Ernest Plange Kwofie explores the performativity of “vetting” hearings in the Ghanian Parliament.
In the 18th century, Edmund Burke described the nature of parliamentary actors and the world they inhabit in dramaturgical terms. Axiomatically, Burke asserted that parliament is a theatrical exhibition hall for dramatic talents. This was echoed by Wildrow Wilson in the 19th century where he intimated that Congress in session is Congress on a public exhibition, but Congress in committee rooms is Congress at work. These assertions highlight the performative nature of parliamentary politics and yet have sometimes evaded the analytical laser of modern political research. Notably, the performativity of parliamentary politics features prominently in the confirmation hearings in Ghana. Confirmation hearings, popularly known as ‘vetting’, are regarded as one of the important oversight functions of the Parliament of Ghana. It is performed by the Appointments Committee to fulfil a constitutional function which require parliament to approve persons nominated by the president as ministers or heads of other state institutions. The hearings attract a plethora of people, whiles interested parties stay glued to their television set to observe the proceedings.
Since 1993, confirmation hearings have become a common fixture in the parliament against the background of a competitive two-party system and a stable electoral democracy. However, as the Minority Leader in 2009 indicated, the confirmation hearings ‘has been greeted with criticism and scepticism’. Generally, there is a tendency by some observers to liken the confirmation hearings in Ghana to the senatorial hearings in the US. In fact, the weight of the congressional system in this area is so heavy that Matthews and Flinders referred to parliamentary scrutiny over executive appointees in Westminster as “Washminster”. In 2005, an MP claimed in the Ghanaian parliament that his colleague wondered why the US Senate used two days to interrogate Condoleeza Rice, while the Appointments Committee in Ghana used a day to vet about seven nominees. In academic circles, the hearings have often been understood largely in terms of the approval or rejection of nominees.
However, a close-up perspective of the processes involved in the hearings reveal some interesting trends which are crucial for understanding the power dynamics of parliamentary oversight. Below are two key factors to note about the confirmation hearings in Ghana: the performative nature of the hearings and the underlying reasons. First, there are at least four ways in which the hearings have unfolded: scrutiny, symbolic presentation, co-operation, and conflict. Usually, most MPs talk about the necessity for the hearings as it signifies the power of parliament to scrutinise executive appointments. Nonetheless, it is the posture of the minority members on the committee which illustrates this perspective. As some reports have revealed, the minority members often ask more questions during the hearings.[i] For instance, in a landmark hearing in 2018, the minority members posed 136 questions to the nominee whiles the majority asked 36 questions. Even though some of the questions smacked of an inquisition, they were critical and exacted some thought-provoking responses.
On the other hand, the hearings have sometimes been characterised by the symbolic presentation of nominees. ‘Presentation’ in this context implies giving the nominees the opportunity to showcase themselves and what they are capable of doing to the public. Significantly, it ensures some level of transparency in the approval process, whiles rendering it in public reflects parliament’s commitment to integrate the public in some of its activities. Symbolic presentation often defines the posture of the majority members on the committee; while the minority members ask probing questions, the majority members tend to ask soft ball questions and pander to their colleagues. Yet, it is not uncommon for the majority and minority members to cooperate and form a performance team to facilitate the ‘presentation’ of senior parliamentary colleagues. In such instances, the interactions between the committee members and the nominees are couched in a cordial tone.
Nevertheless, the process has not escaped the gladiatorial nature of parliamentary politics. As Rt. Hon, Doe Ajaho, the chairman of the committee in the Fifth Parliament highlighted, ‘The chronicles of the considerations of nominees cannot be told fully without its humour’ (Hansard, n.d.: ix). What he described as ‘humour’ has often appeared as a tensed atmosphere and an adversarial contest between the minority members and the nominees as well as the chairman and the minority members. This aggressive performance often comes about when the minority members go overboard and ask questions that fall outside the purview of the Standing Orders. Intriguingly, such questions are controversially political and end up creating dramatic tensions.
The foregoing highlights the shifting strands of the confirmation hearings in Ghana. This can be understood within the varying interpretations espoused by the MPs as well as the staging of the hearings. Although Wildrow Wilson’s famous observation about the arcadian nature of committee settings contrasts with the ‘exhibition’ nature of plenary sessions, the confirmation hearings in Ghana, as enacted by the Appointments Committee, reflects the performative character of plenary sessions. Before every hearing begins, there are series of background activities and agreements made between the committee members, which are meant to ensure the smooth staging of the hearings in the presence of the public. Intriguingly, the public nature of the hearings has pulled it in different and unintended directions.
Notwithstanding the scripted nature of the hearings, some members of the committee tend to tow a different line by asking questions that provoke dramatic exchanges to the delight or chagrin of the audience. As a former Speaker remarked: Members of the public naturally want to hear and see at first hand the expected travails and the discomfiture of the poor nominees! The multiple shades of the confirmation hearings exemplify the ambiguity and fluidity of parliamentary functions. More importantly, the dramaturgical elements of the hearings require analysis that moves beyond the macro-emphasis on parliamentary outputs to inputs and processual dynamics in order to capture the underlying issues that affect parliamentary politics. In the light of this, it will be quite misleading for scholars and observers to attribute a unitary meaning or salience to the varying oversight functions performed by parliamentary committees in different sites and settings.
[i] This is partly because the president and the majority in parliament have usually been from the same party.
Ernest Plange Kwofie is a research Masters student at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include African politics, parliamentary studies, and interpretive analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @ernest_plange
Adjetey, P. A. (2006). Reflections on the Effectiveness of the Parliament of the Fourth Republic of Ghana (No. 2). Ghana Center for Democratic Development, CDD-Ghana.
Center for Democratic Development (CDD)-Ghana. (2005). Appointments and ‘vetting’ of ministerial nomination: constitutional and other challenges, Briefing Paper, 7 (1): 1-18.
Hansard (n.d.). Parliamentary vetting – Fifth Parliament. Vol. 4, Department of Official Report: Parliament House, Accra.
Hindson, P. & Gray, T. (1988). Burke’s dramatic theory of politics. Aldershot: Avebury.
Matthews, F. & Flinders, M. (2015). The watchdogs of ‘Washminster’ – parliamentary scrutiny of executive patronage in the UK. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. 53(2), pp.153–176.
Wilson, W. (1963). Congressional Government: A study in American politics. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin