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Opinions of Sunday, 19 July 2015

Columnist: Asare-Donkoh, Frankie

Of politics, politicians and arrogance...as MPs belittle our intelligence

On March 10, 2014, Mr Alban S. K. Bagbin, Member of Parliament for Nadowli/Kaleo was reported to have said at a workshop in Koforidua that members of parliament (MPs) take bribes to articulate the views of some individuals and organisations on the floor of Parliament.

In fact, the audio of Mr Bagbin’s reported speech is still on the internet and I just listened to it again as I write this column (Thursday, July 16), and I can say without any doubt that, that was exactly what he said.

Some MPs were angry at their colleague, forcing him initially to blame the media (as usual with politicians) for ‘mis-reporting’ or ‘reporting him out of context’. The Minority Leader, Osei Kyei Mensah Bonsu challenged Mr Bagbin to provide evidence of his allegation.

Eventually, Mr Bagbin accepted that the media didn’t ‘mis-report’ or ‘report him out of context’. On one Accra radio station, he confirmed his allegation against his colleagues: “It is an open secret,” he said, and challenged his colleagues to stop behaving like “ostriches” and admit to the offence.

The issue went before a special committee of Parliament. Eric Kawkye Darfor, a member of the committee told one journalist that even though the comments by Bagbin remained an allegation, it had the potential of denting the image of Parliament.

Strangely, however, in October 2014, Parliament cleared Mr Bagbin of any wrong doing, yet the committee whose sitting was not telecast has never told Ghanaians what proof Mr Bagbin gave to confirm that some MPs take bribe to champion the interests of organisations’ and individuals on the floor of Parliament.

Preferential Treatment

In June this year, Mr Aboubakar Ahmed, popularly called Blakk Rasta, a reggae musician and radio host on Accra-based Hitz FM, alleged that 80 per cent of MPs smoke marijuana. He admitted to have said that “about 80 per cent of MPs or over, might have used marijuana before and are still using”. This, in no doubt, was a reckless statement since he had no evidence to support it.

On June 25, 2015, Blakk Rasta was dragged before the Privileges Committee of Parliament with live television coverage. Ken Kuranchie, Editor of the Daily Searchlight newspaper, which published the allegations made by the musician was also made to face the committee.

Following immediately on this was another invitation of Parliament to Prof Alex Dodoo, the WHO scientist and Lecturer at the School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Ghana, who appeared before the Privileges Committee last Tuesday, July 14, for calling on MPs to apologise to Ghanaians for their “uniformed and ignorant assertions” about the recent trial of Ebola vaccines in Ghana.

Prof. Dodoo had said on a radio programme that it was embarrassing that MPs had asked elementary questions on the floor of the House on whether the trial had been done on mice and chimpanzees when the MPs should have known that the same Parliament had mandated the Food and Drugs Authority to undertake such trials. Even the host of the radio programme was also invited.

Our MPs had argued that their actions of inviting people to the house are based on Parliament’s Standing Order 32, which says any acts which affront directly or indirectly the name of Parliament is in contempt of the criminal code and subject to be punished.

During the ‘trial’ of Prof Dodoo, the MPs also cited Article 115 of the Constitution, which states that: “There shall be freedom of speech, debate and proceedings in Parliament and that freedom shall not be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”

How have the MPs educated the electorate who sent them to Parliament on the rules in that house to enable the people know the Parliamentary Orders? Also, does Order 32 only apply to non-MPs, otherwise how can Bagbin’s allegation of bribery, a very serious and criminal offence not receive the same treatment like the one given to Blakk Rasta’s allegation that some MPs smoke marijuana?

Article 17 (1) says: “All persons shall be equal before the law”, while (2) stipulates that: “A person shall not be discriminated against on grounds of gender, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status.” Is Parliament not breaching this article by treating an allegation of corruption by an MP with kids’ gloves and treating an allegation of marijuana smoking by an ordinary citizen so harshly?

Limited Understanding of Article 115

A very disturbing aspect of the conduct of our Parliament in recent times is the house’s limited understanding and interpretation of Article 115 of the Constitution. The 1992 Constitution has provisions on free speech. Article 21 (1) says: “All persons shall have the right to (a) freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media; and (b) freedom of thought, conscience and belief, which shall include academic freedom.”

Article 120 stipulates that: “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, a person shall not be under any civil or criminal liability in respect of the publication of (a) the text or a summary of any report, papers, minutes, votes and proceedings of Parliament; or (b) a contemporaneous report of the proceedings of Parliament; unless it is shown that the publication was effected maliciously or otherwise without good faith. Prof Dodoo was well within this provision, yet our MPs seemed ignorant of this provision.

Arrogance of MPs

It seems our MPs are arrogantly allocating to themselves how to interpret the constitution otherwise, one is at a lost as to why they treated Bagbin differently from Aboubakar Ahmed, and Alex Dodoo. Article 115 only protects MPs from prosecution or being sued for what they say in parliament, but it does not make them immune for criticism. How many scientist are on Parliament’s committee on health, and which institutions did MPs consult before their ill-informed discussion of the Ebola vaccine trial?

The worrying trend is that MPs are placing themselves above the constitution and ring-fencing themselves from criticism even though they are accountable to us, those who elected them into Parliament. We have every right to criticise the President and his ministers, the Chief Justice and judges because none of them is above the law. The Speaker and MPs, are no different from members of the Executive and Judiciary.

Now after telling us sugar-coated words and giving us all the sweet promises at the time they needed our votes, some of them turn round to tell us they are broke and have to borrow before the feed their families, but when we criticise them some take us to radio stations to insult us just because we have described their behaviour as disgraceful.

MPs Privileegs

Being an MP goes with many privileges including a loan for a four-wheel drive vehicle which workers in Ghana are not entitled to at their entry into any new job, not to talk about mouth-watering end-of-service benefits after only a four-year work period, plus free housing.

The level or arrogance being displayed by our Parliament and parliamentarians in belittling the intelligence of the electorate must be curtailed before our MPs turn themselves into tin gods. They criticise even the President, but they want to keep all of us silent even when they use our meagre foreign exchange to import cheap and inferior furniture from China when the President is crying to Ghanaians to patronise made-in-Ghana goods and our carpenters are manufacturing quality furniture locally.

Parliament must take note that respect is earned, and that it cannot continue to use its bullying tactics to supress free expression and press freedom in Ghana. The same constitution which protects Parliament also gives us the right to criticise it.