Immunity for national and state assembly members?

After a bill that would potentially grant immunity from prosecution to the presiding officers of the national and state assemblies passed second reading in the House of Representatives last week, the issue of the cost (financial and moral) of governance in the country has returned to the front burner of political discourse. Sponsored by Odebunmi Olusegun of Ogo-Oluwa/Surulere federal constituency (APC, Oyo), the bill effectively seeks an amendment to section 308 of the 1999 Constitution which currently exempts “a person holding the office of President or Vice-President, Governor or Deputy Governor” from “civil or criminal proceedings,” including arrest or imprisonment, “during his period in office.”

On the face of it, there seems to be very little wrong with the idea of a bill that seeks to protect the presiding officers of the national and state assembles from prosecution as a way to, according to the bill’s sponsor, “avoid distraction for the leadership of the legislative arm” and “protect, stabilise the house” as well as ensure that “our democracy continues to flourish at national and state levels.” As a matter of fact, it would appear that this is precisely the kind of bill that those who yearn for a more robust legislative structure for the country might rally around. Yet, the fact that the bill has attracted trenchant opposition from both the media and a cross section of civil society organisations (CSOs) suggests that there is more to it than meets the eye. Even the House is split down the middle, with House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila firmly against it. Why has a bill that would, in theory, empower the legislative arm to execute its constitutional mandate run into such a storm of controversy?

The simple answer is that the majority of Nigerians perceive the bill as the latest manifestation of the National Assembly’s not so secret desire to create a state of exception for its members against prosecution for corruption or other violations of their oaths of office. For instance, in early 2016, the same House of Representatives had attempted to amend the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) and Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) Act even as the then Senate President, Bukola Saraki, was facing prosecution under the same statute.  Supporters of the bill are right that, ideally, legal immunity from prosecution would allow the affected presiding officers to focus on the task before them, rather than, as is currently the case, having to contend with a distracting succession of trials. But the key word here is “ideally,” and it takes no special powers to realise that the situation in the National Assembly is far from that. If members of the National Assembly are that desperate to avoid obstruction by trials and arraignments, the right thing to do is to desist from the things that invite it (i.e. obstruction), rather than use the law as a shield against justifiable prosecution. The statement by the Lagos-based Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) condemning the bill and accusing the lawmakers of being “the chief advocates of immunity for corruption” is representative of how majority of Nigerians feel about the bill.

In identifying with the prevailing public sentiment, we urge the lawmakers to have a fundamental rethink of what they do with a view to changing the way they are perceived by members of the public. For instance, most people are painfully aware that members of the National Assembly earn salaries that are almost 10,000 times more than the national minimum wage and more than 200 times the country’s GDP per capita. They are also aware that lawmaker salaries are never late although, in some parts of the country, state workers have not been paid for months.

Not only does a bill like the one that has just passed second reading in the House not add value to the legislative process, it goes to show that the lawmakers are profoundly alienated from the everyday reality of the people they purport to serve. It is up to Nigerians to determine whether they want to keep the National Assembly in its current iteration.

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