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Opinions of Friday, 18 April 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie/Daily Dispatch

THE OUTSIDER: The messy road to parliament

Being an MP in Ghana is quite an easy job.

But getting into parliament can be quite challenging. It takes quite lot of scheming, some networking, a cunning disposition to make promises you know you can’t fulfil and a wee bit of hard work – not the difficult sort that often makes you sweat or tires your brain. Working hard to go to parliament essentially means that you have to network diligently (attend any and every funeral you hear of in the constituency) and be diligent with your lies (“Vote for me and our clinic will be turned into a polyclinic.”) People fall for such deceit that’s how most of our lawmakers get elected. At this point, the hard work ends.

When you get into parliament, you wouldn’t have much to do. First, you just have to decide which side to be on – majority or minority. Your decision will be based on whether you came to parliament on the ticket of the ruling party or the opposition party or as an independent candidate. It shouldn’t take you too long to decide where you belong. The independents (and those with the least representation in the house) tend to go with the majority (or the ruling party). After you’ve decided where you belong, you just have to sit and wait. When bills are brought to the house, you don’t even have to read them – just follow what your party says. If your party is sponsoring the bill, you dare not oppose it and if your party opposes the bill, you dare not speak favourably about it.

That’s about it for the work of an MP in Ghana today. It isn’t exactly a lot of work, is it? You don’t even need to show up for work every day. Our parliament is almost always empty with just a handful of MPs attending sittings. A good number of them end up sleeping.

The chamber only gets full when the president is passing by to present his sessional address or when some international dignitary stops over or when there are bills to be voted on or when the MPs have to meet for a closed-door discussion on their service conditions. But the perks the MPs get for doing next to nothing are mouth-watering.

First you get to call yourself ‘honourable’. You might be a drug peddler but once you get into parliament you become honourable. Eric Amoateng called himself ‘honourable’ until he was arrested in the US. Even so, he still wanted to be called ‘honourable’.

And in this country, honourables don’t pay any bills. They get free housing and hefty transport and other allowances. MPs also get car ‘loans’, which most of them end up not re-paying. With the constitutional stipulation that most ministers should come from parliament, just being in the legislature enhances your chances of serving in government, which, also comes with its own set of undeserved perks.

Oh yes, being an MP is an easy job which pays extremely well – especially if you play your sycophantic cards very well. And that explains why so many people want to go there. Just take a look at the long list of parliamentary aspirants in the two main parties in the country and you will appreciate my point. Democracy is about plurality and choice. So under normal circumstances, we should all be happy that there are so many people seeking to enter parliament to help pass good laws for our welfare. But our circumstances here in Ghana are not normal. Most of the people with parliamentary ambitions are only in the race because they see parliament as a means to their selfish ends. Having elected their presidential candidates, the political parties are now focussed on choosing their parliamentary candidates and with so many people aspiring for the easy and cosy life of MP, the contests are getting nasty. There is a lot of intra-party rivalry going on with some of the candidates (and their supporters) being so petty and plain silly. The ruling party seems to be the one suffering this madness the most.

Take the situation in Ayawaso West Wuogon for example. Some party supporters (I’m sure with the backing of one of the aspirants) have raising their voices as loud as possible to complain against the incumbent MP, Frema Opare-Osei. Their beef is that she should not be allowed to contest in the constituency primary because she didn’t pick her nomination forms from the right office. Instead of the constituency office, she picked her forms from the NPP headquarters. The woman has filed her nominations. Does it matter where she got her forms from?

Another case in point is that of the ruling party’s former general secretary, Dan Botwe. He wasted a lot of time and money to contest in the party’s presidential primaries. He lost and lost miserably. But he still wants to get into parliament. Hopefully, a parliamentary career will give him some visibility, which will help in his next presidential bid. Mr. Botwe’s problem, though, is that some people in the Okere constituency, where he wants to contest, claim that he’s not a member in good standing – at least not in the constituency. They claim he has not been paying dues to the constituency branch and he has not been attending meeting either. But Mr. Botwe, we all know, is a card-bearing member of the NPP. For Christ’s sake he paid 25000 GHC into the party’s coffers in his failed bid to become presidential candidate. He also contributed immensely to the party’s electoral victories in 2000 and 2004. So why is he not a member in good standing?

In the Evalue Gwira constituency, Catherine Afeku, who is government’s spokesperson on infrastructure (she’s just paid to talk about the bridges and roads the government will build ‘soon’) is running for parliament. I am sure she wants to go to parliament because she has been told that if she wins, she could easily become a minister of state – possibly at the information ministry and responsible for answering ‘infrastructure’ questions. Well, all sorts of allegations are flying over Mrs. Afeku’s head. She was asked by the party’s vetting committee to present some documents to prove her case and what do we hear? For some strange reason, she left the all-important documents in her car and thieves ended up breaking into the vehicle and taken the documents away. The damn thieves were so brazen, they decided to steal the documents in broad daylight – and at the party’s national headquarters of all places. It hard not to believe Mrs. Afeku. As a government spokesperson, I’m sure she doesn’t know how to lie. (Ahem!) But it’s also hard to believe that thieves broke into her car where they did and the only thing they took away was the suitcase containing those precious documents that were supposed to prove her innocence –the key to a future in parliament.

I guess it’s all politics. It all adds up to the difficulty to trying to get into parliament and with so many people aspiring to the easy office of MP, things are going to get pettier and nastier. But for the aspirants it’s all worth the trouble. After going through it all, you will become an ‘honourable’ and the perks will flow like aqua.