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20.03.2019 Feature Article

The Cost of Legislative Dissent: Toe the Line or Get Towed

The Cost of Legislative Dissent: Toe the Line or Get Towed

Parliament’s Standing Order 20 provides a safe space for members of Parliament (MPs) to debate and intervene on constitutional, legislative, administrative and general public policy matters in outspoken terms. Standing Orders are the internal rules and procedures that regulate the proceedings of Parliament.

On the back of Order 20, it is very easy for an MP to subject the President and his 123 Ministers to the highest standards of integrity, transparency and responsiveness to electorates’ preferences. But it is extremely difficult for an MP to do same to his political party. Simply put, it is easier for an MP to say that the government is corrupt than to say that his party leadership is corrupt. In most parliamentary systems like Ghana’s, legislative dissent is a very costly venture, such that MPs who refused to be whipped into line must be prepared to pay a price.

The manner Mr. Mahama Ayariga (MP, Bawku Central), now former Chair of the Subsidiary legislation Committee, used to deploy his presence in Parliament – his aura of forthrightness, revolution and ‘bring-it-on’ posture – has drastically changed in the aftermath of corrupt allegations he made against key leaders of Parliament, which affected both sides of the political divide. It seems he has been pummeled into a deserted underdog.

According to Parliament’s Committee of Selection, the recent re-composition of committee leadership and membership (access committee recomposition information here: https://goo.gl/EaXGJ4) became necessary due to, among other considerations:

  1. The need to enhance the performance and effectiveness of the Committees of the House;
  2. Appointment of some leaders of parliamentary committees to international parliamentary bodies making them frequently absent and
  3. The sudden death of Hon. Emmanuel Kyeremanteng and the subsequent election of Hon. Lydia Alhassan.

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These are damage-control justifications that reifies the observation that legislative business is party and executive business. Here’s why:

  1. Just recently, the President appointed 14 persons to the positions of regional and deputy regional Ministers for the six newly created regions. Out of the 14 persons, eight were MPs (representing 57%). This will significantly impact on parliamentary committees because per the rules of Parliament, Committee chairs who get ministerial appointments must rescind their leadership roles. Also, this Presidential harvest of parliamentary talent to a numerical extent of 57% was guided by Article 78 (1), a moribund constitutional provision that permits the President to plunder Parliament.
  2. Citinewsroom.com, on 15th July, 2018, reported Hon. Sam George to have said, “We are basically not working…Your chairman (Kennedy Agyapong) has to call meetings and when your chairman is virtually always absent, how would you have meetings?. On February 16, 2019, Odekro issued a presser objecting to the mere reprimand meted out to the Mr. Ken Ohene Agyapong (MP, Assin Central) over his contemptuous remarks at the leadership and institution of Parliament for the reasons that the MP is a remorseless, serial violator of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, the Standing Orders of Parliament and MPs Code of Conduct. Yet the Committee of Selection chaired by Rt. Hon. Professor Mike Oquaye and his 19 members retained Hon. Ohene Agyapong as Chair of the Communications Committee. According to reports, the reason Mr. Ayariga was relieved of his duty as Chair of the Subsidiary Legislation Committee was that “his absence (due to his ECOWAS Parliament duties) is negatively affecting” his performance as Committee Chair. However, interestingly, Mr Ayariga has a better attendance record than Mr Ohene Agyapong. So this begs the question: Is it really the manifest intent of the Committee of Selection to make parliamentary committees perform and effective?

Groupthink and group cohesiveness are enduring, unwritten codes of parliamentary practice and a member of each of the parties who departs from that practice, risks losing his or her recognition within the party. Sensitivity to the whip system in Parliament is very important.

In the 5th Parliament, Hon. Joe Ghartey (NPP) openly disagreed with his then Minority Leader Hon. Kyei-Mensah-Bonsu (NPP) on the issue of configuration and identity of political parties in Ghana. He subsequently had to plead with his leader not to reshuffle him as a Ranking Member of the Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee. Although this parallel event happened under humorous circumstances, with the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that most MPs are conscious of the fact that legislative business is party and executive business.

Thus in the case of Mr Ayariga, we have seen the whip system and its excesses came on too strong to an individual who only drew attention to a perceived dishonorable malpractice among honourable members. In the case of Mr Ken Agyapong, we are seeing how the same whip system deals in a laissez-faire approach with members who attack the party and with members who attack colleague members for not pushing party agenda strongly enough.

Ernest Armah
Ernest Armah, © 2019

This author has authored 15 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: ErnestArmah

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