In a strictly confidential letter to the Speaker of Parliament on 20 January, 2017, British High Commissioner to Ghana Jon Benjamin alleged that three sitting MPs and a former MP have engaged in Visa fraud “directly affecting the United Kingdom.” How can a confidential letter from a diplomat to a legislature of a sovereign state be leaked to media houses? This question together with many others critiquing the motive behind the leakage and the condescending tone of some paragraphs of the letter have drawn the ire of some MPs. Samuel Ablakwa (MP, North Tongu), the ranking member on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs says that the High Commissioner has no right to lecture heads of the Executive and Legislative arms of government on responsible use of diplomatic passports. Alhassan Suhuyini (MP, Tamale North) minced no words in accusing the High Commissioner of acting undiplomatically in a manner that affect respect for the Parliament of Ghana.
Against this scandalous background, let’s take a detour from the current direction of discussions on the issue, away from the grammatical punches at personalities and institutions involved for a moment and avert our minds to a fresh point of view. The issue at hand is about abuse of privileges and integrity of persons supposed to be torchbearers of integrity. Of the 275 MPs in Ghana’s Parliament, some act good, others bad and there are those who alternate between the two. So the existential crisis in relation to acts of good and bad in our Parliament is not in doubt. What is, is how our not-so dear Parliament responds to reports of corruption and bad behavior of its own?
MPs in Jon Benjamin’s cherished United Kingdom are just as capable of engaging in fraud and criminal enterprises as Ghanaian MPs. The expenses scandal which hit the UK Parliament in 2009 easily comes to mind. So are we receiving a moral lesson from a brothel? Partly. In the case of the UK Parliament, swift, punitive sanctions were applied – there were resignations, sackings and in some of the cases, imprisonment. On the back of that, more stringent measures were instituted to prevent recurrence including the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to police MPs’ expenditure. So when you show me the scandal from Benjamin’s Parliament, I will show you a scalpel for the removal of rot. Unfortunately, for Ghana’s Parliament, I can only show you a committee and a five-worded summary of Christ’s magnanimous mercy – “Go and sin no more.”
Like many other public institutions, Ghana’s parliament is perceived to be corrupt and defensive. This is largely because Parliament is not open and transparent enough to enable us determine whether MPs are really representing constituents’ interests, party interests or private interests. Committee meetings are not opened to the public by default with the exception of the Public Accounts Committee. Lack of access to Parliamentary committees perpetuates the perception of serious “chopchop”. Also, as it is now, an MP is absent with or without permission of the Speaker. When an MP is absent without permission, it is impossible to figure out the particulars of his or her activity. Until the current absent procedure is revised to reflect reasons for absenteeism, Parliament will not have an objective response to put to rest allegations of MPs abusing public office for private gain. Hence Parliament will keep getting hellos from the anger side of Ghanaians.
Moreover, when MPs are found guilty of a criminal act, the right to subject them to a public vote of no confidence or request for their immediate recall is not in the bosom of citizens, but the Speaker of Parliament. Immunities granted to MPs makes them untouchable in the sense that Ghanaians cannot initiate a civil or criminal process against them. In the Sixth Parliament of the Republic, over 70 MPs absented themselves from more than 15 parliament sittings on multiple occasions contravening article 97 (1)(c) of the constitution. To date, no action has been taken against these MPs.
The ballot box is the only avenue citizens can vent their spleen against dishonorable conduct by honorable members of Ghana’s Parliament. The ballot box is however inadequate.
Even when it is perceived that a foreign entity is up to some mischief and diabolical intent to bring the name of MPs and Parliament into disrepute, blatant abuse of privilege, irresponsible conduct and ceremonial solutions to such, makes it hard, if not impossible, for citizens to stand by Parliament’s side. MPs cannot get public support and sympathy when what they do with fat privileges and benefits are veiled and inaccessible to the very people who put them where they are.