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Manoeuvring over undeserved immunity

By Josef Omorotionmwan
Apparently, there is no end to the attempt by our lawmakers to infuse absurdity into our constitutional democracy.

The latest entry here is the attempt of the National Assembly to shield its presiding officers from criminality. The National Assembly is suddenly seeking to extend the immunity conferred on leaders of the Executive branch to leaders of the Legislature.Immunity

On the issue of immunity, we wonder why the lawmakers are asking for what they already have. For every position, there is a job description. At recruitment, every reasonable applicant must ask for the job description attached to the position for which he is applying.

The President of Nigeria is a President-at-Large, which means that the entire country is his constituency. At the time of his election, he understands clearly that the responsibilities of that office are enormous.

From whom much is expected, much must also be given; hence at the time of his election, the President extracts from the electorate, the promise that he must be allowed to fully focus on his job without undue disturbance from the courts, particularly against the backdrop that Nigeria is one place where losers at the polls hardly concede defeat.

He is assured that as long as he remains President, he must be shielded from prosecution. That is the immunity granted the President and the Vice-President as well as the State Governor and his Deputy in Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution.

On the other hand, at election, the Senate President is one of the 109 senators elected from the 109 senatorial districts; while the Speaker of the House of Representatives is one of the 360 Representatives elected from the 360 federal constituencies.

Expressed mathematically, each senator and representative has 1/109 and 1/360 respectively, the powers and responsibilities of a single President. From the beginning, each of the legislators knows the type of immunity attached to the position: he must be able to make robust contributions to debates on the floor without fear of intimidation.

Secondly, he cannot be arrested within the precinct of the National Assembly. These conditions also apply mutatis mutandis to the State Houses of Assembly.

The imperative of the executive immunity can be better appreciated from the point of view that if something untoward suddenly happens to the President and Vice-President, the country could be thrown into a nation-wide election; but if the same were to happen to the Senate President and his Deputy, the Senate would simply pick two from the remaining 107 Senators as Senate President and his Deputy. The same process runs through the House of Representatives and the State legislatures.

Why would a legislator elected from an infinitesimal part of the country now abandon his original immunity and begin to write himself into a law that would give him the immunity reserved for the President-At-Large? Put simply, why would a Councillor who represents one Ward begin to insist midstream that he must be put on equal footing with the Council Chairman?

Worse still, this bizarre attempt of the legislators to manoeuvre themselves into executive immunity is coming at a time when Nigerians are even calling for outright abrogation of Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution because of the wanton abuse to which it has been subjected.

Must the legislators continue to wrongly support their leaders? The Code of Conduct Tribunal is questioning the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, over some impropriety in his asset declaration in 2003, when he was the Governor of Kwara State.

We have not seen any serious effort of the respected Senate President to prove his innocence in this case. Rather, we have observed a lot of acrobatic displays geared towards wriggling out of the case.

Still more nauseating is the fact that each time the case comes up, a majority of the senators migrate to the tribunal, thus depriving the Senate of the required quorum for its legitimate business. This is a heavy strain on the taxpayer’s money.

The Senate leadership is also accused of coming into office through forged rules. These are all cases that should be won and lost in the courts – not through the manipulation of the very Constitution they swore to uphold.

The senators are pursuing illegitimate ends through illegitimate means. We wonder what purposes the reckless amendments they are embarking on seek to achieve in their present predicament – cases that are already in court for crimes allegedly committed in the past.

Section 36(8) of the 1999 Constitution prohibits ex-post facto laws: “No person shall be held to be guilty of a criminal offence on account of any act that did not, at the time it took place, constitute such an offence….” By implication, parliament cannot in 2016 make laws to retrospectively decriminalise an act that was criminal when it was committed in 2003.

It might be easy to argue that Senator Saraki is being witch-hunted. After all, were he not a Senate President, he would probably not be facing the type of ordeal he is facing today.

This could be true; but that is the nature of a public office. The moment you accept a public office, your life becomes an open book. It is he who goes to river that breaks the calabash. And if you can’t stand the smoke, you are advised to get out of the kitchen!

Yes, Saraki is the Senate President but did he commit the offence or not? That’s the question. The onus is on him to prove his innocence without resorting to innuendos and insinuations.

For our legislators, it is time for serious business. For too long, they have engaged in shadow-boxing – trying to obfuscate issues and writing themselves into laws that are misplaced, self-serving and undesirable. Nigerians are more interested in laws that serve the collective national interest; they are interested in knowing the truth; and getting the end of justice. The legislators’ quest for more immunity than they already have is another crude way of asking for an open general license for criminality. It stands rejected!


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