Can Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa (MP) Resign from the Appointments Committee of Parliament? : A Constitutional Perspective
On Tuesday, March 30 2021, news broke that Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, the Honourable Member of for the North Tongu Constituency, had elected, through a letter addressed to the Speaker of Parliament, to resign his membership on the Appointments Committee of Parliament. A day later, Mr Ablakwa confirmed on his Facebook page, not only the fact of the said resignation letter but also that his resignation from the Appointments Committee had been accepted by the Speaker of Parliament, the Rt. Hon. Speaker Alban S.K. Bagbin, following “a fruitful and frank meeting”.
Naturally, the overwhelming reactions to the resignation have centred on the reasons for the resignation. In essence, the “why” of it.
This being the first time under the 4th Republic, and perhaps ever, in our constitutional democracy, that a member of Parliament has formally asked to resign from any Committee and purportedly obtained an acceptance of such resignation, I intend to draw attention, both as a matter of personal intellectual curiosity and by reason of the peculiar historical nature of this development, to the “how” of the resignation. Can Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa resign from the Appointments Committee of Parliament?
Now, the Standing Orders of Parliament are silent on whether, and if so, how a member of Parliament can resign from a Committee of Parliament. Arguably, it will seem incongruent with established constitutional norms concerning personal autonomy to insist that a Member of Parliament cannot resign from any Committee, and is constrained to stay put. However, it needs to be remembered that a Member of Parliament, once elected, acts no longer as an individual but as an important cog in our democratic machinery. As such, his or her actions as a Member in relation to Parliament, are personal and yet impersonal, private and yet public. However, even if the general view is taken, which seems intuitively and constitutionally plausible, that a person cannot be compelled to remain on a Committee which is to their distaste, the question whether Mr Okudzeto Ablakwa could have, or even has, resigned from the Appointments Committee isn’t necessarily disposed of.
This is because while a Member can presumably resign their membership from every select Committee; he or she cannot resign from every Standing Committee. A Member is bound to maintain membership of at least one Standing Committee. The constitution is clear in this respect. Article 103(4) provides that “Every member of Parliament shall be a member of at least one of the standing committees”. This provision, in my estimation imposes a dual responsibility on the House to ensure such membership, and on the member to maintain such membership. Personal autonomy while guaranteed by the constitution is also limited by the demands of this constitutional duty.
Currently, Parliament as constituted, is divided into 11 standing committee, one of which is the Appointments Committee. Having indicated his intention to resign from the only Standing Committee of which he is a member, Mr Okudzeto Ablakwa must immediately be integrated into another Standing Committee, before that resignation becomes effective. He cannot exist on the brinks. It is constitutionally impossible to be destitute, in this regard.
Mr Okudzeto Ablakwa claims that the Rt Hon Speaker Bagbin has accepted his resignation. First of all, I think both the submission of the resignation to the Speaker and the purported acceptance of same by the Speaker is procedurally incorrect. Per the Constitution and the Standing Orders of Parliament, the power to appoint Members to a Committee vests exclusively, in the full House, acting on the recommendation of the Committee of Selection. As became dramatically clear when House minority represented on the Appointments Committee conferred to reject certain ministerial nominees, the role of any Committee, including the Selection Committee, is to advice the House, as to what course of action to take. The final decision rests with the House, which is competent to either adopt a decision of a Committee by consensus, or submit the decision to a vote. Article 103(1) confirms on the one hand, that it is Parliament that appoints a Committee; and on the other hand that these committees once appointed, aid Parliament in the “effective discharge of its functions”. They have no functions of their own, except that which Parliament confides in them.
The Orders are silent on whether, Parliament, acting via its Selection Committee is also competent to consider resignations of Members from any committee, I argue that the decision to accept a resignation from any member of a Committee also vests in the full House, acting on the advice of the Standing Committee. As is well, accepted as part of our constitutional practice, where a power to make any appointment is conferred, then, unless a different intention appears, the authority having such power to make the appointment also has the power to suspend or remove any person appointed in exercise of that power. This is also confirmed by Order 193, which vests in the Selection Committee the power to “effect changes” in the Membership of any Committee during the Session, either with consent of the Member, or failing such consent at the request of two-thirds of all the Members of the Parliamentary party to which the Member belongs. In addition, the Standing Orders provide that the Leader of the Party affected by the change may notify the Chairman of the Selection Committee of a change [stating the reasons], and the name of the nominee to replace the outgoing member.
Now, it is unclear from Order 193, whether the Member can be the first mover in procuring the “changes” in the membership of any committee, and as such, I make no inference that a member can resign or request a change in the committee to which he or she is appointed. However, it is safe to imply that, any resignations from a Committee as constituted must be addressed to the appointing authority; in this case the full House, acting through the Selection Committee. Presumably, the Member may also address the resignation to the Selection Committee through the Leader of the Member’s Party, or to the Members of that Party. Definitely not to the Speaker. In any event, even where a notice of resignation is addressed to the Speaker, the Speaker acts only as a conveyor belt who must deliver the resignation letter to the entire body of the Selection Committee, the Members of the Parliamentary Party to which the Member belongs or the Leader of that Party. In this connection, the Speaker acts out of authority when he purports to “accept” and not just “receive” such resignation, on behalf of the Selection Committee or the House.
This view of the limited powers of the Speaker pertains, whether the Speaker’s intervention was made in his capacity as Speaker qua Speaker, or as Chair of the Selections Committee. As regards the limits of what the Speaker acting as Speaker can do, it bears remembering that there is still significant constitutional doubt as to whether the Speaker of Parliament is, believe it or not, part of Parliament. For instance, according to Article 93(1), “there shall be a Parliament of Ghana which shall consist of not less than one hundred and forty elected members”. By this reading, though the Speaker, presides in Parliament (see article 101) he is not part of Parliament. Also, this view of the Speaker as a fish that lives in water but does not drink of it, is reinforced by article 104 (2) which gives the Speaker neither an original nor casting vote in matters before Parliament. Similarly, the Speaker is not taken into account for the determination of the quorum of Parliament under article 102. In this regard, it becomes important that the Speaker, when acting in matters pertaining to Parliament, acts only in strict accordance with his enumerated powers, as conferred on him by the Constitution or by Members of Parliament through the Standing Orders. In this case, neither of these instruments capacitate the Speaker to accept such resignation. The powers of the House, including to accept a resignation from a committee to which a person is appointed by the House, cannot be exercised by the Speaker, under any circumstance.
With respect to the Speaker’s role as Chair of the Selection Committee, it bears reiterating that a Chair of a Committee of Parliament cannot arrogate to herself and perform the powers of that Committee. The Standing Orders provide no such authority. In the instant scenario, as noted, the Orders provide no guidance as to what pertains when a member of a Committee purports to resign. However, persuasive guidance may be derived from Order 164, which relates to the Privileges Committee. According to that Order, “a Member of the Committee may disqualify himself from participating in any investigation of the conduct of a Member, officer or employee of the House. upon a declaration in writing that he cannot render an impartial and unbiased decision in the case in which he seeks to disqualify himself. If the Committee approves and accepts such disqualification, the Chairman shall so notify the Speaker who shall request the Leader of the same political party as the disqualifying Member to designate a Member from his party to act as a Member of the Committee in any proceedings relating to such investigation.” [Emphasis provided]
In this case, as the Orders provide, the power to consider and approve a disqualification (which should not be taken to be the same as a resignation) of a member of the Privileges Committee vests in that Committee as a whole. As such, and by parity of reasoning, an approval and consequent acceptance of a resignation from a Committee vests exclusively in the Selection Committee as a whole, rather than in the Chair as an individual. As such, the Rt Hon Speaker Bagbin acts out of authority by purporting to accept a resignation in usurpation of the Selection Committee’s authority, to approve, accept and invite the House to adopt such acceptance.
Further, even where the Selection Committee accepts a resignation entailing a change in the membership of a Standing Committee, it must do so with an eye on the constitutional injunction that a Member must be a member of at least one Standing Committee. It follows that, in the event that a Member is a member of only one Standing Committee, the consideration of a resignation from that Standing Committee must be made in tandem with a reconstitution of another Standing Committee in order to otherwise accommodate the member. Absent this, the resignation is without effect, and remains injuncted until a reconstitution that cures the constitutional infraction is procured.
It is worth noting that Mr. Okudzeto Ablakwa’s request to resile from his duties as a member of the Selection Committee comes at a time when Parliament is on recess. By parliamentary practice, even when the House is on recess, Committees of Parliament are able to meet and conduct their business. Except that decisions needing ratification by the full House, will have to await the reconvening of Parliament. This means that, in this case, even if the Selection Committee were to meet and consider approvingly, Mr Okudzeto Ablakwa’s intention to resign, the reconstitution of the Committees of Parliament that this will necessitate cannot be adopted by the House, until the recess is lifted. It follows that Mr. Okudzeto Ablakwa remains a member of the Appointments Committee, until the following occur: (1) His resignation is considered with approval by the Selection Committee; (2) He is added to another Standing Committee, and (3) the House adopts the reconstitution of the Committees. Until such series of events are procured, Mr. Okudzeto Ablakwa’s resignation rests in abeyance and the Rt Hon Speaker Bagbin’s purported acceptance is ineffectual.
So, can Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa resign from the Appointments Committee of Parliament? It depends!