Parliament House and strange bloodsports     


Overweight men, mostly in suits and ties, heave at one another like a beach of maddened seals. They push and punch and jostle in a densely packed scrum, their bodies crammed between fixed wooden benches and chairs. This picture captures the latest brawl that broke out in Ghana’s parliament on Monday during a debate on the E-levy bill. It is a dynamic image of one of the world’s strangest bloodsports: parliamentary fighting.

Scenes like this are surprisingly common inside legislative assemblies around the world. There was a previous bust-up in this current Ghana parliament during its opening just 11 months ago. South Africa also saw parliamentary fighting recently, while chaotic scenes have been known to erupt in the parliaments of Ukraine, Georgia, Taiwan, Uganda, Bolivia, Somalia, Argentina and Nigeria. One of the biggest parliamentary fights in India I saw on YouTube, and it looked like a full-scale riot inside the national assembly – with members hurling microphones as non-participants fled the chamber.

Aficionados of muscular politics – like those of the Tema Central MP Hon. Yves Hanson-Nortey and his cronies who quickly rushed to resist some opposition MPs that were approaching the Rt. Hon. Joseph Osei Owusu, the First Deputy Speaker’s seat with a display of their youthfulness – enjoy these fights. Some of them even collect images of them online. After Britain’s Labour Party MP Eric Joyce brawled in a bar at the House of Commons, political bloggers rated the best political fistfights.

Does fighting disgrace an electoral assembly, or does it prove that politicians care about their beliefs? The picture from Ghana’s heated debating chamber communicates passion and intensity. These men appear to be fighting for their lives, not just a point of order. The anger they express with their bodies is – in these scenes – more attractive than a moribund assembly where half-awake MPs debate a bill no one cares about.

Might these occasional fistfights restore people’s engagement with parliamentary politics in Ghana? It is true the Parliament House is notoriously adversarial. Its critics are alienated by the rutting rivalry of leaders locked in ritual verbal conflict whenever they gather to debate a bill. But surely the problem is not the display of antipathy – it is the phony feel of it all, as opposing parties sometimes score points like public school debaters.

At least in Ghana’s parliament they really mean it. No one in the scenes of this week’s fistfight is striking a pose. Subsequently, photographs of this week’s episode show a man with real blood on his face. The exchange of words between the Deputy Speaker and opposing MPs that echo in the Parliament House all too often seem bloodless.

But sometimes physical violence is – surely – the honest answer to weasel words. After the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, Britain’s Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, supported the British paratroopers’ version of events in the House of Commons. His opposition MP Bernadette Devlin was not called by the Speaker, so she went up to Maudling and hit him.

Yet for all the appeal of a parliamentary fight club that answers false rhetoric with spontaneous aggression (like the current version we saw on Monday between Ghana’s First Deputy Speaker and the opposition MPs), it is of course a slippery slope to civil disaster. Parliaments exist to resolve disputes without violence. Their whole function is to replace fighting with words – and if the rhetoric rings hollow it needs to be infused with greater truth.  A punch or any form of physical violence is not true eloquence, regardless of whoever was wrong.

The passion at work in the scenes from the Parliament House are all too real and too dangerous. As the MPs from majority side (NPP) pushes the opposition (NDC) MPs ever further into dissent, this fight broke out in a debate over an E-levy bill that should’ve ended with a show of hands rather than seeing it end up in such a flare-up. This will indeed resonate with the ordinary Ghanaian that its elected politicians are becoming demagogues. In reality, the fighting in Parliament House this week now feed, and rightly so, a house on fire – it is quite likely to be a danger-signal of a society splitting apart.

This is apparent from one of the bloodiest fights ever seen in an electoral chamber, which took place in America in the 1850s. In 1856, Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane in the Senate. Sumner’s offence was to criticise Brooks for supporting slavery. This fight was a sign of things to come. Within a few years Americans would be killing Americans. Ghana’s parliamentarians take note: a house divided against itself cannot stand.

The writer has previously worked for Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan as Equities and Merger & Acquisition Strategist in the UK.

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