Parliament: How ‘Natures Call’ Hanged the Debate over the Tax Waiver for the Pullman Airport City Hotel

There was a stir in the atmosphere of Parliament in the afternoon of Tuesday, February 18, 2020 which led to a hold up of the matter under discussion in the request for a waiver of taxes to the tune of $23,983,033 to subsidize the financing of a hotel project in Accra.

The Akufo-Addo government was having a hard time with the Minority in seeking the approval of Parliament to grant this tax waiver to Platinum Properties Limited for the sourcing of materials, plants, machinery and equipment for the construction of the Pullman Accra Airport City Hotel and Serviced Apartments in one of Ghana’s most iconic real estate developments situated at Plot 15, Airport city.

The debate on the Finance Committee’s Report for the approval or otherwise of the request would be put on hold until further notice by Speaker Mike Oquaye following the alleged association of the name of the President to the ownership of the hotel during the heated moments of the debate on the Floor.

The Speaker deemed the allegation offensive and un-parliamentary, but before he could call for the withdrawal of the offensive claim, the offender, the MP for Yapei/Kusawgu, John Abdulai Jinapor had already exited the Chamber, leaving the old Professor bemused and perhaps uncertain about which step to take next.

The whole scenario which played out on that day was as though it was a carefully rehearsed drama made for the Oscars. Though a showdown was expected between the two main political parties in Parliament at the debate, little did the media expect such a drama. The Minority NDC had already served notice not to support the move by the government to grant the tax waiver, but it was taken for granted.

Two weeks before this day, the Minority had held a mini-press conference to give a hint about the proposed request for a tax waiver for a private company for the construction of a hotel in Accra which they felt was improper. They spoke about how the tax payers’ money was being syphoned to enrich the friends and families of the President and members of his government.

That very afternoon when the motion for the report was supposed to be taken, the Mace which is the symbol of authority of the Institution of Parliament was still in an upright position, signifying the formal nature of the work in the House at the time.

The Chairman of the Committee on Finance, Dr. Mark Assibey-Yeboah, sprang up to his feet with leave of the Speaker to move the motion to present his Committee’s report. He begun by giving the background to the project where he canvased that, “the dual hospitality project was positioned to become Ghana’s largest and most distinguished hotel facility.”

He also informed the House about the ownership structure of the hotel facility where he said, “The project is being promoted by Platinum Properties Limited (PPL), a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) owned and controlled by Inter-Afrique Holdings Limited (IAH) and the Ghana Infrastructure Fund (GIIF).”

The Committee’s report in its conclusion, had already passed the company with a clean bill of health to justify its qualification for the tax waiver being requested for and had recommended to the House to adopt the report and approve of the request by resolution in accordance with the Article 174(2) of the 19192 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana.

The motion moved by the Chairman was seconded by the Minister for Information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, in his capacity as the Member of Parliament for the Ofoase/Ayirebi constituency. He further canvased a justification for the waiver and reiterated a point in the committee’s report which alluded to the fact that similar tax waivers were doled out to some companies in the past by the previous government under the ticket of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the largest opposition group in Parliament, whose members were refusing to see any good in the move by government.

Messrs. Ghacem, Messrs. Dream Reality Ltd, Messrs. Garden City Mall Ltd, Messrs. Boston Investments Ltd, Messrs. Shoprite Ghana Pty Ltd, Messrs. Vincien Sugar Refinery Ghana Ltd, Messrs. Dzata Cement Ltd, Messrs. Ecobank Ghana Ltd, and Messrs. Ciments De L’Afrique Ghana Ltd were mentioned as beneficiaries of the strategic Investor Status and tax incentives in the year 2015.

Further, in the year 2016, Messrs. Wilmar Africa Limited, Messrs. West Hills Mall Limited, Messrs. Tang Palace Hotel Ltd, Messrs. Mabani Seven Company, Messrs. Sunon Asogli Power Project (Phase II), and Messrs. Quantum Power Ghana Gas Ltd were also said to have benefited from similar treatments by this same group that are giving the President a hard time now.

However, the logic being put forward in putting out the names of other companies who may have benefited in similar manner in the past to justify an anomaly would seem a bit warped elsewhere but a measure very commonly used by political opponents in this part of the world to cow each other into submission whenever an argument arises. This time it seemed it was basically being deployed to silence the Minority.

It was now the turn of the Minority to advance their part of the argument and their opposition to the waiver of taxes even in the face of the committee’s discovery that they were equally as guilty of the same offence they were busily complaining about. The first person to speak on behalf of the Minority was the MP for Yapei/Kusawgu, John Abdulai Jinapor.

He begun on a very punchy note by sparing no punches at all. He painted the government of President Akufo-Addo as insensitive to the plight of the tax payer by dolling out a whooping amount of “134 million Ghana Cedis into a private venture” and they failed to do a proper investment appraisal of the project. It kind of summed up the Minority’s point.

He now sought to dismantle the equalization theory which has been an old arsenal in the political game in Ghana before the inception of democracy and the theory of accountability.

“Mr. Speaker, the Chairman in page 8, clearly listed companies that have been granted tax waiver status. Shangrila was not granted a tax waiver status. And so to say that because Shangrila was granted strategic investor status it amounts to granting tax waiver status; it is not here, it is not there, it is not everywhere Mr. Speaker. Therefore, this attempt to use the tax payers 134 million Cedis to grant a tax status to Pullman fails the test of time Mr. Speaker.”

He then went on unto the second leg of his argument by associating the ownership of the hotel to the President which got him into trouble.

“This very hotel which is being constructed under President Akufo-Addo, this (so, so, and so [expunged from the records] hotel) does not meet the standard and now I want to serve notice that this side of the House will not be part of an illegality. We will not support it. This is unfortunate; this an abuse; this is a misuse; it’s tantamount to misusing the tax payers money as far as we are concerned,” he stated loudly on the top of his voice with a lot of gears from his colleagues in the Minority.

His forbidden sin initially escaped the attention of Mr. Speaker until his attention was drawn to it by the Minister for Information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah who was listening to the debate with rapt attention, almost as if his whole life depended on it.

It was too bad for Minister Kojo Oppong Nkrumah who didn’t catch the Speaker’s eye the very moment he stood up on a point of correction to have his colleague MP on the other side withdraw his allegation against the President the very minute it was made.

“Honorable Members”, the Speaker blurted out, “the expression (so, so and so hotel) because I don’t want to repeat it; Honorable Members, let us be serious, it is unacceptable. The appropriate corrections must be made. The Honorable Member must withdraw it and it must be expunged from the records of this Honorable House. Honorable proceed and make your withdrawal,” he said after his attention was drawn to it.

The Rt. Hon. Speaker, Professor Mike Oquaye raised his head, rolled his mini-sized eyes nicely fitted behind a thick rounded pair of goggles, tilted his neck to the left to locate the seat of the Yapei/Kusawgu MP. But it was empty.

The MP had exited the Chamber on his blind side and the MPs colleagues who were sitting close to him were looking on with a grin of mischief written all over on their faces while whispering among themselves something which could not be heard from afar let alone comprehend, just as the silent whispers of the market place.

Then the House became very quiet for a moment and suddenly, there was a piercing voice heard coming from among the Minority side of the House; more audible than the multitude of whispers which had earlier filled the House. It just blurted out the most unconventional announcement in the House of legislature, “Natures call”.

The sound of the voice, the message it carried and the circumstances in which it was made, provoked some diplomatic smiles and measured giggles from the Members who were trying to avoid making eye contacts with the Speaker under the circumstances.

Apparently, the announcement was to wittingly send out a coded message to the Speaker in reference to an incident which had happened earlier in the day in the House where the MP for Tamale North, Alhassan Suhini was supposed to have made a statement on Environmental Degradation but the MP had stepped out of the Chamber.

While, the Minority Leader, Haruna Iddrissu was trying to buy time for the MP’s return, the Rt. Hon. Speaker Mike Oquaye interjected playfully and said, “Nature’s call happens sometimes”. To wit, “let’s wait for him while he may be using the wash room”. This was enough to keep the House calm until the MP returned to the Chamber.

However, on this occasion there was no time for such amusement and expensive jokes at all because the House will later learn that the MPs absence was not just stalling the debate but also an affront to the Mace of Parliament which is the symbol of authority of Parliament and therefore a potential case for contempt of Parliament.

Seeing that the MP who had made the alleged offensive statement was not in his seat, the Speaker panned through the House and finally rested his eyes on the Minority Leadership Bench for a solution. His eyes met that of the Minority Chief Whip, in the person of Alhaji Muntaka Mubarak, who was the available leader at the time.

In the circumstances, the Speaker had no choice but to quickly task him to ensure the MP returns to the House to withdraw the offensive statement otherwise the debate would be held in abeyance until his return.

With a stern voice like that of a head teacher seeking instill fear in his students, Mr. Speaker issued the command, “Honorable members, I order that the minority Chief whip should convey to the Honorable Member immediately. That the Honorable Member’s presence is required in the House now. And Honorable Members, I must repeat that it is contempt of Parliament to turn your back against the Mace the moment you finish making your contribution.

“When the House gives you the privilege to make a contribution, you don’t leave the House immediately thereafter. Those who have not acquainted themselves with this should go and have a conversation with their Eskimay immediately after business.”

This warning did not shake many of them, it was rather the response by the Minority Chief Whip to the Speaker’s orders which threw the whole House into uncontrollable laughter. Afterwards, the Rt. Honorable Speaker was left with no other choice at that moment but to use the tools available to him to deal with the issue at hand.

The Chief Whip said, “Mr. Speaker, my colleague drew my attention that he wanted to use the wash room. Mr. Speaker, he is going to come back. Mr. Speaker even though it is not in our standing Orders, I have always insisted that you don’t go out immediately after your statement so when I saw him going out, I drew his attention and he informed me that he wanted to use the wash room. Mr. Speaker I am going to tell him to get back.”

According to the Minority Chief Whip, his colleague whispered to him that he was going to answer “natures call”, adding that he will ensure he returns to the Chamber to do the needful.

Initially, after hearing the answer from the Chief Whip, the Speaker said, “the debate will stand down.” But when he was told the House was going to break for a Committee of the Whole meeting for the MPs to discuss welfare matters among others, the Rt. Hon. Professor Mike Oquaye came again with another ruling.

“Before we conclude the business, I order that all references of any name whatsoever to this hotel other than that which has been well and truly advertised before this Honorable House should be expunged from the records.”

This ruling did not go down well with the Minority Chief Whip, Alhaji Mohammed Muntaka, who challenged the Speaker to prove which portion of the Standing Orders gave him the authority to order that a statement made by a Member of Parliament on the Floor to be expunged from the records.

“Mr. Speaker, with the greatest of respect,

Without wasting time at all, the consummate politician, the experienced legislator and Speaker, Professor Mike Oquaye, with many years to his credit as a distinguished Lecturer of Political Science, just asked the Chief Whip to avert his mind to Order 6 of the Standing Orders of Parliament. That closed the chapter of that argument.

The Order 6 states, “In all cases not provided for in these Orders, Mr. Speaker shall make provisions as he deems fit.”

The debate was rescheduled for another day.

Source: Clement Akoloh||

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