KOLAWOLE DANIELS brings some intrigues trailing the ongoing moves by members of the National Assembly to expand the scope of beneficiaries of the immunity clause in the Nigerian Constitution.
Members of the present National Assembly set the agenda for the current debate over their controversial agenda on immunity for the leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives. While some of the principal officers have been tongue in the cheek on the issues, others have been unequivocal in their position for the inclusion of the leaders to be beneficiaries in the immunity clause in the Nigerian Constitution, notwithstanding the existing traditional parliamentary immunity granted lawmakers.
The controversial move by the lawmakers to broaden the coverage of such immunity came amidst other contentious issues like constituency projects, pension for members and purchase of vehicles that have put the National Assembly on the spot lately. It will be recalled that some senators demanded immunity and life pension for presiding officers of the National Assembly after their tenure in office. The demand came to the fore at a two-day retreat tagged, Towards Ensuring Governance Accountability in Nigerian federalism, on Constitution Review, organised by the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Constitution Review held in Lagos. Under the proposal, such presiding officers as the President of the Senate, deputy President of Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives and deputy Speaker are to benefit from the arrangement, with the lawmakers saying the presiding officers in the legislature ought to enjoy immunity since the executive and judiciary were enjoying it. The deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who is chairman, Senate Ad hoc Committee on the Review of 1999 Constitution, spoke in favour of the proposal for pension. He said, “This has nothing to do with an individual. It is about the institution. Let us not politicise it. Nobody elected the Chief Justice of Nigeria but he enjoys pension. But if we cheapen our own institution, so be it. Let us not make this a personal thing.” Senator Stella Oduah support the argument, saying, “The executive enjoys it. Let us stand by our leaders. They should enjoy this benefit. They act on behalf of us. They are equal to the executive and judiciary and should therefore enjoy the same benefit.”
On pension, Senator Ahmed Yerima stressed: “Governors, who spend just four years enjoy it, so presiding officers should enjoy it too.’ However, Leader of the Senate, Senator Ali Ndume, spoke against the proposal because the case of the state governors and their deputies was different as they were elected by the public.“But we elect our principal officers; to me, I believe that the benefits of the office of the Senate President and other principal officers are too much. They are just one among equals. I am against any excessive privileges given to the senate president or the speaker. All of us were elected. If we are doing anything, it should be for all members of the National Assembly,” Ndume said.
His position was supported by Senator Oluremi Tinubu. According to her, “Principal Officers drive fleet of cars and they have other entitlements. They should not earn extra money when they leave office.In the last (8th) assembly, we in the minority tried to raise our voice against it. You are first, second and third among equals. Some of us do not even have cars but principal officers have so many. I think we should drop that idea,” she said.
But on immunity for principal officers, no fewer than 21 lawmakers voted in favour of it, while 15 voted against it. Justifying his support for the proposal, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Works, Kabiru Gaya, said the essence of immunity was to guard some public office holders against any form of distraction while discharging their duties. He said, “There are three tiers of government and only two arms enjoy immunity. See what is happening to the President of the Senate now (Bukola Saraki, who is standing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged false declaration of assets).We are not saying the case in court should be stopped. But even yesterday, we read in the papers that there is a fresh case of forgery of Senate Standing Rule against the presiding officers and some other persons and all is to destabilise us.’’
Ndume explained that such immunity should be limited to civil offences committed by the officers.“For criminal issues (offences), there should be no immunity, but for civil offences, there should be immunity. Whoever it is that is involved in a criminal matter should be prosecuted,’’ he noted. Senator Godswill Akpabio proposed that all National Assembly members and state Houses of Assembly members should have immunity. He said elected officers, who were saddled with the responsibility of ensuring good governance, should be allowed to carry out their functions without any form of interference. His words: “I propose that all principal officers of the House of Assembly, House of Representatives and Senate, should enjoy immunity like the executive. So, all parliamentarians who have criminal cases can be invested but they should serve their punishment after office.”
However, the Deputy Senate Leader, Bala Ibn N’Allah, sounded a note of warning. He said the public might misconstrue the proposal for immunity for the legislature to mean that they were arrogating so much power to themselves. Accordingly, he proposed a different option, which is expunging immunity clause from the constitution. “Let us remove immunity from everyone and let there be balance. If you give immunity to everybody, a legislator may rape a lady and wait to finish his tenure before being prosecuted because he has immunity,” he said.
Matters arising in the House
During the constitutional review exercise carried out by the 7th Assembly of the House, there was a move by the lawmakers to strip the President, vice president, Governors and their deputies of the immunity they enjoy under the 1999 Constitution as amended. Section 308 deals with immunity clause. Subsection (2) (a) states that “No civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against a person to whom this section applies during his period of office.”
Section (b) states that, “a person to whom this section applies shall not be arrested or imprisoned during that period either in pursuance of the process of any court or otherwise; and Section (c) also states that, no process of any court requiring or compelling the appearance of a person to whom this section applies, shall be applied for or issued: Provided that in ascertaining whether any period of limitation has expired for the purposes of any proceedings against a person to whom this section applies, no account shall be taken of his period of office.
Section(2) The provisions of subsection (1) of this section shall not apply to civil proceedings against a person to whom this section applies in his official capacity or to civil or criminal proceedings in which such a person is only a nominal party.
While that amendment by the House to have the immunity clause in the constitution scaled through at the National Assembly, former President Goodluck Jonathan refused to assent the review of the constitution, citing some grey areas in the amendment. The action of the former President practically announced the end of the amendment. The introduction of the new amendment to Section 308 of the constitution through a bill last Tuesday by the proponent, the Minority Leader, Honourable Leo Ogor, almost led to free for all in the House, as most members who are from the All Progressives Congress, APC kicked against the amendment. According to the proposed amendment, the beneficiaries are to include presiding officers of the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly.
Leading debate, Honourable Ogor said that, “Section 308 (3) of the Principal Act is altered by adding the words Senate President, Speaker, Deputy Senate President, Deputy Speaker, immediately after the word, Vice-President, and also to include Speaker of a State House of Assembly, Deputy Speaker of a State House of Assembly immediately after the word, Deputy Governor.” According to him, the legislature needed as much protection as the executive arm of government, noting that presiding officers should be shielded from prosecution for the period they occupied their seats for the sole purpose of protecting the legislature in a democracy. He also alluded to the current travail of the Senate President, Senator Bukola Saraki and his Deputy, Senator Ekweremadu saying that, “We can see what is happening in the Senate and particularly, what the Senate President is facing”.
Supporting the amendment to the section 308 of the constitution, Chairman, House Committee on Ethics/Privileges, Honourable Nicholas Ossai maintained that, “The constitution, as we have it today, guarantees protection for the executive. We have to include immunity for the National Assembly because legislators need protection to work:”
But members of the APC led by its Leader in the House, Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila kicked against the amendment, saying that the timing of the proposed amendment was wrong and as well as the integrity of the National Assembly.
He stated that Nigerians were averse to immunity for National Assembly presiding officers, as the legislative arm of government existed to serve the interest of Nigerians at all times. He noted: “Nigerians do not support this bill because of the timing. The assumption will be that we are making this amendment because of what is happening in the Senate.”
Following the arguments among the lawmakers over the issue, proceedings of the House were halted, as both the cChairman, House Committee on Appropriation, Honourable Abdulmumin Jibrin, and Honourable Aliyu Madaki, kicked against the amendment scaling Second Reading, claiming that, the integrity of the National Assembly was at stake. Thus, the Speaker, Honourable Yakubu Dogara, of the House offered that the bill should be referred to the Ad hoc Committee on Constitution Review to dissect it and determine the faith of the amendment. He explained that his decision to send the bill to the Ad hoc Committee was in line with the provisions of Order 8 (98) of the Standing Orders of the House. He said: “In that committee, we have all the experts. They will debate the bill and even choose to kill it there. They may not even return thre bill to the House. This is not like we are going to pass this amendment today.”
Though, the bill was passed on to the ad hoc Committee chaired by Deputy Speaker, Honourable Yusuf Lasun, the decision was viewed by some political watchers as a move to shield its principal officers from prosecution, in view of what is happening to the leadership of the Senate, and as well stifle the anti- corruption war of the present administration.
But, the spokesman of the House, Honourable Abdulrazak Namdas, faulted such claim, saying there was no iota of truth in such claim. He noted that the proposed amendment was in line with the need to ensure good governance in the polity. He explained that it would require an amendment of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) before the proposal to allow presiding officers of both the national and state House of Assembly immunity from prosecution to become operational. He also said that both the Senate President Senator Saraki, Speaker, Honourable Dogara, and other presiding officers of the legislative arm could not be beneficiaries of the proposed amendment since it could not take a retroactive action.