Civic Education in Africa: The need to promote citizens’ understanding of the role of MPs
26 May 2023 | Dyson Mthawanji | DVV International Southern Africa Citizenship Education
Citizens’ lack of understanding of the role of Members of Parliament (MPs) is a widespread problem in many African countries. This lack of understanding can lead to unrealistic demands from citizens, such as asking MPs to provide coffins, school fees, food and even connections to gain employment, which is not part of their responsibilities. In Malawi, like in many African countries, there are cases where constituents even invade the MP’s private residence to ask for such things. The constituents’ misunderstanding is that the MP should be the provider of everything. The majority of constituents are not very knowledgeable about the real areas of responsibility of MPs, which include tasks such as formulating laws.
MPs find themselves in a difficult position when they cannot respond to these diverse demands, which are not in fact part of their official duties. This situation highlights the need for civic education to educate citizens on the roles and responsibilities of their MPs.
In Kenya, some citizens demanded that their MPs provide them with basic necessities such as water and electricity, which is the responsibility of local government officials. In 2019, some MPs from Nairobi were reported to have received requests from constituents for water, electricity, and even household items such as mattresses and blankets. These demands illustrate a lack of understanding of the different roles and responsibilities of MPs and local government officials. MPs should be focused on their legislative and oversight functions, rather than being expected to provide basic services that should be the responsibility of local government officials.
In her book "Representative Democracy in Eastern and Southern Africa: Challenges and Opportunities", Lia Nijzink examines the challenges and opportunities of representative democracy in the Sub-Saharan region, including the role of MPs and their relationship with their constituents. She argues that citizens often have a limited understanding of the roles and responsibilities of MPs, which can lead to a lack of accountability and trust in the democratic process.
A better understanding of the roles of MPs in Africa is an important way for citizens to become more engaged in the political process and to hold their political representatives accountable. Concerned stakeholders, such as civil society organisations, should prioritise citizenship education with the aim of helping citizens improve their understanding of the roles of MPs in Africa.
One approach could be to start with the study of constitutions and other key legal frameworks. The Constitution of any country is the foundation of its legal and governmental system. It offers a first understanding of the powers and responsibilities of MPs. Reading the Constitution can help citizens understand the legal framework within which MPs operate. Of course, in African countries there are still many citizens who cannot read. This is where literacy and adult education classes become imperative. It is also important that countries consider translating their Constitutions into local languages for the benefit of citizens who cannot read English.
It would be beneficial if citizens could follow parliamentary sessions. Not all citizens can enter parliament buildings, but the existence of media such as radio stations, which is particularly convenient for those who cannot read, enables citizens to follow parliamentary proceedings in the comfort of their homes.
Radio remains a popular medium of communication in Africa, particularly in rural areas where access to other forms of media may be limited. In many African countries, radio is still the most widely used medium for news and information, entertainment, and education. According to a 2016 report by the World Bank on the use of media in Africa, an estimated 89% of households in sub-Saharan Africa owned a radio, making it the most widely owned media device in the region.
Following parliamentary sessions via radio can provide citizens with an insight into the debates, discussions, and decisions made by MPs. This can be an instructive way to learn about the day-to-day activities of MPs.
But apart from expanding their understanding, stakeholders should also emphasise that citizens hold the power to engage their MPs by attending town hall meetings or by scheduling meetings. This can help citizens better understand the issues and concerns of their MPs and it provides them with an opportunity to voice their own opinions. In this way, citizens can gain a deeper understanding of the roles and responsibilities of their MPs and become more active participants in the political process.
Political engagement among citizens is essential for the health and growth of a democratic society. When citizens participate in political processes, they help to ensure that their interests and concerns are represented in government decision-making. This improves political development at the community level by increasing accountability. When citizens are politically engaged, they hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions. This ensures that public officials are more responsive to the needs and concerns of their constituents, which can lead to better policy outcomes.
When citizens are informed and involved in political processes, they help to create a culture of transparency, accountability, and responsiveness that can improve the functioning of government at all levels. Political engagement also helps to ensure that marginalized communities have a voice in the decision-making process. When citizens from all walks of life participate in politics, they bring diverse perspectives and experiences to the table, which can lead to more inclusive policies that benefit everyone.
Political engagement among citizens is crucial for the development of a healthy and vibrant democracy. By participating in political processes, citizens will better understand the real roles of their MPs.
Through exploring case studies from Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda, Nijzink’s provides recommendations on how to strengthen people’s understanding of MPs’ roles. She argues that citizens' limited understanding of MPs' roles and responsibilities is partly due to a lack of civic education. She concludes that governments and civil society organizations should invest in civic education programmes that help citizens better understand the democratic process and the role of MPs.
Nijzink also suggests that parliamentary oversight mechanisms should be strengthened to hold MPs more accountable for their actions. This could include improving parliamentary committees' capacities and powers to monitor government activities and scrutinize legislation. Citizen participation is essential for promoting democratic accountability and reducing the gap between citizens and MPs. Governments and civil society organizations should create opportunities for citizens to engage with MPs and hold them accountable through a variety of means. Closing this gap between MPs and their constituents is essential for healthy and accountable democracies in Africa.