Nana Agyeman Birikorang: Impact of Covid-19 on Ghana’s Parliament; the unprecedented suspension of the House ruling
It was Saturday the 4th of April 2020 and Members of Parliament were anxiously waiting for the Speaker Professor Aaron Michael Oquaye to give his closing remarks for the end of the First Meeting of the Fourth Session of the Seventh Parliament of the Fourth Republic and to adjourn the House Sine Die.
Members of Parliament had been hoping for the House to be adjourned Sine Die on Friday the 3rd of April 2020, to avoid getting closer to their colleagues in the Chamber because of the fear, panic and wild revelations about the fastest spreading of the novel coronavirus also known as COVID-19. But very typical of the August House not finishing business scheduled for a particular Meeting, adjourning for recess was pushed to Saturday 4th April 2020.
Meanwhile, the President His Excellency Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo had made his first broadcast on Wednesday 11th March 2020 to ban all public gatherings including churches. funerals and schools have been closed indefinitely and various measures had been put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID – 19 in the country.
Unfortunately because of the COVID-19 Parliament has to conduct its sittings with the support of a skeletal essential staff. Some Parliamentary staff, National Service Persons, MPs Research Assistants and other ancillary service providers excerpt those identified to provide critical services to the House, have been directed to proceed on leave, as part of measures to decongest Parliament and prevent the infection and spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Currently, Parliament is no longer accepting visitors including pupils to the public gallery to observe Parliamentary proceedings in line with the Public Affairs Department initiative “The Visitors Programme” The Public Affairs Department had to organize various virtual interactive outreach programmes to still educate the public about the work of Parliament.
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One can imagine the height of fear and how anxious the Members of Parliament were and itching on their seats for the House to be adjourned Sine Die so that they can go to their constituencies or stay at home with their families.
When the Rt. Hon. Speaker finally started his remarks, the press at the gallery, almost all the MPs from both sides of the House at a point seemed lost and couldn’t understand whether it was a closing remark or a statement.
Then he stated categorically “ Hon. Members, we are suspending sitting on this day, and this Honourable House will stand suspended until the Speaker, in consultation with the leadership of the House deem it fit to ask the House to resume sitting.
This action is unprecedented but indeed we are living in unprecedented times and the whole Ghana State is in a State of National Emergency.
Hon. Members, we are not rising today but we are suspending sitting indefinitely. If we should rise, then on any emergency where our intervention will be required we may need two-week notice according to the Constitution and the Standing Orders. Once sitting is suspended we can ask the House to proceed to work in a day or two”.
One can imagine how the words of the Rt. Hon. Speaker passed through the stomach of the Honourable Members like a double edge sword. This is not what they expected!
Immediately after the unexpected bombshell dropped by the Rt. Hon. Speaker, the Minority Leader, Hon. Haruna Iddrisu led his members to address the media outside the Chamber and explained further that the Speaker had no such powers to do what he did because it goes contrary to the Standing Orders and the rules of the House.
The Minority Leader described the actions of the Speaker as dictatorial and an attempt to prorogue Parliament.
Already the National Democratic Congress (NDC) Member of Parliament for Ningo-Prampah, Hon. Sam George had written a “love” letter to the Rt. Hon. Speaker expressing his views on how risky he thinks it was for MPs to still attend sittings in the midst of the raging pandemic.
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“I may only be a first-time Member of this August House but my convictions about what is right, or not, is not borne out of my membership of this August Assembly. It is borne out of my personal creed and ethos of doing right by all men at all time as commanded by my Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ. It is my considered belief Rt. Hon. Speaker that the August House of Parliament is failing to exercise its truly intended role in crisis moments like this. I hold the strongest conviction that we are pandering whilst the flames that may engulf the Republic are being stoked. We are more interested in the form than the substance. This is not what politics should be about. This is not what leadership should be. Our people deserve much better of the House that you lead Rt. Hon. Speaker.
These are not normal times. As such, I would be absenting myself from Parliament hence except there is a matter relating to the Corona Virus which Parliament needs to lend support to the Executive. I would spend the time working with my District Directorate of Health to increase public sensitization in the Constituency. If Parliament has no business related to the Corona Virus, suspend sittings of the House until such a time when we are needed” he stated in the letter.
Quite obviously the Rt. Hon. Speaker was not happy about the contents of the love letter from Hon. Sam George and he described it as “a castigating letter”.
“ I inform you with deep regret that I have received a castigating letter from the Hon. Sam George MP for Ningo-Prampram Constituency which says he cannot attend the Sitting of this House again because sittings are just a waste of his time as the sittings during this period are only to approve loans. This is sad.” The Rt. Hon. Speaker noted.
Professor Aaron Michael Oquaye also commended the Majority Leader and had a word of advice for the Minority Leader. He said “I am proud of the devotion members to have shown during this period. I am particularly proud of the Honourable Leader of the House, Sompahene Hon. Osei Kyei-Mensah Bonsu and all the faithful MPs. I will advise the hard-working Hon, Minority Leader who has a great record in his wonderful contributions, to advise the Minority Members who do not see the need to cooperate at this time of national emergency. We have done a great job so far and I will set out a few post-virus reactions by this Hon. House when the crisis is over, I trust this Honourable House will be proud of itself and in the eyes of Ghanaians”.
Despite the spread of the Coronavirus with only a few of the MPs attending proceedings, Parliament was working. Safety measures had been put in place, the seats in the Chamber had been rearranged to create more space and under no circumstance should you enter Parliament without a face mask.
The Pandemic affected the work of Parliament because a medical team lead by Dr Pambo from the Parliament Clinic had to conduct tests on all MPs, Staff of Parliament, ancillary staff including the police service, fire service, building contractors, the press and all those working within the premises of Parliament.
The image and reputation of Parliament were also bastardised by a section of the public because when the results of the coronavirus test were ready it was not made public. There were speculations in the media about the number of MPs, Staff of Parliament and Members of the Parliamentary Press Corps who had tested positive.
The explanation from the Majority Leader that there were a Doctor and Patient agreement between the Leadership of the House and the medical team that the positive results should be communicated to the patients and not to the Leadership of the House was angrily disputed by the Minority Chief Whip Hon. Alhaji Mubarak Muntaka with figures of those who had tested positive.
The Minister of Health Hon. Kweku Agyeman Manu, Minister of Education Hon. Mathew Opoku Prempeh, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Hon. Carlos Ahenkorah and a number of Members of Parliament contracted the virus and for some time they had to stop coming to Parliament to perform their Parliamentary duties and go to hospitals to receive medical treatment.
Despite all these COVID-19 hazards, the House passed a number of legislations and they include Imposition of Restrictions Act, 2020 (Act 1012), Corporate Insolvency and Restructuring Bill, 2019, Education Regulatory Bodies Bill, 2019, Technical Universities (Amendments) Bill, Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Act, 2020, Pre-tertiary Education Bill, 2019.
A number of loan and contract agreements including tax waivers among others were also approved during the period.
The Finance Minister, Mr Ken Ofori-Atta made a statement to appraise the House on the Fiscal implications of the coronavirus on the economy of the country and measures being implemented by Government to pay depositors who had their funds with defunct Microfinance Institutions and Savings and Loans Companies.
However, it was not all the MPs who were in agreement to the ruling that the House stands suspended so that it can be recalled within the shortest notice instead of the mandated two-week notice if the House stands adjourned Sine Die.
The Rt. Hon. Speaker who knew he was doing the right thing by suspending the House said “it is rather unfortunate that a few Hon. Members have failed to appreciate in perspective the need for our Parliament to be in session at this critical moment. I believe upon sober reflection we would all be agreeable or come to this realization and move forward in unity and collectively resolve to continue to offer our services which I dare say is currently in greater demand”.
The COVID-19 had to force the Rt. Hon. Speaker to suspend the House on three occasions during the First Meeting of the Fourth Session, a situation which is unprecedented in the life of the Fourth Republic and in the history of Parliament.
The Second Meeting of the Fourth Session of the Seventh Parliament commenced on 19th May 2020 and ended on Friday 14th August 2020 and the Coronavirus still rages on. It is, however, significant to note that it was the longest meeting of the current Parliament with the Householding 53 sittings within a thirteen (13) week period.
A number fourteen (14) Bills were presented to the House and referred to the appropriate Committees for consideration and report. Fourteen (14) Regulations in respect of various subject matters, eighteen (18) Annual Statements by Audit Committees in respect of various institutions, two (2) reports of the Auditor-General, twenty-five (25) Budget Performance Reports in respect of various Ministries, nine (9) Bilateral Agreements for the waiver of visa requirement for holders of Diplomatic and Service/Official Passports, about thirty-one (31) Loan Facility Agreements, Financing Agreements, Credit Facility Agreement, thirty-nine (39) Mining Lease Agreements, twenty-six (26) Requests for Tax Waivers, among others were laid before the House during the Meeting.
The House debated, amended and passed thirteen Bills and the Majority Leader noted that since he entered Parliament in 1997, he has never seen a Parliament work as hard as this seven Parliament.
Even though the Second Meeting witnessed high absenteeism, the same cannot be said on the last day of the sitting when the House had to debate and approve the Minerals Royalties Investment Agreement among the Government of the Republic of Ghana (represented by the Ministry of Finance), the Minerals Income Investment Fund, Agyapa Royalties Limited and ARG Royalties Ghana Limited in relation to Gold Royalties Monetization Transaction under the Minerals Income Investment Fund Act, 2018 (Act 978).
After the hot debate, the Minority Caucus led by their Leader walked out of the Chamber and the Majority used their numbers to approve the transaction.
COVID-19 is not gone yet and the work of Parliament still goes on, the Rt. Hon. Speaker might recall the House to consider urgent business from 15th – 18th September, before the House reconvened for the Third and final Meeting of the Seventh Parliament.
The writer is the Dean of Parliamentary Press Corps.