“Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies” is written by Georgetown University political scientist Ken Opalo. Opalo’s writing, argument and evidence are clear and compelling, so much so that the book got me — someone who has largely avoided studying political institutions for most of her career — interested in learning even more, not just about legislatures in Africa but also in Europe, Asia and Latin America. (To illustrate important regional parallels, he draws on examples from Chile, Japan and early modern Europe.)
Studying legislatures is important. As Opalo explains in this book, the history of democratic government “is one of the rise of legislatures as enforcing both horizontal and vertical accountability.” By horizontal accountability, he means political accountability among elites, and by vertical accountability, he means political accountability between elites and the broader public.
In “Legislative Development in Africa,” Opalo argues that more powerful autocrats — politically secure chief executives confident in their ability to win any open conflicts with legislators — were more likely to grant some independence to their legislatures. He further argues that authoritarian legislatures with that nominal independence were the “institutional anchors” of later democratization.
Opalo takes an in-depth look at legislatures in Kenya and Zambia during authoritarian rule. He acknowledges that in the post-colonial period presidents held significant power. At the same time, he illustrates that even in periods dominated by all-powerful presidents, legislatures had different levels of power.
While the Zambian legislature worked essentially as a rubber stamp to decisions made by a powerful president, for instance, the Kenyan legislature had some bargaining power. All legislative outcomes during the period of study were consistent with the chief executive’s preferences — which meant that neither the Zambian nor the Kenyan legislatures had independence over the “ends.” But in Kenya, legislators at least had power over the bargaining process that shaped those laws, which is what Opalo calls “means independence.”
“Legislative Development in Africa” is a deeply researched book. Opalo collected detailed data on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures covering 50 years, including information on bills, budget allocations, legislative sessions and the rules that allowed legislatures to constrain chief executives. Opalo also compiled data measuring legislative strength across Africa to demonstrate how his findings extended beyond the two in-depth case studies.
This book makes important contributions to our understanding of African politics and legislative politics more broadly. First, Opalo’s book sheds light on a branch of government that many scholars of African politics have ignored. Because presidents wield so much power across the continent, little attention has been paid to the variation in legislative power across Africa. (An important exception is work by the late political scientist Joel Barkan, upon which Opalo’s research builds.)
Another important contribution of Opalo’s book is what it offers to scholars of legislative politics beyond Africa. Particularly as analysts warn of a “third wave of autocratization” and the growing authoritarian turn among democracies, Opalo’s work on authoritarian legislatures joins work by others on authoritarian institutions that could provide relevant, timely insights.
Perhaps even more importantly, the findings in Opalo’s book have implications for people and organizations wanting democracy and accountability to take root in authoritarian or recently authoritarian countries. Opalo’s book states “legislatures are the sine qua non institutions of representative democratic government.” The details of Opalo’s analysis suggest in particular that democracy promoters might focus on supporting organizational development — e.g., investing in legislative record keeping and research support — to promote legislative development, which could increase both horizontal and vertical accountability.
Among the lessons we learn from this week’s Saba Saba protests in Kenya is that the path to full democracy — what political scientists call democratic consolidation — can be long. Opalo’s important book suggests we also look to the long history of political development to identify opportunities to continue on the path to democratic consolidation.