After an unceremonious two-week hiatus of this column mainly due to health reasons, my ink is ready to be laid out on the scrolls of parliamentary reportage from a front row seat in the press gallery of Ghana’s National Assembly or to properly put it – Parliament.
Week 6 and 7 of the third meeting of the first session of this Parliament were very busy. MPs worked long hours to fine-tune critical pieces of legislation and ended up passing many of them. These include the much talked about Office of the Special Prosecutor Bill to deal with acts of public sector corruption and other private graft-related matters, the Zongo Development Fund Bill, the Northern Development Authority Bill and the Major Mahama Trust Fund Bill.
The Budget Estimates and Financial Policy Statement for 2018 were also presented by Finance Minister, Ken Ofori Atta on November 15. Per the dictates of the house, the debate on the budget was stayed until the beginning of the eighth week on Tuesday.
The Budget debate began with a speech from the Minister for Planning, Prof Gyan Baffour (MP, Wenchi) who seconded the budget motion and drew heavily on the President’s co-ordinated plan for the accelerated development of the country, which is hinged on five pillars and is yet to be approved by the House. The first to contribute from the Minority side was their Spokesperson on Finance, Cassiel Ato Forson (MP, Ajumako-Enyan-Essiam) who argued that the budget must be rejected because the government had made projections in the 2018 budget based on the 2017 mid-year review which, according to him, was not approved by the House per a resolution and thus, made the 2018 budget illegal. He further pointed out that an unprecedented allocation of 1.9 billion cedis had been made to the Presidency up from 1.5 billion in the 2017 budget. The Majority, through the Finance Committee Chair, Dr. Mark Assibey Yeboah (MP, New Juaben South), indicated that the money allocated to the Presidency was to cover government’s priority projects, while asking the Minority feel free to litigate the matter of the illegality of the budget in the courts.
Another serious matter of contention in the budget debate has been the subject of government’s flagship Free Senior High School Policy. Different MPs took turns to debate the policy and depending on which side of the aisle they were on, the praises or castigations of the policy were trumpeted. The biggest clash of the debate however unfolded when Former Deputy Education Minister, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa (MP, North Tongu) and Deputy Education Minister, Dr. Yaw Osei Adutwum (MP, Bosomtwe) were given the opportunity to make their submissions. Okudzeto drew largely on pictorial evidence from citifmonline.com and other websites highlighting issues of infrastructure that has plagued the implementation of the Free Senior High School Policy indicating that the implementation of the policy thus far, had revealed a lack of careful planning that went into its crafting.
He maintained that if the trajectory as he had noticed was to continue, then the policy would be on its knees in no time. Dr. Adutwum, made his point centrally on the plank that the Free Senior High School Policy is one that would offer equal opportunity to the wards of both rich and poor parents to harness their human potential for the forward march of the country. On the implementational challenges, especially with regards to infrastructure, Dr. Adutwum famously retorted on the floor that “it is better for kids to study under trees than to sell dog-chains on the streets,” adding that government would work to fix the challenges.
Probably another memorable snippet worth recounting is the contribution of Deputy Minority Whip, Comfort Doyoe (MP, Ada) who in her contribution, indicated that government should run the Free SHS side alongside a system where well-to-do parents can pay the fees for their wards, because she fears the free element would affect the quality of education at the Senior High School level. She ended her contribution by retorting that if the government continued this way with its policies then” we must change the change”. Perhaps, a move to help cut down the infrastructural deficit at our senior high schools which seems to have been exposed on a pronounced scale by the Free SHS policy, is the second tranche of the Financing agreement of some 40 million dollars from the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank, recently passed by the house which would among other things, upgrade facilities in some existing 75 SHSs.
The Country’s Energy Sector was another hotbed of deliberations in the budget debate cycle. The Minority continuously laid claim to the fixing of the power crisis also known as Dumsor, indicating that the Akufo Addo administration had virtually done nothing to end it. Minority MPs such as Dr. Kwabena Donkor(MP, Pru East), Adams Mutawakilu (MP, Damongo), John Jinapor (MP, Yapei Kusawgu) among others, argued the Minority’s case on the matter and insisted that the investments made in the sector by the Mahama administration had caused the current stability in the sector.
The Majority disagreed with MPs on that side, and notably the Energy Minister, Boakye Agyarko, who was on the floor to debate the budget, insisting that the credit ought to be bestowed on the current government because the dumsor challenge which, according to him, was essentially a money problem and not that of generation capacity, had been effectively dealt with and over time, adding that the Akufo-Addo administration would transform the energy sector. Interestingly, during the debate on the Energy aspects of the budget, Vice Chairman of the Mines and Energy Committee, George Mireku Duker (MP,Tarkwa-Nsuaem) brought a gas cylinder to the floor of Parliament to illustrate his point that the government’s recirculation policy is in order but his tool raised eyebrows on the floor as Deputy Minority Leader, James Klutse Avedzi (MP, Ketu North) drew the attention of the Speaker to the fact that the gas cylinder was a threat to the safety of Members and could be used as a weapon. First Deputy Speaker, Joe Osei Owusu ( MP, Bekwai) agreed with the Minority’s call and thus directed the Marshall to take the cylinder out of the chamber, chastising the security in the House for giving clearance for the cylinder to be brought into the chamber in the first place.
The debate on the communications sector saw a clash between Ningo Prampram MP, Sam George and Communications Minister, Ursula Owusu (MP, Ablekuma West) over issues such as the migration from analogue TV to digital (for which Sam George said, government owes the company putting in place the system; a claim the Minister denies), the rollout of the National Identification System or the Ghana Card and the Ghana Post GPS.
In the period under the review, the Energy Minister, Boakye Agyarko was on the floor of the House to answer questions on the BOST fuel saga. Key amongst the issues raised was that the Ministerial Committee had requested for an extension to their deadline on several occasions to get their work done but in the interim, individuals had been barred from lifting off-spec fuel from BOST. He reiterated that the committee’s report will be made available to Parliament’s Mines and Energy Committee after a white paper has been issued on it. The MP who asked the question, Edward Bawa (MP, Bongo) was however not pleased with the answers, insisting that he has incontrovertible evidence to the effect that the said Ministerial Committee had never met.
Another matter of serious concern which came up on the floor was the matter of the ongoing slave auctions in Libya, involving mainly nationals from some West African countries. The Foreign Affairs Minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey (MP, Anyaa Sowutuom) was on hand to brief the House on the situation but could not say for certain if some Ghanaians had been sold or not. MPs were united in their condemnation of the acts of barbarity and modern day slavery. Meanwhile, two chartered flights had brought in some 127 Ghanaians with the support of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM). The government hopes to soon re-open the country’s mission in Tripoli for better monitoring of the situation.
Also, the Roads and Highways Minister, Kwasi Amoako-Atta (MP, Atiwa West), was on the floor of the House over the closure of the Yapei-Buipe Bridges for repair works; a situation that has brought untold hardship to road users and travellers to the Northern part of the country. He stated that the inconvenience is a necessary evil but assured that the workers were travailing day and night to complete the repairs in four weeks at the cost of 4 million cedis.
Outside the Chamber
Away from the floor of the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee is accepting memoranda from the general public who have been victims of ill-treatment at foreign missions in the country. This is in line with the Speaker’s directive to the committee to investigate the increasing number of cases of maltreatment of Ghanaians at some embassies. The deadline for the submission of the memoranda is December 8.
The Minority Spokesperson on Food and Agriculture, Eric Opoku (MP, Asunafo South) has also been very critical of the government following the recent Citi News expose’ of widespread diversion of pre-mix fuel of over 200 cases to the tune of 22 million Ghana cedis since January; a situation which he says has contributed to the downward spiral of the fisheries sector.
Sitting through session after session of the budget debate, my utmost desire was to see a dispassionate dissection of the issues from a non-partisan viewpoint but I was disappointed. With the exception of a few MPs who acknowledged the contribution of their friends on the opposing aisle to national development, most of the debate hinged on who had done better and who has sunk the state ship or was sinking it further, sometimes devoid of analytical basis but just mere sloganeering and name-calling.
There are a good number of MPs however who debated the budget drawing on historical anecdotes mixed with the present reality to make relevant points on the country’s growth but most contributions, however, fell short on the altar of partisanship. The discourse in my view would be more impactful if contributions were done from the national rallying point for development irrespective of partisan biases but I guess with the structure of the country’s politics, my view is a tad beyond reality. The culture of heckling this time was measured as with the exception of a few cases, debate flowed freely. On the Minority’s call for the budget to be rejected on the basis that it is illegal, I expected a boycott, true to the principle of consistency and not wanting to engage in illegality or at best carry out the threat of going to court. Our democracy would have been the victor for such a step of constitutional interpretation that would enrich the culture of good governance.
This week on the floor
The Minority and Majority Leaders are expected to wrap up the budget debate with their own contributions leading to the eventual passage or otherwise of the ‘Adwuma’ budget. Then the House would get to work on the Appropriation Bill that is the approval of the budget of the various sector ministries and other state institutions in the 2018 financial year. Close to ten bills from the Finance Ministry, mainly bordering on the reduction of taxes, have also been laid and referred to the Finance Committee. They may bring their reports to the plenary for consideration and approval in the course of the week. Some Ministers notably of Roads and Highways, Food and Agriculture and Trade and Industry have been scheduled to appear before the House to answer the various question related to their sectors.
By Duke Mensah Opoku/citifmonline.com/Ghana