While modern parliaments in Africa receive little attention in the scholarly literature, they are drawing considerable attention from the international donor community. Since the early 1990s, when many African countries resumed multi-party elections and democratic practices, legislative strengthening programmes have become an important part of international democracy assistance. Despite these programmes, our knowledge about Africa’s current parliaments remains limited. They seem to be widely regarded as potential agents for democratic change but whether national legislatures are in fact enhancing the quality of democracy on the African continent is far from clear. This study discusses two important issues that lie at the heart of the democracy-enhancing potential of Africa’s current parliaments: their institutional capacity and the way they are perceived by the citizens they represent. After a brief review of the existing literature on legislatures in Africa, the essay first considers whether they have the institutional capacity to fulfil a meaningful role and provides a detailed description of the autonomy of parliaments in 16 selected countries. It then turns to the way Africans perceive and evaluate their parliaments. Do citizens see their legislatures as valuable institutions? Finally, we discuss the implications of our findings for the prospects of African parliaments becoming agents of democratic change.
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