Letter from Africa: How to insult a politician

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In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister and member of the opposition, explains how a politician should be insulted.

We are not quite sure here in Ghana what to make of the drama that President Jacob Zuma faces when he goes to parliament to deliver his State of the Nation Address.

Our Parliament in Ghana has its share of heckling, rowdiness and walkouts.

Our MPs are experts at dishing out insults without being seen to be insulting.

Members regularly accuse each other of trying to mislead the chamber and there are regular demands to withdraw some word or sentence regarded as un-parliamentary.

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Instead of dressing up in overalls heckling and walking out, couldn’t South Africa’s politicians learn a subtler insult?

But, by and large, the collective ire of our parliamentarians is aroused only when an outsider says something that is deemed to be uncomplimentary about them.

Recently for example, our honourable members got into an almighty tizz when someone suggested that parliament had displayed “ignorance” in a discussion on Ebola vaccine trials.

From where I stood, the scientific evidence did not seem to be on their side, but they were the “Honourables” and so their word counted.

Every Ghanaian now knows there is a strong chance of being hauled before the Privileges Committee of Parliament if you as much as say anything that can be interpreted as “bringing the House into disrepute”.

We listen carefully to the words the MPs use to describe their colleagues in the House.

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The Ghanaian president’s state of the nation speech is a comparatively dull occurance

You are not allowed to call an honourable MP a liar, but everybody knows that when a parliamentarian says a colleague has been “economical with the truth”, it means the person has told a lie.

There is usually some amount of drama when the president comes into the House to deliver the State of the Nation address or the Minister of Finance delivers the Budget statement.

One year, members of the opposition boycotted the sitting and left the majority to cheer on the president at every pause in the speech.

Another year the president was heckled non-stop but it was quite good natured and not enough to interfere with the delivery of the speech.

On a third occasion, the oppositiont refused to stand up at the end of the speech for the customary standing ovation after the address.

Elizabeth Ohene:

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Elizabeth Ohene

“You are not allowed to call an honourable member of Parliament a liar, but everybody knows that when an MP says a colleague has been “economical with the truth”, it means the person has told a lie.”

In the last few years, the opposition has resorted to newer methods of protest; like wearing black and red clothes, which are the colours for mourning, to denote what they think of the state of the nation, never mind what President John Mahama might say.

Sometimes, opposition MPs arm themselves with little cardboard pieces on which they write a slogan of some kind, which they will wave in the air as a sign of their displeasure at what the president or the minister of finance had to say.

Compared to the scenes in the South African parliament when President Zuma goes to deliver his address, it is obvious that the goings-on in our parliament is something of a child’s play.

I am forced to conclude that our MPs are veering on the side of wit in the wafer-thin line that separates wit and cheap abuse.

It is most unlikely that anybody would get up in parliament in this country and call a minister or a president a thief.

They might think it, and they might even believe it, but they won’t utter the word on the floor of parliament.

There will be strong editorials criticising such an MP, traditional rulers and religious leaders will weigh in with their condemnations and there will be calls for the offending MP to be removed from the House.

However, it will be perfectly OK and understood by all to say in the House that a huge gulf has developed between poverty and the president and his ministers.

We watch the drama in the South African parliament and wonder how come they cannot find the language to insult without being insulting.

More from Elizabeth Ohene:

Ghana’s fondness for creative language

Our presidents are addicted to titles

Britain’s speedy high-drama elections seen through Ghanaian eyes

Should Ghanaians be given a three-day-weekend to attend funerals?

Taking advantage of a crisis

Tolerating fufu made in a microwave

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