Manasseh’s folder: The new building for our ‘useless’ parliament

In July 2018, I conducted a poll on Facebook on the usefulness or otherwise of the parliament of Ghana in our democracy. Here is the question I asked:

“Is parliament useful in its contribution to our democracy and development as a nation or it is a useless institution which has failed in its role as a check on the executive arm of government?”

In all, 3,600 people voted. Out of this, 22% of them said parliament was useful. An overwhelming majority of 78% said parliament was useless.

The results of the poll did not shock me. Our parliament has not conducted itself in a manner that should win the support of the people. Back in the basic school when we first heard the fanciful term “separation of powers”, we were told — and it remains factually and constitutionally correct — that parliament is supposed to serve as a check on the executive arm of government. That is, however, not the case in Ghana.

If our members of parliament (MPs) did their job with the interest of the nation in mind, the executive would be compelled to enter into better agreements and sign contracts that will be in the interest of the nation. On a few occasions when our parliamentarians rose to the occasion, as in the Ameri renegotiation deal, the nation benefitted.

However, what is supposed to be the norm is an exception. Our parliamentarians behave like programmed robots when their political parties’ interests are at stake. It’s easy to predict the stance of the minority and majority on any matter depending on whose party is in power. Some agreements and contracts are approved by parliament and one wonders whether the MPs really read them.

While Ghanaians struggle to contend with this, there is also seething anger about the huge cost of running parliament, especially payment of ex-gratia to outgoing and sitting MPs every four years. But it seems the MPs do not know this. Or rather, they know, but they do not care about what their employers — the people who vote them into office — think.

Last week, one of the most obscene headlines attracted the attention of Ghanaians, and social media has since been boing with justifiable rage. It is a story about the decision to build a new chamber for the parliament. The current chamber is a luxury when compared with the British Parliament where 650 MPs are crammed in a space which a fraction of the space occupied by Ghana’s 275 MPs. The British MPs sit on benches and have no desks. Unfortunately, we appear to learn only the bad things about our colonial masters.

When I visited the US Senate in 2014, I was shocked when I entered the gallery and looked down the chamber. Unlike the comfortable swivel chairs, well-polished tables and their related comforts which Ghanaian MPs enjoy, the US Senators were sitting on cheap chairs and desks, like those high school students in Ghana use.

Some senators had put cushions on their chairs, a clear evidence that those chairs were not comfortable enough. The desks looked old and when I read about them on the website of the US Senate, my shock was intensified. This is what is said of the desks:

“This mahogany desk was made by Thomas Constantine, a cabinetmaker from New York City. With only six weeks remaining before the December 1819 convening of the 16th Congress, Constantine was contracted to supply the Senate with, among other items, 48 mahogany desks for $34 each. Today all of Constantine’s desks remain in use in the current Senate Chamber. As new states entered the Union, desks of similar design were ordered from other cabinetmakers; although, the four newest desks—those constructed for Alaska (1959) and Hawaii (1959)—were built in the Senate Cabinet Shop.”

In Ghana, however, parliament had to change all its furniture and reconfigure the chamber in 2014 at the cost of 21 million cedis ($6.2 million). Parliament said the membership had increased from 230 MPs to 275, so there was the need to get uniform furniture for all members.

The Minority Leader of Parliament at the time, Osei Kyei Mensah-Bonsu, said on Joy FM that “we weren’t going to get the quality of wood that existed in the House for the additional 45 seats so if we were going to have different quality of wood, then it was better that we have a uniform wood to serve the 275 Members of Parliament.”

In the rich USA, they got people to make similar furniture and added them to the old ones. In poverty-stricken Ghana, we had to replace all in order to get the same type of wood. But that was not the only sin with this furniture transaction.

The MPs were voted for by all manner of persons, including carpenters. But when they wanted to change their furniture, they were to China to import. Local furniture producers were livid that they were overlooked. But the Minority leader had an explanation.

“In Ghana today…it is going to be almost impossible to get one contractor, have the same quality of wood to serve 275 Members of Parliament. It is almost impossible!” Osei Kyei Mensah Bonsu said.

Quality of Wood? Are the Chinese not getting their wood from Ghana? But the MPs got away with it, and, today, they want to get away with another outrageous demand on the tax payer’s purse.

Last week, parliament announced the building of a new chamber of parliament. The construction is expected to start by the end of this year.

The Speaker of Parliament, Prof. Mike Ocquaye, was quoted as saying there was a lot of goodwill from the executive arm of government for the new parliamentary chamber project and “the president has agreed in principle to come and cut the sod for the project.”

Of course, with the kind of parliament we have, it will always enjoy a lot of goodwill from the executive. It is in the interest of the executive to have a parliament which will rubberstamp its decisions and not hold it to account. But the goodwill from the executive does not justify the intended building of a new chamber for parliament.

This decision is outrageous, insensitive and unconscionable. Our MPs represent people who still don’t have access to the most basic necessities of life. Some of their constituents still share their drinking water with wild and domestic animals. Weak classroom structures are still collapsing and killing school children, while others study under trees. Some hospitals cannot get the most basic medical supplies and consumables such as drugs and gloves. Our parliaments should think about this.

Parliament has 275 MPs, which many think are too many. Even if the number is to be increased to 450, the current chamber can be designed to take more than that. Thankfully, some MPs such as Ras Mubarak of Kumbungu, have agreed that this chamber project is a bad decision, a misplaced priority.

We cannot be that outrageous in the way we spend on our politicians when those they are supposed to serve continue to die because there’s no money to provide very basic human needs. Parliamentarians who approve loans for water, toilets and other basic needs should know better. And it is ridiculous that we cannot learn from the politicians in the US and Great Britain, who do not have the luxury our politicians enjoy here, but from whom we go to beg.

Credit:  Manasseh Azure