There is always a broad line between what is permissible and what is acceptable. For this reason even advanced democracies, such as the USA, do not tolerate some behaviour we in Ghana will staunchly defend as the exercise of our freedoms. That is why South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson incurred the wrath of all manner of people in America when he heckled President Barack Obama in September 2009.
The president had a tough time pushing his healthcare reforms through congress because the American law makers are not like our MPs. Here, all MPs belonging to the ruling government will support whatever the government brings to the house even if such policies are detrimental the general good of the nation. Similarly, all MPs of the opposition will oppose whatever the ruling government brings to the house irrespective of how beneficial such policies may be. The sale of Ghana Telecom and the STX Housing deal are just two cases in point.
But President Obama had it tough convincing some of his own party members. On that fateful evening he was explaining that the healthcare bill would not cover illegal immigrants when, suddenly, a lone voice pierced through the attentive house like a spear.
“You lie!” the voice shouted. A hush fell on the august assembly of men and women who matter in US politics. President Obama paused and looked at the direction of the heckler. Behind him, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared shocked and turned toward the outburst. Vice President Joe Biden looked down and shook his head. Loud boos echoed through the chamber immediately after the outburst. It was the lawmakers against their recalcitrant colleague. The scene was like what Chinua Achebe describes in Things Fall Apart as unmasking an evil spirit in public. It was sacrilegious.
That outburst was greeted with condemnation across the length and breadth of the nation and across the political divide.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate defeated by Obama in the 2008 election, called Wilson's outburst "totally disrespectful" and said he should apologize.
Referring to the comment as “the shrieking lunacy of the summer,” New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, believed that action was racially motivated.
“Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. [George W. Bush] when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it,” she wrote.
She was not alone. Former President Jimmy Carter, who was utterly outraged by the heckling, agreed that President Obama was racially abused.
“I think that an overwhelming proportion of the intensely-demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, he’s African-American,” Mr. Carter told NBC television. “It is an abominable circumstance, and grieves me and concerns me deeply."
The Washington Post columnist Colbert King wrote that there was "something loose in the land, an ugliness and hatred directed toward Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, that takes the breath away".
The heckler had no option but to apologize. "This evening, I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president's remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill," Rep. Joe Wilson said in a statement released shortly after the incident. "While I disagree with the president's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility." Yes, it was lack of civility and he called the White House, even after the statement, and apologised again.
That happened in the USA, where freedom of speech and expression are enjoyed to the fullest. Now let’s enter Ghana’s parliament.
The president is delivering the annual State of the Nation Address to Parliament. All the statesmen and stateswomen who matter in the affairs of the nation are present. Ministers of state and high ranking members of the diplomatic community are all here to witness the all-important incident. But that does not send any signal to the lawmakers that the office of the president, if not the president in person, needs some respect.
The president is heckled throughout the speech. The Minority are seen waving inscriptions boldly printed on A4 sheets to the president and gleefully savouring the zooming lenses of the cameras that capture them. Prominent among the “graffiti” is an irresponsible statement made by the flag-bearer of their party when he was addressing party supporters – “All die be die!” And as if that is not enough, the Minority Leader would bring the whole situation to a more embarrassing climax.
He tells the house how disappointed he is with the State of the Nation’s Address. He claims the President’s speech is the most divisive speech he has ever heard. Yet this same man sees nothing “divisive” about his flag bearer who refers to a national party as “we Akans.” And he goes ahead to make his submission in a contemptible, or rather disrespectful, tone. But he is not done yet. After the outbursts, he refuses to accompany the President out of the house is the norm. All this happens in the presence of the international community. And the international media, of course! All members of his party hail him as a hero for the day. All members of the majority condemn him.
That is often as predictable as day after night.
Later when some members of the house asked him to apologise, the house turned chaotic. Audio recording of the day’s proceeding in parliament was on myjoyonline.com for weeks as “hot audio.” Chaotic is a euphemism for what transpired in the house.
“I will not entertain any rabble-rousers. If anyone has anything sensible to say, speak to the microphone and I will put you at your proper place,” the minority leader, Osei Kyei Mensah-Bonsu, told the majority MPs who thought his reaction to the president was in a bad taste. Is this a parliamentary language?
In fact, the above incident is not an isolated case. And it is important to state that the NDC side of the house seemed to be saints just because they are in the majority. Former President J.A. Kufuor was not spared his dose of the heckling when he appeared before the house. And one can expect the same from the NDC side should the tables turn come December 7, 2012.
It is therefore surprising the Speaker of Parliament, Justice Bamford Addo, walked out of the house when Deputy Majority Leader, Mr. Rashid Pelpuo recently described the house as chaotic.
The MP for Wa Central had raised a point of order against two MPs on the minority side of the house who were speaking without being authorized to do so by the speaker. One of them actually contravened the standing orders of the house further by standing while the Speaker of the House was on the floor, virtually exchanging words with the Speaker. But the Speaker did not take it lightly when the Deputy Majority Leader described the scene as chaotic and therefore stormed out of the house when the Mr. Rashid Pelpuo tried to justify his description instead of retracting the word “chaotic.” Embarrassingly, the “chaotic” description of Ghana’s parliament was an observation by a Zimbabwean MP.
The speaker was eventually persuaded to return and the deputy majority leader consequently retracted his description of the house as chaotic. But did Mr. Pelpuo err in describing the house as chaotic?
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “An honest disagreement is a good sign of progress.” For this reason, Mr. Rashid Pelpuo should have been commended for boldly pointing out a major flaw about the members of parliament. His comment should have been given a deeper reflection and the MPs should have done a sober introspection of themselves. Indeed, anyone who follows proceedings of our parliamentarians will conclude that Mr. Rashid Pelpuo was charitable in describing the house as chaotic. “Chaotic” was a euphemism.
There are times when deliberations and debates in the house spin out of the boundaries of decorum and civility. The use of indecent language, heckling and angry outbursts on the floor of parliament are not new. The heckling of fellow MPs, Ministers of State and the President of the Republic when they appear on the floor of parliament did not start today and there is no sign that such an attitude will disappear soon. So what was Mr. Rashid Pelpuo’s crime in pointing out what is threatening to erase the seriousness people associate with the august house?
The Speaker, Justice Joyce Bamford Addo, may have taken the description of the house as chaotic to mean that she was not firmly in control of the house. But that should not be the case. Mr. Rashid Pelpuo’s comment should serve as a reminder to the law makers of the unacceptable behaviours some MPs exhibit inside and outside Parliament.
Comments by some MPs on radio and television stations in recent times have raised questions about the integrity of the “honourable” house. Parliament must reassert itself as an indispensable builder of our democracy and an important arm of government. The current situation, where every issue in the house of parliament is viewed through political binoculars, does not portend well for our democracy. That attitude is detrimental to the development of the nation and the growth of multi-party democracy. It also portrays the MPs as selfish because when it comes to ex-gratia or any benefit for MPs, both the minority and majority become more united than the Holy Trinity.
Mr. Rashid Pelpuo did not err in describing the House of Parliament as chaotic. He was only portraying the unfortunate but naked reality in house. Our elders say he who tells the truth is never wrong. The truth can sometimes be very bitter but it is the tonic that heals some of the deadliest social diseases. Our MPs and, especially the Speaker, should reflect deeply on the incident and live above reproach. The house of parliament is too noble to become another platform for irresponsible comments and loose talk.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana. To read more of his works, visit www.maxighana.com
Source: Manasseh Azure Awuni/www.maxighana.com Email: [email protected]
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