue, or dissolve legislatures for strategic effect. For example, Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi promptly prorogued the first multiparty parliament under his rule after its first meeting in early 1993. In Zambia, Frederick Chiluba refused to recall parliament in 2001 after legislators threatened to impeach him for attempting to scrap Zambia’s presidential term limits (Opalo, 2019b).

Legislative Development Under Multipartyism

The end of single-party rule created new opportunities for legislative strengthening and institutionalization in Africa. The availability of outside options through which politicians could gain membership in legislatures freed individual incumbent legislators to invest in their re‑election and collective bargaining power without fear of presidential sanctions. The resultant empowerment of both ruling party and opposition legislators diminished presidents’ ability to enforce party discipline and marshal stable legislative majorities. Presidents’ inability to enforce party discipline was evident under both competitive systems (Opalo, 2014) and those dominated by parties with large legislative majorities (Collord, 2016). However, the extent to which legislators exploited their newfound political and institutional freedoms varied conditional on history, accumulated political culture, the prevailing intra-elite balance of power, and the level of legislative organizational development on the eve of the advent of multiparty electoral politics. For example, legislators in Benin, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria demonstrated their independence by passing ever fewer shares of executive legislative proposals. Yet in other countries, like Burkina Faso and Senegal, almost all executive legislative proposals got passed (Barkan, Mattes, Mozaffar, & Smiddy, 2010). And in Burkina Faso, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zambia, legislatures were instrumental in stopping presidents from abolishing term limits.

Figure 2. Trends in the mean cabinet size in African. This figure shows trends in the mean cabinet size in Africa. The rise in the proportion of African legislatures with functional legislatures after the late 1970s is accompanied by a steady increase in cabinet size. Similarly, after 1990, the increase in legislative bargaining power under multiparty politics was accompanied by a steady increase in cabinet size.

Source: Figure based on author’s calculations using data from Arriola (2009).

The increase in African legislators’ bargaining power was reflected in other ways. The need to pass legislation forced African presidents to appoint an increasing number of legislators to the cabinet. Figure 2 shows trends in the mean size of cabinets in Africa. Beginning in the late 1970s, the rise in the proportion of African states with functional legislatures was accompanied by an increase in the mean cabinet size in the region—as African presidents sought to purchase political support from fellow elites (Arriola, 2009). This process was reversed by the economic crises of the 1980s accompanying structural adjustment programs. However, since the mid-1980s the mean cabinet size in Africa has surpassed the peak level in the 1980s as African presidents seek to buy off ever more legislators. A stark example of this was the recent appointment of Ghana’s “elephant-size” government of 110 ministers—comprising a full 40% of seats in the Ghanaian legislature (Farand, 2017).

Beyond angling for cabinet appointments in the multiparty era, African legislators in different countries advocated for the adoption of CDFs to avail resources for clientelism and general constituency service (Tsubura, 2013), increased their salaries and legislative budgets (Barkan & Matiangi, 2009), curtailed the incidence of (excessive) unilateral executive rule-making (Opalo, 2019a), and successfully created Parliamentary Service Commissions (PSCs) that served as the basis of legislative bureaucratic autonomy from the executive branch. The establishment of CDFs and agitation for higher remuneration was informed by legislators’ need to appropriate resources for targeted clientelistic benefits and constituency service (Opalo, 2017). Legislators sought to curtail executive rule-making (often [mis]used for rewarding presidents’ cronies) in order to protect legislatures’ function as the focal arena for intra-elite bargaining over policy and the distribution of governance rents. Finally, PSCs freed legislators from executive administrative control. For much of the postcolonial period, most African legislatures were the administrative equivalent of departments within executive bureaucracies. PSCs enabled legislators to run their own affairs—including setting their own budgets, determining their own calendar, hiring their own staff, and investing in the overall organizational development of legislatures qua institutionalized bureaucracies.

Opalo (2019b) presents two paradigmatic cases—Kenya and Zambia—of trajectories of legislative development following the end of single-party rule. On account of its higher level of organizational development under single-party rule, the Kenyan legislature was better able to exploit its newfound political and institutional freedoms under multiparty politics to further entrench its autonomy from the executive branch. On the other hand, the Zambian legislature’s stunted development under single-party rule prevented legislatures from fully exploiting opportunities for rebalancing executive–legislative relations in the multiparty era. What explains the patterns of legislative development in Africa in the multiparty era?

Two related explanations exist for the patterns of legislative reforms that emerged following the advent of multiparty electoral politics in the early 1990s. Barkan (2009) argues that this process was largely driven by emergent coalitions of relatively young reformist legislators. However, Opalo (2019b) shows that legislators’ ability to assert their institutional authority and independence in the multiparty era reflected deep historical trends. In particular, that variation in the types of reforms implemented in African states mirrored the prevailing executive–legislative balance of power at the time of transition. This is evident in the negative correlation between the age of colonial legislatures at independence and the likelihood of legislative disbandment following independence. Similarly, legislative age in 1990 is positively correlated with both de jure and de facto measures of legislative institutional and strength. The same historical dynamics applied at the level of individual legislators. For example, in Kenya the champion of legislative reforms in the 1990s was none other than Peter Oloo Aringo (MP, Alego Usonga) a veteran legislator who, just a decade earlier, was the chairman of KANU under single-party rule. Aringo’s statue, experience, and deep knowledge of parliamentary politics enabled him to lobby his fellow legislators to support his reform proposals.

The adoption of CDFs across African states also fit this pattern. In much of the region, legislators lobbied for CDFs as a means of providing targeted clientelistic benefits, constituency service, and the delivery of “development” projects.9 Yet as Tsubura (2013) shows, the specific designs of CDF reflected the prevailing executive–legislative balance of power at the point of adoption. In countries where legislatures enjoyed significant bargaining power vis-à-vis presidents (like in Kenya and Tanzania), the design of CDFs maximized the discretion of legislators in the disbursement of funds as well as the choice and location of CDF projects. In countries with relatively weaker legislatures relative to presidents (like in Ghana and Zambia), the design and implementation of CDFs favored disfavored legislators. For example, in Zambia, presidents had the power to determine both the amount of funds disbursed and the timing of disbursement. At the same time, legislators had to share CDF funds with local politicians and administrators at the district level, thereby diluting the political returns of specific projects to legislators. This arrangement significantly diminished the ability of Zambian legislators to credibly claim credit for specific CDF projects in their constituencies (Opalo, 2019b).

More broadly, the structural relationship between legislative development (and reforms) and persistent political variables is shown in Figures 3 and 4 (African states are labeled). Like in the rest of the world, measures of legislative strength and institutionalization are positively correlated with levels of democracy. Figure 3 indicates the correlation between constitutional legislative powers—Parliamentary Powers Index (PPI)—and the average level of democracy between 1990 and 2005. Published in 2009, the index is a de jure indicator of legislative powers—capturing legislative autonomy (formal separation of powers), organizational capacity, influence on the executive, and stated constitutional powers (Fish & Kroenig, 2009). Figure 4 shows the correlation between legislative budget powers (published in 2015) and the level of democracy in 2014. Because it documents the actual roles of legislatures in the budget appropriation process, the Open Budget Index (OBI) is a measure of the de facto fiscal powers of legislatures. Both the PPI and OBI show that there is significant variation in legislative strength and independence in Africa in need of systematic explanation.

Figure 3. Legislative powers and level of democracy. This figure shows the positive correlation between the Parliamentary Powers Index and average level of democracy (1990–2005). Lighter shades indicate African states.

Source: Figure based on authors’ calculations using data from Fish and Kroenig (2009) and Goldstone et al. (2010).

Figure 4. Legislative budget authority and level of democracy. This figure shows the positive correlation between legislative budget authority (in 2015) and level of democracy (in 2014). Lighter shades indicate African states.

Source: Figure based on authors’ calculations using data from the International Budget Partnership and Goldstone et al. (2010).

The positive correlation between both de jure and de facto measures of legislative strength and independence and a slow-moving variable such as level of democracy is suggestive of the structural and historical origins of legislative reforms in Africa. It is also an indicator of the endogeneity of legislative reforms to democratic consolidation. The argument in this article is that legislatures in states characterized with relatively balanced intra-elite relations and a history of legislative organizational development were more likely to exploit the advent of multiparty electoral politics to assert their institutional autonomy. At the same time, legislative institutional autonomy granted legislators the powers and resources needed to constrain presidents and contribute toward further democratic consolidation through greater horizontal accountability. Stated differently, structural conditions on the eve of the advent of multiparty electoral politics in Africa—such as the level of democracy and the prevailing nature of intra-elite politics—created an enabling environment for the emergence of institutionalists and supporting reformist coalitions to emerge in African legislatures.

The correlations in Figures 3 and 4 also highlight the centrality of legislators’ political independence (common under higher levels of democracy) for legislative institutionalization and strength. Legislative political independence, in turn, is predicated on the ability of individual legislators to cultivate bases of political support that are independent of presidents, as well as on their ability to win re-election. Such legislators can check presidential power without fear of losing their seats. In the same vein, high re-election rates facilitate legislative accumulation of institutional memory, promote intra-legislative differentiation, and incentivize individual legislators to invest in legislative careers—including specializing in specific aspects of committee work.

The opposite is also true. High turnover rates result in stunted legislative organizational development and institutionalization. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to legislative development in Africa, a region where, on average, more than 60% of legislators fail to win re‑election (Opalo, 2017). In the face of presidents’ structural informational and bureaucratic advantages (Krehbiel, 1991), high turnover rates lead to perpetually inexperienced legislators serving in functionally amateur legislatures and unable to perform either their constitutional roles (lawmaking, oversight, and representation) or their political role (providing targeted clientelistic benefits and constituency service to voters in a bid to win re-election). Simply stated, legislative strength and independence produces strong incumbent legislators, and vice versa.


To explain contemporary variation in legislative institutionalization and strength in Africa, this article explores the evolution of the region’s legislatures from the colonial period to the present. To this end the article identifies three separate periods of legislative development in Africa. The first period, in the colonial era, marked the founding of national legislatures in the region. The defining features of this period included executive dominance over colonial legislatures in order to maintain metropolitan control, the variation in the age of colonial legislatures at independence, and the extent to which the inclusion of African independence elites guaranteed institutional continuity at independence. In the main, the colonial experience with legislatures put most African states on a path of legislative development in the shadow of relative overdeveloped, and therefore much stronger, presidents.

The post-independence attempts to adapt inherited European legislative institutional forms and practices to African political economies marked the second era. Despite presidential preponderance, in the early postcolonial period African legislators fought to assert their constitutional authority. This was invariably met by presidential resistance. In a number of countries, this inter-branch contestation generated constitutional crises that resulted in the disbandment of legislatures (see Figure 1). To forestall further challenges from legislatures, chief executives in countries that gained independence under parliamentary systems of government switched to presidential systems. And across the region, presidents adopted single-party rule as a means of screening for loyal candidates in legislative elections and enforcing party discipline among incumbent legislators. Lastly, presidents elicited the loyalty of legislators through appointments to the cabinet, diplomatic posts, or the boards of state-owned firms. Therefore, through a mix of institutional engineering, coercion, and patronage, African presidents were able to govern with legislatures without the risk of losing power.

The advent of multiparty electoral politics in the early 1990s ushered in the third era of legislative development in Africa. The availability of outside options through which to gain membership into legislatures increased legislatures’ bargaining powers vis-à-vis presidents. This was reflected in a number of ways in different countries. The average number of cabinet ministers increased, as presidents sought to buy influence among legislators. In addition to successfully increasing their salaries, in some countries legislators adopted CDFs as a means of appropriating resources for targeted benefits and constituency service. Yet in other countries, legislators managed to gain control over the bureaucratic management of legislative affairs—therefore cementing independent legislative control over their own budgets, calendars, staffing decisions, and overall agenda. A key argument in this article is that legislators’ ability to exploit their newfound independence in the multiparty era was conditional on history, accumulated political culture, and the level of legislative organizational development at the point of transition. Simply put, strong autocratic legislatures begat strong democratic legislatures following transition.

Overall, this article emphasizes the political foundations of legislative institutionalization and strength. Because strong legislatures necessarily limit presidential discretionary authority through horizontal oversight, legislative political independence is a core feature of inter-branch politics. Legislative political independence, in turn, depends on the ability of individual legislators to cultivate a persona vote, win re-election, and invest in legislative careers. A direct implication of this observation is that despite several reform efforts to strengthen African legislatures over the last decade, successful legislative strengthening will remain elusive unless there is a decline in the region’s high legislative electoral turnover rates. This is because strong legislative incumbents make for strong legislatures, and vice versa.


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  • 1. See Opalo (2019b) for a review. Prominent exceptions to this characterization of African legislatures have included works by Joel Barkan and his collaborators which highlight how legislatures and legislative elections structure politics in the region (e.g., see Barkan, 1979, 2009; Barkan & Holmquist, 1989; Barkan, Mattes, Mozaffar, & Smiddy, 2010).

  • 2. Scholars, the media, and the wider public across Africa often consider constituency service in all its variants—including “development projects”; paying school fees, hospital bills, and funeral expenses; or facilitating employment for constituents—to be outside the remit of legislative functions. This article argues that the political power of legislators is derived from their ability to be re-elected and therefore be in a position to invest in legislative careers. For this reason, successful constituency service is a core pillar of legislative institutionalization and strength.

  • 3. See Opalo (2019b). Although colonial legislatures supplanted these institutions, Koter (2013) and Baldwin (2015) show the persistent effects of chiefs on contemporary African politics.

  • 4. There was also significant variation in the timing of the establishment of legislatures within the same colonial powers. The age of colonial legislatures at independence under British rule varied from a mere 8 years in Sudan to a high of 157 years in Sierra Leone. Similarly, high variance existed under French rule—from a high of 112 years in Senegal to a low of 14 years in most French colonies.

  • 5. For example, Opalo (2019b) finds that following independence, African states with a longer experience with colonial legislatures had fewer coups on average, were more democratic, were less likely to see their legislatures disbanded, and had stronger legislatures.

  • 6. Fletcher-Cooke (1966) makes the important distinction between Legislative Councils that were established as “accompanied baggage,” that is, in settler colonies versus those created as (unaccompanied) “effort” (p. 145). The former were likely to exhibit a closer resemblance to the Westminster Model as actualized in London.

  • 7. Money bills include legislation that deals with either the generation of new revenue (taxation) or appropriations that increase the levels of overall national expenditures. A number of constitutions granted legislatures the power of virement—the ability to shift budget allocations across ministries and agencies. Yet the lack of budget analysis capacity in legislatures limited legislators’ ability to fully scrutinize and alter budgets introduced by the executive branch.

  • 8. For example, the ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP) in Zambia barred Simon Kapwepwe, a former vice president, from contesting the 1978 election (Scarritt, 2006).

  • 9. The countries in which legislators adopted CDFs include Botswana, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Uganda.