By Ernest Armah
The Right to Information (RTI) Bill
In accordance with article 67 of the 1992 Constitution, the President of the Republic of Ghana is required to tell Ghanaians the state of the nation at the beginning of each session of Parliament and before a dissolution of Parliament. In his final state of the nation address, Ex-President John Dramani Mahama, among others, had this to say to Parliament, “I must however say that the public and Civil Society Organisations are disappointed in our inability to pass the Right to Information bill and are still hopeful that before this Parliament is dissolved a consensus can be found to pass this bill into law.”
The Sixth Parliament was dissolved without passage of the RTI bill into law. President Akufo-Addo is set to deliver his maiden state of the nation address on Tuesday February 21. During his campaign for the presidency, he was positively stereotyped by his party as a Human Rights Lawyer who fought for the rights, liberty and justice of the commoner. In his own words, his government will “place people at its centre. Their hopes and their concerns will drive policies and priorities”. Now as President, he has the opportunity to act on his rhetoric by tasking Parliament (with a clear majority) to pass the RTI bill into law.
Ghana’s Parliament: Then and Now
The Parliament of Ghana hitherto from 1960 has had both failures and successes. The first three Parliaments (1960-1966; 1969-1970; 1979-1981) failed as a result of military takeovers. What remains the most successful of all Parliamentary democracies in Ghana’s history is the Fourth Republic (1993-to date).
Though Ghana practices a multi-party democracy, what we have seen over the years is domination of the Executive and Legislative arms of government by the two main political parties; the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP). The NDC had majority seats in the first, second, fifth and Sixth Parliaments whereas the NPP in the third, fourth and the current (Seventh) Parliament (see figure below). In the second Parliament (1997-2001), the NDC was able to have majority seats through a coalition with the Eagle party and the Democratic People’s Party. The NPP fashioned a working majority in the fifth Parliament by co-opting independent MPs and those from the People’s National Convention (PNC) and Convention People’s Party (CPP).
Holding Parliament Accountable
Prior to the Sixth and current Parliaments, Ghana lacked a rigorous, empowering, apartisan, objective and citizen-responsive instrument to assess the performance of MPs and Parliament and inform a debate on the role and effectiveness of Parliament in our democratic and constitutional system. More emphasis was placed on citizens’ perception of Parliament and its members in terms of their ability to provide local development. Odekro’s assessment of the Sixth Parliament of Ghana filled the information gap on the legislative and oversight functions of the Ghanaian parliament. The apartisan nature of the assessment also gave the leadership of Parliament the presence of mind to examine itself in order to identify its own strengths and weaknesses, and work towards necessary reforms.
The assessment further served as a magnifying glass through which citizens viewed the quality of representation their MPs provided them in Parliament. The low involvement of Ghanaians especially the youth in civic and political activism is partly attributable to wrong means of engagement. When we engaged Ghanaians with our findings on our social media platforms in accessible language and visualisations they can easily relate to, we were able to actively engage close to 5,000 people ; some asking for the performance scorecards of their MPs whereas others volunteered information about their MPs.
This is a reality Parliamentarians have to come to terms with. Holding fast to traditional media in an era when you have about 2 million Ghanaians on social media (Facebook) clearly will not deepen engagement with local constituents you can’t meet physically.
The Challenge & Opportunity
Parliament should reconsider its way of conducting business in the House. It smacks of hypocrisy for a House of 275 honorable members who debate on prioritizing science and technology over the arts, to peruse printed parliamentary documents (Votes and Proceedings and Order Papers) during proceedings.
This is an avoidable expense as Parliament has installed electronic devices to facilitate proceedings in the House.
Procedural reforms are also critical to facilitating parliamentary effectiveness. The Speaker of Parliament, Professor Mike Aaron Oquaye has served as an MP and a Second Deputy Speaker in the fifth Parliament of Ghana (2009-2012). In an earlier article, Odekro expressed the view that his parliamentary experience and rulings on issues of procedure and substance as Second Deputy Speaker would be indicative of his performance as Speaker. We were not far from right.
Professor Oquaye, among others, plans to revise the current standing orders and also capture rulings of past Speakers to serve the purposes of guidance and precedence. Over the years, MPs have requested various leadership of parliament to create a separation between members absent on their personal business and those absent on Parliamentary business. This is yet to be done as MPs are still marked “absent” and “absent without permission”. Successful closure to the revision of the standing orders of the House will be a significant milestone for him.
Breathing life into article 97 of the Constitution is also important as several MPs in past Parliaments have repeatedly breached the provision. Article 97 (1) (c) states that “a member of Parliament shall vacate his (or her) seat in Parliament if he (or she) is absent, without the permission in writing of the Speaker and he (or she) is unable to offer a reasonable explanation to the Parliamentary Committee on Privileges from fifteen sittings of a meeting of Parliament during any period that Parliament has been summoned to meet and continues to meet.”
Leadership is a demanding call and those who have subjected themselves to public leadership, should rise to the occasion and be prepared for public scrutiny. In the last Parliament, altogether, 123 MPs scored below average in the performance of their legislative duties. In attendance, 140 MPs were on average absent from Parliament about 130 times of 398 sittings.
About 200 MPs contributed an average of 31 statements on the floor of Parliament relative to a norm-referenced score of 4,188. Some MPs never uttered a word on the floor of Parliament throughout this period. To the seven silent MPs who managed to retain their seats, they have a golden opportunity to improve their performance.
To the 131 (NPP-89; NDC-42) new MPs who were inaugurated into the Parliament on January 6, they have the benefit of precedence to do better. Indeed some replaced very experienced, astute MPs and have big shoes to fill. The others recused from this burden will still have to rise to the occasion and make their presence felt in Parliament.