English is the main language for communication on the floor of Parliament, but it is allowable to use any of seven specified and other Ghanaian languages, subject to the availability of translators and other relevant facilities.
Majority Leader of the House Alban Bagbin, observes, therefore, that parliamentary practice is not limited to the speaking of English.
Quoting 47 of the Standing Orders of Parliament, Mr Bagbin said: “Proceedings of Parliament shall ordinarily be conducted in the English language except that a member may exercise the option to address the house in either Akan or Nzema, Ga, Ewe, Hausa, Dagbani, Dagari or in any other local language provided facilities exist in the House for its interpretation.”
In an interview with the Ghana News Agency (GNA) in Accra, Mr Bagbin who is also the Leader of Government Business, said: “We believe that local languages can contribute to the participation in the decision making process and in the governance of the nation.
“English is not the only language permissible in the House, but the lack of facilities is delaying the use of local languages.”
Mr Bagbin said governance is broad base practice and that was why the Consultative Assembly, which drafted the 1992 Constitution included hairdressers, carpenters and other groups of who expressed themselves in languages they were comfortable with, and later put in technical language.
“That enriched our Constitution, and granted us the stability,” Mr Bagbin said, adding that it made practical the policy of inclusion.
“And so language should not be a bar to one’s ambition to enter into Parliament,” Mr Bagbin said.
Asked why it has been easier to use local languages at the Judiciary, Mr Bagbin said that arm of Government is more endowed with resources, interpreters and other facilities.
He however gave an assurance that efforts are being made to make simultaneous translations possible in the House.
The quest for the people’s representatives to expresses themselves in local languages has emerged as many Ghanaians are at a loss why Members of Parliament MP) and Presidential Candidates tour the nook and cranny of the country, and campaign in local languages to win the vote of the people to represent them only to turn to the English language after getting the nod of the people.
It may also be recalled that the MP Effutu in the Central Region, Mr Alexander Afenyo-Markin had in the last session of the House stirred controversy with an application to be allowed to make a submission in the local Fante language.
His argument was that, “the fact that a person was unable to communicate fluently with that florescent competence in English, does not mean that the person cannot make his point.”
Mr Afenyo-Markin was reacting to a recent public attack on MPs, with regard to their ability to properly articulate their issues in English language on the floor of the House pleaded with the Speaker to be allowed to speak in Fante.
He explained that he was making the request under Order 47 of the Standing Orders of Parliament.
According to Mr Afenyo-Markin, he has not been told that there are no such facilities in existence because they have had that Standing Orders since 1992.
The First Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Mr Ebo Barton-Odro who was presiding over the House interrupted and said those translation facilities were not available in the House and questioned why the Member wanted to overstretch the House.
But Mr Afenyo-Markin said not too long ago the public descended on Parliamentarians and raised a number of issues about MPs.
“Mr Speaker I believe strongly that the fact that a person is unable to communicate fluently, with that florescent competence in English, does not mean that the person cannot make his point, and that the person is unintelligent,” he repeated.
“So, Mr Speaker I believe the framers of these Standing Orders, were very clear in their minds that it would come a time that Members would want to freely make contributions in one Ghanaian language or the other.”
“And Mr Speaker if at this stage, after 20 years we still say that there are no facilities to allow members to make a contribution…”
The Member for Bawku, Mr Mahama Ayariga who doubles as Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation shot to his feet and said the Member was making an attempt to divert attention from the issue before the House – debate on Right to Information Bill.
He said the framers in their wisdom envisaged a situation where, “a Hausa man, an Ewe man, Ga man or a Fante man who has not had the benefit of formal education, and can’t speak English could still be elected by a constituency to be in this House. That person should have a right to participate in the debate in this House.
But when you have had the privilege of going to law school, written all your exams in English, practiced law in English, and very fluent in flawless English, you cannot stand in this House, Mr Speaker and seek to make proceedings more expensive by demanding that infrastructure should be created for debate to take place in different languages.”
Mr Ayariga therefore prayed the Speaker to deny the application and described it as “frivolous” meant to divert attention from real issues.
The Speaker said he did not want the matter to be dragged since the practice had been that if a Member used any language apart from English in the course of submissions, the Member would translate it into English.
“If he is in the position to do that, I don’t think I can stop him, but if he is not, let us go the English way and save ourselves the trouble.”
Mr Afenyo-Markin thanked the Speaker for “partially” granting the application and said he would at a later date exercise that right of making his submission in Fante and translate it.
He said time was far spent and so was deferring that right for “today” and exercise it another time.
If he does that, he would probably become the first MP to make a submission in a local language on the floor.
Some members in the past have spoken local languages on the floor but nobody has made submissions in local language before.
The GNA has been seeking the views of some members of the House, and below are their reactions.
To Dr Mathew Opoku Prempeh, MP for Manhyia South, any person who elected into Parliament but cannot speak English is going to face a very serious problem. It is up to Parliamentary Service to provide an interpreter and other support facilities to make the interpretation possible and effective.
A source from the Office of the Clerk of Parliament agrees the use of any of the Ghanaian languages is permissible, but the member who wants to speaker in vernacular languages should first make a prior request for the facilities to be provided.
The source gave assurance that the Parliamentary Service would provide the facilities for translation if people who cannot use English language are elected into the House.
It was of the view that the Constitution was above the Standing Orders in the matters on the use language, and recalled that the 1979 Constitution was explicit that anyone who enters Parliament should be able to use the English language to some extent.
The use of all the specified local languages, it said, would create a problem for the House, and suggested that one or two languages could be used if it were agreed upon by the House.
However[USER1] , Alhaji Amadu Sorogho, MP for Madina Abokobi, said the despite the Standing Orders said, the House by a convention has made English its official language. No other language is allowed on the floor of Parliament.
Alhaji Muntaka Mubarak, Majority Chief Whip, said the MP who wants to use a local language must first apply to the House.
Minority Leader Osei Kyei Mensa Bonsu, also agreed on the provision of interpreters and translation facilities for Ghana languages to be spoken, but a prior application has to be made first.
To the Minority Leader Dominic Nitiwul, the lack of translation facilities makes it difficult for simultaneous translation, and the House would consequently have to employ interpreters, adding that no member had so far requested to make a submission in a Ghanaian language, and to request for facilities for interpretation.
He said it was another issue if the translation that would be done would be good enough for the Hansard Department to capture it well in its report, explaining that apart from the votes and proceedings, the Department should be able to capture and translate well the rich metaphors, proverbs, idioms of the Ghanaian language.
“How can you do that simultaneously with at least all the 48 recognised Ghanaian languages?” the Deputy Minority Leader asked?
He added: “We have not had a situation where a Member is not able to speak any English at all.”
Mr Ahmed Ibrahim, Deputy Majority Chief Whip, for his part, said communication in parliament is not about English language, but the ability to stand the crowd and communicate well to the understanding of the House.
“You can bring a professor in English to the House, he or she will fumble. Let’s provoke debate on the use of local languages in the House,” he said, with the explanation that there is a provision for non-English speakers in the House.
Mr Ibrahim queried the extent of the use of Ghanaian languages in the school curriculum, and urged the education authorities to come out with a policy that would encourage effective study of Ghanaian languages.
“We need a Ghanaian language directive so that people will feel proud in speaking their native tongues,” the Deputy Majority said.
He however noted that some MPs prefer using the English language despite being very good in their local languages for fear of being branded as “village MP”, and cited an instance where a former member lost his seat because his constituents felt he could not communicate in English but rather in his local tongue.
The Deputy Majority Chief Whip however cautioned against ethnocentrism when one or two major languages are adopted for use by the House.