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Kwesi Yankah Writes: Our Parliament and Abrofosem

The current language policies in most parts of Africa put greater emphasis on the colonial language as the language of government business; this poses a challenge to ‘non-literates’ and requires the enabling intervention of state policy.

Our celebration of the International Mother Tongue Day continues. Today, I present another thematic area in my keynote address at the University of Ghana. This time, I lament the nation’s lack of political will for Ghanaian languages as demonstrated in successive constitutions and standing orders in Ghana’s parliament. It was indeed a tragic development in 2003, when translation booths in parliament were reduced to a rubble. Hear my cry:

“An important component of democracy is stakeholder participation, where mechanisms are instituted that enable civil society to participate in their own governance through language and policy choices. Apart from exercising his or her franchise through voting, the individual needs the vehicle of language to inform, consult, and express his opinion about public policy. The impact of one’s participation in governance depends on control over the resources of communication.

The current language policies in most parts of Africa put greater emphasis on the colonial language as the language of government business; this poses a challenge to ‘non-literates’ and requires the enabling intervention of state policy. Article 21 (1a) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana guarantees freedom of speech and expression among other freedoms. But the Constitution also acknowledges Ghana’s multilingual realities and people’s restricted access to the official language, through certain key clauses that compel the provision of language assistance in situations where human rights violations are imminent.

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Article 14 (2) states for instance that:

A person who is arrested, restricted, or detained shall be informed immediately, in a language he understands, of the reasons for his arrest, restriction or detention, and of his right to a lawyer of his choice.

Similarly, according to Article 19 (2d):

A person charged with a criminal offence shall be informed immediately in a language that he understands, and in detail, of the nature of the offence charged, and be permitted to have, without payment by him the assistance of an interpreter, where he cannot understand the language used at the trial.

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Similar provisions are made where a person is arrested under a state of emergency, where he should be:

furnished with a statement in writing specifying in detail the grounds upon which he is restricted or detained, and the statement shall be read or interpreted to the person restricted or detained [emphases mine].

The Constitution thus gives guidelines on the State’s role in ensuring that Ghana’s multilingualism and high illiteracy, do not hinder access to fundamental human rights. The Constitution goes further in urging all arms of government to uphold the enshrined clauses. According to Article 12 (1) these rights:

Shall be respected and upheld by the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary and all other agents of Government and its agencies….and shall be enforceable by the courts as provided by the Constitution.

In Ghana the language of education is English. The laws and constitutions of Ghana are in English, and English is also the language of Government business, parliament and the courts.


Rather erroneously, the main index of educational status is one’s ability to speak English, just as literacy is wrongly equated with the ability to read and write English. This naturally excludes from the higher social class, several Ghanaians and Africans who are literate in, or learnt to read and write, African languages either through formal schooling or through mass or adult literacy programs. So long as one is not equipped with skills and proficiency in the colonial language, one is considered ‘illiterate’ with all its derogatory connotations. Subsequently, and depending on the prevailing public policy, the exercise of free speech in certain public forums might be restricted to those who possess the ability to speak, read and write English. This amounts to censorship; for censorship in itself need not be a legislative instrument that overtly constrains the rights to free speech. It is suggested that the more subtle and pervasive type of censorship is structural or systemic consisting in any public policy in language use that is implicitly exclusionary and condemns a majority of people to silence.

Constitutional Ambivalence

The current Constitution of Ghana does not require language proficiency as a criterion for representation in Parliament. Criteria specified include being a citizen of Ghana, of at least 21 years and a registered voter. Of all Ghana’s constitutions, it is those of 1969 and 1979 that specify the language of parliament, and the level of proficiency required to be a member of parliament. The two constitutions required the members of parliament to be proficient in English. The 1969 Constitution is more explicit. Article 71 (d) says:

Subject to the provisions of this article, a person shall be qualified to be a member of the Assembly if and shall not be qualified unless he is able to speak, and unless incapacitated by blindness or other physical causes, to read the English language with a degree of proficiency sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of the Assembly.

The 1979 Constitution, Article 76 I (c) on the Legislature, is similarly worded. The 1960 Republican Constitution on the other hand guarantees free speech in the national assembly without specifying language.

Onus of Translation

The 1992 Constitution like 1960 does not contain any language clause. The issue of language in parliament comes up in the Standing Orders of Parliament. The orders commencing on 30th November 1995, states as follows under ‘Language for Proceedings’:

The 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, Nzema, Ga, Ewe, Hausa, Dagbani, Dagaare or in any other local language provided facilities exist in the House for its interpretation (emphasis mine). (p.47)

Elsewhere, the Standing Orders of Parliament have conveyed this without specifying indigenous languages usable. On the other hand, the onus of translation has sometimes been put on the lawmaker himself. According to the official book of Parliament, A Guide to Parliament (2004, 69):

English is the main language used in parliament. In case a member finds it necessary to mention a word, phrase, or sentence in any of the local languages, he may be required to translate it to the understanding of all. Also, a member may decide to speak in any local language, provided the facility exists in the House for its interpretation. (Emphasis mine)

The proviso specified above is vague and tacitly evasive about the agency responsible for translation. The following extract from the official publication of Parliament, A Guide to Parliament, unfairly places the burden on the legislator himself:

The proceedings of Parliament are ordinarily conducted in the English language, but a member may exercise the option to address the House in any of the major languages if it is accompanied by an English translation. It is permissible for a member to say a phrase in another language provided he accompanies it with an English translation. (2004, 69)

Here not only is speech in ‘any local language’ omitted; where a phrase in another language has been used, but the onus of translation also lies on the legislator himself. The state’s role here is shirked, contrary to Article 12 (1) of the Constitution. Whereas the requirement for English is clear, there is considerable equivocation about the handling of Ghanaian languages, with the State’s constitutional duties disavowed.

Common to all constitutions of Ghana, whether 1957, 1960, 1969, 1979 or 1992, however, are specifications about free speech and freedom of expression. Remarkable however is the subtle disjuncture between constitutional guarantees of free speech on one hand, and the state’s disinterest in facilitating the process. This lapse leaves room for possible disenfranchisement, should aggrieved legislators decline to vote, exercise wrong choices, or resort to chronic absenteeism.

Of equal concern is the prohibition of prepared speeches in Parliament. According to the Standing Orders (87), A member of Parliament is not permitted to read his speech in the House except a maiden speech. This regulation, undoubtedly, is meant to ensure spontaneity in parliamentary debates whose flow and momentum may be compromised if speeches are carefully scripted and read. Nevertheless, it is oppressive and likely to constrain members of the House whose level of proficiency in English may be incapable of sustaining spontaneous exchanges. Rather than risk public censure or ridicule, a timid Member may opt for silence.

In 2016, for example, some Ghanaian newspapers rather unfairly published names and pictures of members of parliament alleged to have been silent on the floor over a full term of four years. That public disclosure was rather rude and unfair since it ignored systemic constraints that may have deterred those legislators’ active involvement at the forum.


Not much has been done to formulate a language policy that optimally promotes free speech in Parliament. In principle though, space was originally earmarked for translation in the form of six cubicles on the floor of the current Parliament. These were dedicated to translations in the six major local languages: Akan, Ewe, Ga, Dagbani, Nzema and Hausa. The facility was used by parliamentary reporters who transcribed debates for inclusion in the official proceedings in Parliament.

It is lamentable that the translators’ booths or cubicles were demolished in 2003, when the seating capacity of parliament was being expanded to cater for 30 more parliamentary seats. The benefits of such facilities to Ghana’s democracy were fully realised in 1991/92 during the

sittings of the 258-member Consultative Assembly, formed to draft Ghana’s current constitution. Here the translation cubicles were put to optimum use, when contributions from the floor were simultaneously translated into some Ghanaian languages by seasoned translators. In this 21st century, modern translation facilities can substantially alleviate potential equipment challenges, but it depends on our own political will.” (End of my speech)

Recent developments point to fresh initiatives by the Speaker of Parliament, Rt Hon Alban Bagbin, to reform language use in Parliament. This is heart-warming and could represent a major breakthrough in Ghana’s democracy. Should this happen at the level of Legislature, it should trickle down and have a major impact on the very foundations of national development.


[Kwesi Yankah is a Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences And Fellow, the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences] [email protected]



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