MPs not beyond reproach

They say the devil finds work for idle hands. The devil has been busy in Ghana’s Parliament. The Privileges Committee of the House met to question  Prof. Alex Dodoo, an Associate Professor in Clinical Pharmacology and the radio presenter Blakk Rasta. Both men had been accused of insulting MPs on the radio. Prof. Dodoo reportedly described MPs reaction to news of the Ebola vaccine trial in Hohoe as ignorant.

Blakk Rasta had also alleged on the entertainment news that “80 percent of Parliamentarians smoked marijuana”  during his campaign for the legalization of the substance. Two MPs found their comments offensive and asked the House to haul them before the Privileges Committee.

The invitations were issued per the Standing Orders of the House, which apparently says: “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.” This, according to the MPs who complained, grants MPs with the power to punish for contempt.

Consequently, hearings were held. MPs were able to extract apologies from the two men as well as a withdrawal of their comments.

Blakk said he was “on heat” when he made the allegations and that he was sorry. Prof. Dodoo also apologized profusely saying “I will never at any point disrespect the decision of Parliament nor, indeed, Members of Parliament; that is not my interest,” he said, adding that, “but to the extent that my words, actions or inactions have led to that, I will offer to the House, members and to the people of Ghana, an unqualified apology.”

In the end, Prof. Dodoo was pardoned while Blakk Rasta was made to apologize again, this time to all MPs at their bar. I know that not every apology─I have offered a few insincere apologies myself─so I do not begrudge them for apologizing without challenging the accusations. A small part of me wants to believe these apologies were offered to end the joke that was the hearing.

The whole thing was absurd to watch.  MPs are accountable to citizens, not the other way round. Their mandate to police the executive comes from the people, without us, they are nothing. All that arrogance would be naught without us.  They are supposed to seek our views before taking any decision, and we are supposed to review their work from time to time.

The constitutional lawyer, H. Kwasi Prempeh put it correctly when he wrote on the absurdity: “We The People are the sovereign in our constitutional system, not Parliament. MPs and Parliament are accountable to us; we are not accountable to them.”

But there they were, members of the Committee acting as prosecutors, judges, and jurors because two citizens called them out for their ignorance and laziness.  The servants whom we pay and shelter, no longer want us to speak about the horror and the indignities they make us suffer.

The nerve!

As a citizen, I am appalled by our MPs obsession with their so-called dignity and honor. I do n’t know what honor they speak of — Ghanaian MPs like the rest of us,  live and work in a country that has been ranked one of the seven dirtiest countries on the continent. Specifically, they work in a stinky smelly city. Ghana’s economy is among the worst performing economies in the world right now. Some even suspect, we may be on the path to Greece’s level of messiness.

An economic mess primarily created by excessive government spending and borrowing, also caused by Parliament’s failure to police the executive. This is a Parliament that can approve 17 loan agreements in one day without a thorough review. Essentially giving the executive a blank cheque to spend and do as it wants.

Given the state of affairs, we must be suspicious of any member of this Parliament who speaks, insists and demands respect and dignity.

What even annoys me more is that display of bi-partisan unity to bully citizens into apologizing for calling them names. MPs only agree on something when it’s about them – egos and salaries. The whole time they were on this pointless trip, nothing had said about the 150 people who died in the June 3 disaster in Accra. It took the Minister three weeks to show up to brief the House on government plans. But this evokes the same level of outrage or even a public hearing to query Ministers for failing to plan ahead for the floods. No public official has been hauled before the Privileges Committee and humiliated the way Blakk and Dodoo were for undermining the work of MPs.

As a journalist, the ritual chastening frightens me because our work requires debate, dissent and the contributions of experts, analysts, citizens, and academics. The constitution guarantees me and all other citizens these in the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These freedoms as George Orwell observed includes the “right to tell what they do not want to hear.”

MPs were totally out of line this time. The hearings were unnecessary and a total waste of time.  We pay and shelter them to scrutinize the work of government,  pass laws, and protect the public purse. They do not get to determine what the people who elected them say about their work. They are not chiefs.  They do not draw their power from God (many of them would not qualify if we still did this).

Ghana is also a democracy. And democracy thrives when the government fears the people and not the other way round. As citizens, we must do what H. Kwasi Prempeh says: “We must not allow them to use their self-interested conception of “contempt of Parliament” to turn themselves into our masters and us their servants.”

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