The new Pan-African Parliament will open its second session Thursday in South Africa. It is the first time the all-African body will be meeting in its permanent host country.
It is perhaps easier to say what the Pan-African Parliament will not be doing than to say what it will do. It will not have the power to enact laws or create budgets. It will not be deploying peacekeepers. It will not be implementing any sweeping continental policy shifts. At least not yet.
A lot of what it will do will be up to its members, who are essentially defining their own roles as they go, since nothing like this has ever been done in Africa.
According to research director Korwa Adar of the Africa Institute of South Africa, the Pan-African Parliament will bring African lawmakers together from all corners of the continent and give them a chance to address the problems that plague them all.
"For the first time, African legislative bodies have seconded representatives from various parts of the continent to sit together and brainstorm, if you will, on issues that affect the continent, whether it is economic, political or social and so on," said Korwa Adar. "And I think it is a good step."
Initially, the main role of the Pan-African Parliament will be to advise the African Union and serve as a forum for continental debate and discussion. That dialogue will be carried out in five languages, and organizers are thinking about adding a sixth.
Cape-Town-based parliamentary analyst Tim Hughes of the South African Institute for International Affairs says the African Union will probably provide the framework for the debate, at least at first.
"It will apply its mind to questions of democratization, questions of transparency, questions of good governance," he said. "It will also discuss matters of peacekeeping as well, all with a view to strengthening, if you like, pan-African initiatives to achieve these broad objectives."
Mr. Hughes says the creation of the Pan-African Parliament is partly a reaction against what he calls "the top-down, executive-driven development and political programs that have characterized African development in the post-colonial period."
He says it is trying to get civil society and average people involved in solving Africa's problems - as opposed to previous efforts at pan-African unity, which have largely been restricted to heads of state.
"I think in the first instance, the Pan-African Parliament is an attempt to provide a voice, not just an executive voice, not just a voice for Africa's 'big men,' but rather a voice for a wide spectrum of people," said Tim Hughes. "And it is perhaps that diversity that the Pan-African Parliament provides for. It is an opportunity I think for sometimes marginalized groups, for different ethnic groups, for different regional groupings to have an opinion expressed in a representative forum."
At the parliament's first meeting in Ethiopia in March, members elected Tanzanian women's rights activist Gertrude Mongella as their first president. She has vowed that the body will not shy away from tough issues. For example, she says it simply has to address the crisis in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
But some analysts are concerned that the composition of the Pan-African Parliament will keep it from dealing with the continent's toughest problems. Some of its members come from countries where there is nothing resembling democracy. There are questions about their ability or willingness to criticize the leaders back home.
Korwa Adar, of the Africa Institute, is adamant that the body must be directly elected in order to really represent the interests of 800 million African people.
"The issue of governance is so crucial in the continent," said Korwa Adar. "If the Pan-African Parliament is not going to address this issue, then it is just going to be one of those talk shops, so it is important in my view that the African people, the general populace, the citizens, the electorates are drawn directly into the process, not through the back doors."
Some countries have seen controversy over who is included in their delegations, which were chosen by national parliaments. Each of the African Union's 53 active member states is sending five lawmakers to participate. One member from each nation must be a woman. Whenever possible, the delegations are supposed to include opposition members of parliament as well as those from ruling parties.
But as Mr. Hughes points out, that does not guarantee full representation.
"It is sometimes a contentious point, because obviously it would go back to parliaments themselves to nominate, and where you have a single-party-dominant system, which is the case in many countries in Africa, of course it's heavily loaded in favor of one party," he said. "And sometimes you do have quote-unquote 'tame' opposition MP's being elected to represent a country in the PAP, rather than more robust opposition. Nevertheless there has been if you like a genuflection to allowing opposition parties to have a voice in the Pan-African Parliament. That is good for domestic politics, and it's good for African politics too."
Mr. Hughes says the hope for the Pan-African Parliament - and for Africa in general - is that members from more democratic countries will influence their colleagues from less-democratic nations, and eventually bring the whole continent closer to its democratic ideal.