Most African governments, like many of their Western counterparts, are struggling to overcome corruption and political instability by defining and separating powers among sections of the government. Participants at the Commonwealth Secretariat's three-day conference in Kenya's capital are discussing the division of these powers, which act as a system of checks and balances within the government.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki opened the Commonwealth conference early in the week by stressing the need to define and separate the powers of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.
The executive, he said, is responsible for putting together national development programs and implementing laws. Parliament makes the laws, he said, while the judiciary interprets the laws and arbitrates disputes.
Ideally, said Mr. Kibaki, these three clearly defined arms of government are supposed to check up on each other and distribute the balance of power. But that does not always happen.
"One of the greatest problems that has faced African nations is the lack of clear separation of powers between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary," he said. "This is one of the core sources of poor governance, corruption, and political instability in various nations. In Africa, especially during the past decade, over-concentration of power in the executive seriously undermined the operations of the other organs of government."
Mr. Kibaki said the mere presence of the three arms of government does not necessarily mean that a country is democratic.
A lecturer in the University of Nairobi's political science department, Adams Oloo, agrees.
"African countries have chosen to go, or to lean more toward, the presidential system," he said. "But they don't go the whole length of the presidential system as in the American way, whereby you can say, for example, that the legislature and the Senate and the Congress have some form of control mechanisms over some presidential actions."
Mr. Oloo says a too-powerful president or executive gives rise to what he calls the "strong man syndrome," or "personal rule," where the office of the president can effectively stifle opposition to the government or interfere with legislative and judicial processes.
Strengthening the effectiveness of African legislatures and reforming the judiciary are two of 10 priority actions recommended in the Economic Commission for Africa's 2005 African Governance Report.
The report says long-running African dictatorships and authoritarian governments have "severely undermined and underdeveloped" the continent's legislatures and judiciaries.
In particular, says the report, the judiciary needs to be protected from outside pressure and influence and must be independent of other government institutions. Parliamentarians, it says, should be given more training and resources to increase their effectiveness.
This week's conference, co-hosted by the U.K.-based Commonwealth Secretariat and the Kenyan government, is looking at how African governments can make their judiciaries more independent, define and separate the powers of the three arms of government, and decrease corruption.
"We are seeing the cracks in the system," said Betty Mould-Iddrisu, director if the Commonwealth Secretariat's legal division. "It's making our legislatures weak, it's making the executive overtly powerful and, if the relationship is not correct, then the judiciary are more enabled to be corrupt and not be responsive to the needs of democratic governance."
Ms. Mould-Iddrisu says countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa are undergoing constitutional review processes that, among other things, examine how their constitutions set out provisions for separation of powers and judicial independence.
The Commonwealth Secretariat has 53 member countries, 18 of which are in Africa.