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Opinions of Saturday, 28 May 2011

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Was Ghana’s Speaker of Parliament Out of Order?

Order, Order, Order, Was Ghana’s Speaker of Parliament Out of Order?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

Parliament returned to the House on Tuesday 17 May 2011, after the Easter break and the following Friday 20 May 2011, it was reported that, the Speaker walked out of the Chamber to register her displeasure for a comment that could dent her credibility as moderator of Ghana’s Parliament. According to media reports, a member of the House from the Majority side was hesitant to withdraw and apologise for describing Ghana’s Parliament as chaotic. This was widely reported by the Ghanaian media and it generated one of the largest comments from readers on Ghanaweb. Unfortunately, this unusual but significant event that took place in the August House is quietly gathering dust without any analysis, discussion or further debate. The incident is very important and in my opinion should not be ignored and allowed to die a natural death, but should be a source of concern to Ghanaians. I guess social commentators and the media have avoided the issue in case they are hauled before the Privileges Committee for contempt of Parliament. By the power of the internet, I am able to share my views on the matter without fear of the Privileges Committee. In other words, I am out of reach and outside the jurisdiction of Ghana’s Parliament if I use language that may incur their disapproval. I promise to respect the honour of the Honourables and not disrespect the House.

The current Speaker is the first woman to hold the office in Ghana and Ghana should be proud of this achievement. The country also boasts of having a woman Chief Justice, making Ghana one of the few countries to have women heading two out of the three institutions of governance (the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary). For the records, the mother of modern parliaments (the UK Parliament) had its first woman Speaker in 1992, after seven hundred thirty four years of parliamentary democracy. I remember the headlines in the local and international media when the then Rt Hon Betty Boothroyd was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in 1999. “It’s no longer Mr Speaker, it’s now Madam Speaker” is one of such headlines. Though I have observed only the last four Speakers of the House of Commons, I must confess that, in my view, she was the most effective of the four (the current Speaker has only been in office since June 2009). Order, Order, Order and the House Commons stood in order.

The Speaker of Ghana’s Parliament is not only the most senior member of the Legislature but also head of the Legislature and third in position of succession to the presidency after the Vice-President. It is therefore critical that the office and the office holder must be given that due respect by both Honourable and ‘dishonourable’ members of the House.

Another reason why I am of the view that the incident should be discussed and analysed, is that, there is an infectious disease that is slowly but surely attacking the fabric of Ghanaian society. It is spreading like malignant cancer and is now creeping into the body politic, institutions and organisations across the country, including the three arms of government. Either Ghanaians are pretending to be unaware of this ‘cancer’s hold on society or people are just playing the proverbial ostrich and behaving as if everything under the sun is fine. The cancer is known as “INDISCIPLINE”. Discipline seems to have disappeared into thin air in Ghana and indiscipline has become the order of the day. Almost every day, there are reports of indiscipline among the youth, foot (or fool) soldiers, university and secondary school students, politicians, judges, religious leaders, workers and many others who display utter disrespect for the laws of the land and contempt for the rights of other citizens. Then last week, the Legislature became the latest victim of indiscipline. In fact, the event in Parliament that led to the Speaker unceremoniously vacating her seat in the House, did not come as a surprise to me because, I had the opportunity to listen to audio recording of the President’s State of the Nation’s address to Parliament from Peace FM website and was shocked by the confusion in the House. At the time, I assumed that the chaos was partly due to the President’s failure to give recognition to the presence of the Chief Justice and the former President. Both the majority and minority sides were completely out of order in the very house, where the word “Order” should be the modus operandi and modus vivendi, irrespective of the ideological differences between members. Some may say that parliamentarians in other countries even exchange blows during debates, so the behaviour in Ghana’s Parliament is better. My take on that, is, such parliamentarians do not understand parliamentary debates, let alone democracy. Ghana should aspire to higher standards.

Before I consider the reaction of the Speaker on that occasion, I deem it right and proper to analyse the behaviour of the Honourable member in the context of power, gender and political control. I have no intention of accusing the male dominated legislature of sexism. Nonetheless, let us be honest with ourselves. Can we confidently say that, male hegemony should be ruled out in what happened in Parliament on that fateful day, considering the position and the role of men in Ghanaian society? The disobedience shown to Madam Speaker by no mean member than the Deputy Majority Leader (his direct defiance of the Speaker’s authority by his refusal to apologise and withdraw a statement that the House was chaotic, when asked to do so on two occasions), is not only indiscipline but could be a sign of male chauvinism. The behaviour is unprecedented and absurd, particularly when it was exhibited by someone who should have, ought to have and must have known better. It was not just indiscipline but gross indiscipline or misconduct to the highest order. Assuming he was a senior employee in a public or private organisation and displayed similar recalcitrant behaviour to the head of the organisation in the glare of his colleagues, he would have faced disciplinary action for his insubordination and potential suspension or even dismissal.

It is a truism that sex is nature and there may very little that as humans we can do about it, even if medical and technological advancement have made it possible for some to change their sex. It is equally true that, gender is nurture, that is, the social construction of femininity and masculinity by society. The socialisation of the sexes begins the very minute that a baby’s sex is known at birth (may be, earlier these days). From the very moment a girl child is born into (Ghanaian) society, the odds are heavily against her and her future or destiny is predetermined to be subservient to boy/man. So boys go to school and girls stay at home to help on the farm and at home, farming is task specific with men in-charge of cultivating cash crops and women growing staple food to feed the family. That way, men have economic power and domination over women. Fathers offer their daughters in marriage but often sons are able to choose a wife for themselves. Girls cannot inherit their fathers and uncles and above all, a woman cannot be head of the family/clan, cannot be chief or king. These and many factors lead to concentration of political power in the hands of men (irrespective of the fact that, in most Akan cultures, women are the final arbiters on who should be the chief or king). So from day one, men’s supremacy over women is pervasive in the home, at village to national and international levels. It is reinforced by culture and religion (the Christian Bible says “women must obey and submit to their husbands, woman was created from a man, etc) and so men are given unfair advantage over women in life. We are socialised to wrongly believe and accept that women must obey men and it should not be the other way round. This is engraved into our psyche and for some men, especially in the developing world, no matter how educated and cultured they are, they find it implausible to take instructions from a woman, let alone an order.

The above analysis may the extreme but certainly not the exception and also not only limited to Ghana. I am not naive to deny that gender inequality is reducing but we still have a long way to go, particularly in Ghana. Is the Honourable member one of the men whose socialisation from boyhood to manhood has defined his superiority over women to such an extent that he does not believe in equality between the sexes? Or perhaps, he is one of those men who believe in gender equality but do not accept it in their private domain or is not applicable to them even in the public sphere? I leave that to his conscience. I am not sure of the percentage make up of women Members of Parliament in Ghana but I am certain it is very small. Those of us who are passionate about gender equality may be tempted to believe that, in an environment where men are in the majority and in the heat of political argument, when male ego and testosterone are in abundance, there is the higher probability that boys will be men and men will men become macho men to have recourse to their false sense of superiority. Let’s even give the benefit of the doubt to the Honourable member and accept that, the house was chaotic. Was his response by fragrantly disobeying the orders of the Speaker (not once but twice) in good taste? No, simply put, his behaviour was indiscipline, out of order and unparliamentary. In plain language, his behaviour was chaotic.

Sex discrimination is prevalent in every Ghanaian society and one does not have to go far to unearth evidence. Just listen to Ghanaian music (both hilife and traditional) and the way women are depicted in the negative as unfaithful, unreliable, untrustworthy, etc. Guys, how many women give men broken hearts and vice versa? How many women cheat on their men compared to men who cheat on their women? After all, it takes two to tango, so if women are unfaithful, how can we justify that men are faithful? Just last Sunday afternoon, I was listening to Ghanaian old tunes including “Adowa” on Ahenefie Radio (in the US) on my laptop and one Adowa song attracted my attention. The song was about death and from the Akan words, death is definitely male (“Baffour Owuo”, you are a murderer, death’s spokesman or linguist is sickness/illness, the sister is poverty, the mother is worry, etc, etc.) Apart from death itself and his linguist, all the other relatives are women. Why? Interestingly, members of the group are predominantly women. So, why are women being so negative about themselves? It is a manifestation of how our socialisation through the social construction of gender has conditioned both sexes to portray female gender in a negative way and therefore I cannot fault women but society as a whole.

What about the reaction of the Speaker, did she overreact? Definitely. How could the Speaker defend her reaction to vacate her seat and leave the House without a Speaker and was that not chaotic? Couldn’t the Speaker have adjourned proceedings for a few minutes and called the leaders of both the Majority and Minority into the Speaker’s office to show her anger, tell off the boys to behave and that she is not prepared to allow their indiscipline in the House by bringing her officer into disrepute? With wisdom of hindsight, that is what should have happened but, I still put the blame squarely on the men for the chaos. They must control their ego and check their testosterone in the house.

Indiscipline is costing Ghana a lot. In fact, the total cost cannot be quantified in human, material and monetary value. For example, the carnage on Ghanaian roads is the consequences of indiscipline by road users, outbreak of diseases is the outcome of indiscriminate disposal of waste emanating from indiscipline, corruption is the result of indiscipline, increased crime could be partly attributed to indiscipline within the law enforcement agencies, bad governance is has its root cause from indiscipline leadership and indiscipline retards national development. For example, if the Executive were disciplined, better draft bills will be put before Parliament and better laws will be passed. If the Legislature is disciplined, they will better scrutinise bills, agreements and contracts presented by the Executive. If the Judiciary were disciplined, justice will not only be dispensed but will be seen to have been dispensed. If road users are disciplined, lives will be saved. If Inland Revenue and other tax collection agencies are disciplined, there will be less corruption and more tax revenue for development. In short, if there is discipline in Ghanaian society, national development will accelerate. The cancer of indiscipline is killing Ghana and Ghana must act to find a vaccine to stop the spread before it becomes an epidemic (if it is not already an epidemic).

I acknowledge that some men will always be “men” but they should be reminded that before they became men, they were their mothers’ sons and they still are. After all, a man is a woman’s child, so let society respect and accept that our grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, aunties and all women are equal to men. That is why there is the phrase “my better half”. Our equality is nonnegotiable because we are equal by our common humanity.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK