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Ghana: Budget impasse in parliament sparks governance crisis

By Jonas Nyabor
Posted on Friday, 3 December 2021 16:47

Ghana parliament
Inside of Ghana's parliament (photo: twitter)

Ghana’s parliament has voted to reject the 2022 budget, the first time since the West African country returned to multi-party politics in 1992. The political impasse has created doubts about the future of a country that's seen as a rare bright spot for democratic governance in the region and could scare away investors, experts argue.

Confusion reigns in the 275-seat legislature. Ghana’s hung parliament has 137 MPs each for the government and the opposition, with the balance of power hanging on one independent candidate.

And squabbles over constitutional interpretations may come back to haunt to government.

The opposition’s main concerns were with the government’s planned introduction of a 1.75% value tax on electronic financial transactions starting in January 2022 and the reintroduction of a controversial deal on mineral royalties (Ghana is Africa’s largest gold producer).

Following heated exchanges on the final day of the budget debate on 26 November, parliamentarians aligned with the government staged a walkout.

Speaker of Parliament and opposition MP Alban Bagbin presided over the opposition-only session in which the 2022 budget was rejected.

The implication was a freeze on government spending, including for public employee salaries in 2022. The government was left with few options other than trying to build consensus and present a revised budget that takes into consideration the concerns of the opposition within two weeks.

Pendulum swings

However, when parliament reconvened four days later, the earlier rejection was overturned and the budget approved — this time solely by pro-government MPs as the opposition in turn boycotted the proceedings.

With Bagbin leaving the country for a medical checkup in Dubai, the session was presided over by First Deputy Speaker Joseph Osei Owusu, a pro-government MP. Arguing that there was no quorum when the budget was initially rejected, Owusu launched a do-over.

“Records show that 137 members were present. That is less than half of the full Members of Parliament,” Owusu said of the first vote. “I’m certain that given his [Bagbin’s] expertise, he would not have made this error if his attention was drawn to it. The consequence of this unfortunate error is that it [the budget rejection] is void and inconsequential since it was done in violation of Article 104 (1) of the constitution.”

The budget was consequently approved in the absence of opposition MPs.

Ghana’s 1992 constitution states that “matters in Parliament shall be determined by the votes of the majority of members present and voting, with at least half of all the members of Parliament present. The Speaker shall have neither an original nor casting vote.”

Standing Order 108 adds: “The Question proposed shall be determined by the majority of votes of the Members present and voting. Mr. Speaker shall have neither an original nor a casting vote and if upon any Question before the House the votes are equally divided the motion shall be taken to be lost. A Deputy Speaker or any other member presiding shall not retain his original vote while presiding.”

The two sides must set aside their pride and … allow cool heads to prevail, otherwise it is not going to be helpful.

The opposition is now arguing that the pro-government faction also failed to meet that threshold when Owusu was presiding in Bagbin’s absence.

“The Constitution says a deputy Speaker shall not retain his original vote while presiding, so constitutionally they [pro-government MPs] were also 137,” minority leader Haruna Iddrisu said at a press conference. “So Ghanaians should expect that what they have done is also a nullity. The precedent they are setting will haunt them in the future.”

Danger ahead

Rasheed Draman, the executive director of the Ghana-based Africa Centre for Parliamentary Affairs, tells The Africa Report that the showdown in parliament does not augur well for Ghana’s democracy and urged the two sides to seek to a compromise.

“The two sides must set aside their pride and … allow cool heads to prevail, otherwise it is not going to be helpful,” Draman says. “We are going to see more gridlock when we need the business of our country to go on, and it may go on for the rest of the time that we have with this Parliament.” The next general elections aren’t set to take place until the end of 2024.

According to Franklin Cudjoe, the president of the Ghana-based think tank IMANI Africa, the proceedings in parliament could hurt investor confidence.

“If the government plans to undertake any external borrowing, this issue will impact that decision,” Cudjoe tells The Africa Report. “It can have a huge impact on investor confidence in the economy and it may delay a lot of things substantially. At the same time, it is a welcome opportunity to demand accountability from the executive.”

Owusu has rejected a fresh request by the opposition MPs to set aside the budget approval. The opposition in turn has threatened to block appropriations funding the budget.

Time for an intervention?

There are mixed views on how the impasse between the two caucuses can be resolved to avert a governance crisis.

For Draman, the confusion may have to be clarified by the Supreme Court.

“I think it exposes the challenges we have in the standing orders of parliament and the constitution. It is only the Supreme Court that can interpret this for us,” he says.

However, Cudjoe warns that having the Supreme Court meddle in the affairs of parliament betrays the principle of separation of powers.

“I don’t think this matter must be settled by a court, it will not reflect positively on the image of parliament,” he says. “The government must ensure that at all times they have the courage and humility to engage extensively. The collective leadership must come around to solve this matter.”

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