Impact of COVID-19 on Ghana’s Parliament – the unprecedented suspension of the House ruling

It was Saturday the 4th of April 2020 and Members of Parliament were anxiously waiting for the Rt. Hon. Speaker Professor Aaron Michael Oquaye to give his closing remarks for the end of the First Meeting of the Fourth Session of the Seventh Parliament of the Fourth Republic and to adjourn the House Sine Die. 

Members of Parliament had been hoping for the House to be adjourned Sine Die on Friday the 3rd of April 2020, to avoid getting closer to their colleagues in the Chamber because of the fear, panic and wild revelations about the fastest spreading of the novel coronavirus also known as COVID-19. But very typical of the August House not finishing business scheduled for a particular Meeting, adjourning for recess was pushed to Saturday 4th April 2020.

Meanwhile the President His Excellency Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo had made his first broadcast on Wednesday 11th March 2020 to ban all public gatherings including churches. funerals and schools have been closed indefinitely and various measures had been put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID – 19 in the country. 

Unfortunately because of the COVID-19 Parliament has to conduct its sittings with the support of a skeletal essential staff.  Some Parliamentary staff, National Service Persons, MPs Research Assistants have been directed to proceed on leave, as part of measures to decongest Parliament and prevent the infection and spread of the COVID-19 virus.  

One can imagine the height of fear and how anxious the Members of Parliament were and itching on their seats for the House to be adjourned Sine Die so that they can go to their constituencies or stay at home with their families. 

Then the Speaker stated categorically “ Hon. Members, we are suspending sitting on this day, and this Honourable House will stand suspended until the Speaker, in consultation with the leadership of the House deem it fit to ask the House to resume sitting.

This action is unprecedented but indeed we are living in unprecedented times and the whole Ghana State is in a State of National Emergency. 

Hon. Members, we are not rising today but we are suspending sitting indefinitely. If we should rise, then on any emergency where our intervention will be required we may need two week notice according to the Constitution and the Standing Orders. Once sitting is suspended we can ask the House to proceed to work in a day or two”. 

Immediately after the unexpected bombshell dropped by the Rt. Hon. Speaker, the Minority Leader, Hon. Haruna Iddrisu, led his members to address the media outside the Chamber and explained further that the Speaker had no such powers to do what he did because it goes contrary to the Standing Orders and the rules of the House. 

The Minority Leader described the actions of the Speaker as dictatorial and an attempt to prorogue Parliament.

Already the National Democratic Congress (NDC) Member of Parliament for Ningo-Prampah, Hon. Sam George had written a “love” letter to the Rt. Hon. Speaker expressing his views on how risky he thinks it was for MPs to still attend sittings in the midst of the raging pandemic. 

“ It is my considered belief Rt. Hon. Speaker that the August House of Parliament is failing to exercise its truly intended role in crisis moments like this. These are not normal times. As such, I would be absenting myself from Parliament hence except there is a matter relating to the Corona Virus which Parliament needs to lend support to the Executive. ” he stated in the letter. 

Quite obviously the Rt. Hon. Speaker was not happy about the contents of the love letter from Hon. Sam George and he described it as “a castigating letter”. 

“ I inform you with deep regret that I have received a castigating letter from the Hon. Sam George MP for Ningo-Prampram Constituency which says he cannot attend the Sitting of this House again because sittings are just a waste of his time as the sittings during this period are only to approve loans. This is sad.” The Rt. Hon. Speaker noted. 

The Pandemic affected the work of Parliament because a medical team lead by Dr. Pambo from the Parliament Clinic had to conduct tests on all MPs, Staff of Parliament, ancillary staff including the police service, fire service, building contractors, the press and all those working within the premises of Parliament. 

The image and reputation of Parliament was also bastardised by a section of the public because when the results of the coronavirus test was ready it was not made public. There were speculations in the media about the number of MPs, Staff of Parliament and Members of the Parliamentary Press Corps who had tested positive. 

The explanation from the Majority Leader that there was a Doctor and Patient agreement between the Leadership of the House and the medical team that the positive results should be communicated to the patients and not to the Leadership of the House was angrily disputed by the Minority Chief Whip Hon. Alhaji Mubarak Muntaka with figures of those who had tested positive.  

The Minister of Health Hon. Kweku Agyeman Manu, Minister of Education Hon. Mathew Opoku Prempeh, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Hon. Carlos Ahenkorah, and a number of Members of Parliament contracted the virus and for some time they had to stop coming to Parliament to perform their Parliamentary duties and go to hospitals to receive medical treatment. Despite all these COVID-19 harzards the House passed a number of legislation. 

The COVID-19 had to force the Rt. Hon. Speaker to suspend the House on three occasion during the first Meeting of the Fourth Session, a situation which is unprecedented in the life of the Fourth Republic and in the history of Parliament. 

The author of this article, Nana Agyemang Birikorang, is the Dean of the Parliamentary Press Corps.

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