Ghana: Landmark ruling breaks deadlock on passage of E-levy bill

By Kent Mensah
Posted on Thursday, 10 March 2022 16:31

Ghana parliament
Members of Ghana's Parliament in Accra, Ghana, Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Christian Thompson)

A 30-year-old rule in Ghana’s parliament has been deemed unconstitutional, thereby giving space to Deputy Speakers to vote on key decisions, particularly the government’s proposed tax on electronic transactions that has divided the house for months.

The government’s bid to pass a new levy to raise enough domestic revenue to save a distressed economy received a major boost following a landmark Supreme Court judgement on Wednesday 9 March.

Parliament has been split down the middle on the question of the proposed levy between the two main political parties – 137 seats each for the two main political parties – with an independent candidate associating with the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP), thereby giving them a slim majority.

This poses a risk of major gridlock on finalising national business, especially when it comes to passing bills in the absence of the substantive Speaker. In situations like this, a Deputy Speaker, who is required by law to be an MP, presides automatically dropping the vote on the governing party’s side.

But since late December, a situation arose after Deputy Speaker Joseph Osei-Owusu attempted to count himself as forming a quorum for a vote on the budget. According to the rules of Ghana’s Parliament: “A Deputy Speaker or any other member presiding shall not retain his original vote while presiding”.

The court’s decision on Wednesday will ease that gridlock, after it unanimously that a Deputy Speaker presiding over proceedings in Parliament is still an MP and can vote and be counted as part of the quorum for decision-making in the House.

“Order 109 (3) of the Standing Orders of Parliament, which state that ‘a Deputy Speaker or any other member presiding shall not retain his original vote while presiding’, is unconstitutional and same is struck out as unconstitutional,” the court said of the 30-year-old constitutional provision.

‘The ruling is disappointing’

The Electronic Transaction Levy (E-Levy) is looking to raise over GHC6.9bn (€800m) annually for the national coffers. The bill has been in limbo since November 2021 because the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP) cannot form a quorum for a vote on the bill.

This clearly is a travesty of Parliamentary justice to pave way for the passage of Akufo-Addo’s E-Levy. This won’t happen elsewhere in the world.

The levy, if passed by parliament, will essentially increase taxes on mobile money transfers, which are used by 40% of Ghanaian, aged 15 years and above, according to a 2021 data by the Bank of Ghana.

Having vehemently opposed the controversial E-Levy, saying it will add to the hardship of Ghanaians, the minority in Parliament claim the Supreme Court’s ruling was biased.

“This clearly is a travesty of Parliamentary justice to pave way for the passage of Akufo-Addo’s E-Levy. This won’t happen elsewhere in the world. We respect the decision of the Supreme Court, but this particular ruling is so disappointing and repugnant. The decision amounts to judicial interference in Parliamentary practice,” the minority Leader Haruna Iddrisu tells The Africa Report.

Former President John Mahama also described the ruling as shocking in a Facebook post.

“A unanimous 7-0? Shocking but not surprising. An unfortunate interpretation for convenience that sets a dangerous precedent of judicial interference in Parliamentary procedure for the future,” the post said.

 ‘It’s a sound decision’

For his part, Attorney General Godfred Yeboah Dame hailed the ruling.

“The law is clear and devoid of any controversy. In other jurisdictions like the UK and America Deputy Speakers of Parliament are MPs and always have the right to vote. Even in Kenya and South Africa here in Africa the rules are the same,” Dame tells The Africa Report.

“The Minority’s argument, in effect, is saying that when the Deputy Speaker is presiding, he loses the right to represent his people in Parliament and therefore cannot vote on issues. That’s wrong. The ruling of the Supreme Court is sound,” he adds.

Speaking to the press afterwards, the First Deputy Speaker Osei-Owusu said the ruling of the apex court vindicates him.

“Indeed, this decision (Supreme Court ruling) affirms that position that I took. I find that very refreshing. Matters that have never arisen are now in the fore because of the numbers we have in the chambers so anytime there’s disagreement, as I’ve said already, I’ll interpret the rule and the law as I understand it. I encourage people who disagree with me to boldly state their position and if need be, refer it to the appropriate body like the Supreme Court to guide us,” he said.

 ‘Respect the decision’

The executive director of the Parliamentary Network Africa, Sammy Obeng, said there is no winner or loser in the case, urging both parties to leverage on the decision to strengthen Ghana’s Parliamentary democracy.

“It’s only appropriate that the parties involved get to respect the decision of the Supreme Court. I’m particularly surprised about it, especially quashing a law that has been with us for all these decades, but we’ll wait for the full decision.

“In any case, we need to protect our Parliamentary democracy. We got to abide by the rules. I don’t think anyone has won or lost. Let’s just leverage on it and move on,” says Obeng.

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