Ghana’s split Parliament has failed to meet public expectations

Since the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1992, Ghana’s Parliament has been dominated by governing party members. In 2020 that changed when – for the first time in the country’s history – the two major political parties obtained an equal number of seats, with one seat going to an independent candidate.

In this split Parliament, neither the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) nor the opposition National Democratic Congress had a majority. The independent candidate (who had hitherto occupied the same seat on behalf of the NPP) pledged to do business with his former party, giving the ruling party a narrow majority.

Many Ghanaians hoped the unprecedented balance would empower Parliament to check the executive’s excessive control and assert its authority on citizens’ behalf, preventing questionable appointments, agreements and laws. It was generally expected that Parliament wouldn’t be a mere rubber stamp of executive policies like before, especially after the Speaker was elected from the main opposition party – another first for Ghana.

Moreover, most House committees, including the Appointments and Business committees, were populated by equal numbers from the majority and minority parties. The minorities brandished these wins as proof of their ability to ensure accountability, assuring Ghanaians that the governing party wouldn’t have its way at the plenary or committee levels.

After two years of the split Parliament though, these expectations don’t appear to have been met. There have been glimpses of Parliament standing its ground on executive oversight. At times it has rejected loan requests for various reasons, including lack of accountability, unsustainable debt levels and lack of a quorum. A good example was the rejection of a €116m budget for the redevelopment of the Accra International Conference Centre, among others, during the 2023 budget adoption process.

But despite these glimmers of hope, Parliament has often failed to withstand the executive’s power over national decisions, often to the detriment of Ghanaians’ welfare.

The first failure occurred during the vetting of ministers for the second term (2021-24) of the incumbent government. Minority members on the Vetting Committee rejected three ministerial nominees – who they said had underperformed in their first term – and deferred five others’ approval until they reappeared before the committee for further questioning. Ultimately, both the rejected and deferred nominees were approved at the plenary after some minority Members of Parliament (MPs) voted to support them.

The second major failure involved the introduction of the electronic transaction levy (e-levy) in the 2022 budget. The levy proposed a 1.75% tax on electronic transactions above GHS100. Over 75% of Ghanaians disapproved of the tariff. The minority in Parliament, with the overwhelming support of civil society and the general public, opposed the levy and assured Ghanaians it wouldn’t be passed.

As a result, for the first time in the Fourth Republic, the 2022 budget was initially rejected by Parliament. However, the majority subsequently overturned the rejection and approved the budget, along with the unpopular e-levy. After a minority walk-out, the levy was reduced to 1.5% (although it has now been revised to GHS100). The decision to walk out was widely criticised by the public, who hoped the minority would use its proportionate clout to fight to the end.

Another disappointment has been Parliament’s failure to deal with absenteeism – a bane of the country’s multiparty democracy. Most members are either habitually absent or arrive late, with the average MP missing one out of every four sittings. Some skip as many as three out of four.

An attempt to remove those who miss more than the constitutionally mandated 15 parliamentary sittings without permission has come to nothing. Some MPs invoked Parliament’s Standing Orders to declare absentee seats vacant. The move was referred to the Privileges Committee, after which the Speaker ruled that the committee report be adopted and debated by plenary for a decision. To date though, no decision has been taken.

Furthermore, Parliament’s inability to remove the Minister of Finance Ken Ofori-Atta – whom many believe should be sacked for the country’s economic woes – has been seen as a failure. Despite Ghanaians’ calls for the minister to resign or be fired, both he and the president have blatantly ignored these demands.

Parliament took a bold step when 98 MPs from the ruling party called on the president to sack the minister, or they would boycott all government business. After intervention from their party, however, they backtracked, claiming there was an acceptable roadmap to remove Ofori-Atta. In parallel, minority MPs initiated a censure motion to remove him. The motion was lost after a boycott by majority MPs prevented the attainment of the constitutional two-thirds majority threshold.

Finally, Ghana’s Eighth Parliament has failed to monitor the expenditure of public funds to ensure they are used for their intended purpose. The Auditor-General is tasked with auditing all public accounts and reporting to Parliament within six months after the financial year ends, drawing attention to irregularities.

The Auditor-General’s 2021 report flagged a total of GHS17.4 billion (about US$3 billion) in financial irregularities. Parliament is expected to act on these findings through the Public Accounts Committee and work with the Auditor-General to retrieve the money. It must call relevant authorities to account, order misappropriated money to be repaid, and withhold further allocations to institutions that can’t reasonably explain discrepancies. Instead, infractions continue to be committed with minimal repercussions.

Clearly Parliament hasn’t lived up to expectations – failing to deliver at moments when keeping the executive in check has mattered most. The minority, in particular, seems to be wasting a sterling opportunity to exploit its proportional clout in the House to call the ruling party to book. The Eighth Parliament must work harder to win the confidence and trust of Ghanaians in the two years that remain.

Enoch Randy Aikins is a Researcher, African Futures and Innovation at ISS Pretoria