When I was sixteen years old, I had my first taste of my government’s inner workings in Washington, DC. At the time, George W. Bush had just begun his tenure. I had also attended his inauguration, not as a Republican, but as a contrarian.
Iowan senator Tom Harkin gave my class passes to sit in the Senate’s public gallery, located in the Capitol’s iconic rotunda. Here was the loftiest place to sit in our country’s seat of government, yet as we looked down onto the floor, we saw virtually nothing. The floor was crowded with schmoozing politicians, but we saw no official proceedings. At the time, I figured they were all discussing Freshman Senator Hillary Clinton’s towering hair.
Here in Ghana, a solid ten years hence, I sat in on Parliament, this time as a reporter for PeaceFM. I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I walked through the gate, I saw one of the most opulent sights I’ve yet seen in Ghana, though I wouldn’t say pristine. This isn’t so different from the Capitol Steps, which I grant have 150 more years or so of wear and tear.
I was greeted by Samuel, the Parliament’s safety marshall, as hulking as a man could be without being terrifying. He was actually very sweet, and proved a useful aide in getting me all the way to the press gallery in one piece.
A half hour later, a few other officious types scurried me to the public gallery, citing that I was an “unknown press member.” At no point was I asked for a badge or any type of identification really. Proceedings would begin in minutes and my colleague was running late, making me pray that I could reenter the press gallery at all.
Indeed I did. Emmanuel walked me back to the other side where I also met the Parliamentary Press Corps chief (who is in charge of giving ‘soli,’ or what we call back home a light bribe) and his associates. We finally waltzed back into the press gallery at 10:10, and Mme. Speaker had not yet arrived. She was 15 minutes late. It looked like a place full of pomp and circumstance, but the mood was relaxed.
Once Mme. Speaker was ushered in by the guard and her clerks, something strange (but expected) occured: she led us in prayer.
The sitting members of Parliament (MPs), along with the press, were through with formality after the sacred prayer. What followed were the really juicy kicks in my gut.
With only a skeleton of Robert’s Rules holding sway, an MP contested the record of last Friday’s attendance. A report of last week’s proceedings did indicate 111 present members, which didn’t jibe with the paltry three dozen on the floor today (a few funneled in and out throughout, but three dozen is a generous maximum).
That’s when the yelling and jeering started. It seemed like most of it was in Akan, so I don’t know what was really kept for the record.
The proceedings began in earnest with questions that MPs had prepared for the Minister of Food and Agriculture. Well, it turned out that he was on leave, so his deputy stood in his stead. He plowed through acres of lip service and hectares of tedium, while MPs grabbed their phones, loudly chatted and laughed with other members, or occupied themselves with newspapers. I guess it was akin to having a substitute teacher come in.
As I was trying to catch an earful of what was happening, I struggled not only with various Ghanaian accents but also the din of reporters. They would arrive late, greet and chat with colleagues, let the gallery door creak open and closed. Not many took notes; instead, they relied on the agenda and their digital recorders plumb against the speakers. A woman next to me snatched her ringing cellphone, answering it then and there in the gallery what seemed like ten times, never bothering to switch to vibrate.
The worst offenders, though, seem to be the party leaders seated at the benches in the center of the room. Flanking the Parliament’s hallowed seal, they thrashed about, reading reports and fumbling for their cellphones, a mere yard from the Minister who held the floor. I can’t see Mme. Speaker from my seat, but I can only imagine she was playing Super Jewel Quest.
There’s a laughing party in the midst of one of the minister’s prevaricating responses, as if to remind him that his exercise in protocol was a waste of the representatives’ time.
After about two hours of this, the Deputy Minister left, and Mme. Speaker thanked him for his time and responsiveness.
Then came the “statement,” provided by Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, an MP from Weija. The room fell silent as she announced congratulations to the continent’s–and world’s–newest country: South Sudan. The hall became much more solemn, with many MPs’ voices positively contributing to the discussion of Ghana’s role in helping the country which has seen nothing but turmoil in the last 25 years. The politicians spoke forthrightly about all of the issues that the country would face in its nascent years, but agreed that nothing was more important than offering a 54-year-old model of solidarity and neighborliness to a country wherein 98% of inhabitants had recently demanded autonomy and respite from civil unrest.
Though there was still a titter here and there in the press gallery, I came to realize the significance of this change in tenor–the Ghanaian government cares deeply about the well-being of other countries. I expect that similarly, a Senate floor visit from Clinton and her formidable hair would probably garner more interest than the Deputy Secretary of… OK, I admit I don’t know who our Secretary of Agriculture is. But I can’t imagine an event of international interest taking such a clear-cut precedence over domestic issues.
On my second day as a reporter at Parliament, I interviewed a student sitting in the Public gallery with more classmates than there were MPs present. Even though the group had to leave at 10:30 (before the Minister of Energy bothered to show up), the young man felt honored to have seen the sacred Hall and witnessed the Speaker’s summoning to the bench. As it turned out, his math teacher was responsible for bringing his classroom to the ultimate civics lesson. Neither felt disappointed that he wouldn’t see the extent of the tomfoolery in the hall. The student said he followed the energy industry and politics quite closely anyway.
I suppose that’s the biggest difference. As a teenager, I saw idle chatter on the Senate floor and left disappointed. This young man saw the solemn ceremony of it all, and the beginnings of Senate floor antics, but left satisfied and energized. Ghanaians have seen the staggering growth of their country, smooth transitions of power, and developmental promise from their neighbors, and perhaps less reason to be jaded than Americans, whose centuries old rules of the republic are so deeply ingrained into our political awareness.
As for the informality of the proceedings, it’s nice to see that the government here doesn’t need to pretend politics isn’t all a circus.