…Bill passes second reading
By Dapo Akinrefon, Samuel Oyadongha, Victor Young, Levinus Nwabughiogu & Olayinka Ajayi
ABUJA — Strong re- actions yesterday trailed plans by the House of Representatives to confer immunity on the Senate president, Speaker of the House of Representatives, their deputies and those of State Assemblies and the deputies.
Although the issue divided the lawmakers who argued for and against the proposal, the bill has, however, scaled first reading when subjected to voice vote by the speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila.
The move was stridently opposed by the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, United Labour Congress, ULC, Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, Second Republic lawmaker, Junaid Miohammed, Pan-Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, and Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP. “However, for more than an hour at yesterday’s plenary, the lawmakers bickered over the propriety or otherwise of conferring immunity on the principal officers of NASS and State Assemblies.
The development followed a presentation for the second reading of a bill, titled: “A Bill for an Act to Alter Section 308 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 to extend Immunity to Cover Presiding Officers of Legislative Institutions; and for Related Matters,” sponsored by Odebunmi Olusegun from Oyo State.
Hardly had he moved the motion than the presiding officer, Femi Gbajabiamila, remarked that it would not be morally right for him to preside over the debate if he was going to be a beneficiary of the immunity.
He elected to step aside but later advised that the sponsor of the bill amend it to make commencement date for implementation futuristic.
“The present presiding officers cannot benefit. In debating this bill, we should make it futuristic,” he said.
But most of the members were averse to the bill, saying it runs at variance with the spirit of democracy which shows transparency, probity and accountability.
They reasoned that conferring such on the presiding officers of the legislature, when there was clamor to remove the immunity currently enjoyed by the President of the country, his deputy, governors and their deputies, was not in the best interest of the people.
Noting that it was not needed in Nigeria at present, Serguis Ogun, APC Edo State, said: “I do not think this is what we need today. I don’t know what we need immunity for. There is even a clamour to remove immunity the President is enjoying.”
But in response, the speaker asked him whether the head of other arms of government were enjoying immunity or not.
Solomon Bob from Rivers State, said it was unnecessary granting immunity to the presiding officers of the legislature.
“In my mind, it is totally unnecessary. We do not need any immunity now. I am against the immunity enjoyed by the President and the governors”, he said
In his contribution, Onofiok Luke, Akwa Ibom State, said it would amounted to a clash of interest on the part of the speaker should he be a beneficiary.
“This is a constitutional amendment. If by reason of procedures, you can exonerate yourself, no matter how you look at it, there is an issue of conflict of interests. Let’s subject this as part of constitutional amendment,” he told the speaker.
In his submission, the Minority Leader, Ndudi Elumelu, PDP Delta State, said the House had no reason discussing immunity for the presiding officers when Nigerians were being killed.
“When we are coming up with a bill as it relates to issue of immunity, this is coming at a wrong time. I think it is wrong and should not be allowed. We should jettison it and withdraw it completely. It is wrong. I totally go against this. It is wrong and should not be allowed. At at time Nigerians are being killed, we are here debating whether the presiding officers need immunity,” he said.
But the debate took a dramatic turn when the majority Leader, Ado Doguwa from Kano State, presented his case, preferring immunity for the legislature just like the executive arm.
He said: “We have to be careful. The fact remains that whatever is good for the goose is also good for the gander. We also deserve this for the head of the legislature. It could be a matter to protect the institution of legislature, even though we are apprehensive because it concerns us.
”I have been on this floor for long, I have seen a lot of drama. There is nothing wrong if there is protection for the legislature.”
In the same vein, Yakub Buba added that the membership of the national legislature was too large to leave their presiding officers without immunity.
“Let’s look at it this away. Only two people are voted by Nigerians and if you come to National Assembly, we have 360 members in the House and 109 in the Senate. So, the presiding officers need to be protected.
”The harassment from the Executive stops us from doing our job. Without this arm of government, there is no way we can fight corruption,” he said.
Others who supported the bill included Abubakar Fulata, Chairman, Rules and Business; Chief Whip of the House, Mohammed Tahir Monguno; Deputy Minority Leader, Toby Okechukwu; and Nkem Abonta from Abia State.
The bill was eventually passed to second reading when subjected to voice vote by the speaker.
It’s assault on rule of law — SERAP
Reacting to the development, Deputy Director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, Kolawole Oluwadare, said: ”Members of the House of Representatives voting today (yesterday) to provide immunity for presiding officers against crimes of corruption is tantamount to ripping up the constitution.“”It’s a blatant assault on the rule of law and breach of public trust. We’ll vigorously challenge this impunity. It’s a huge setback for the rule of law that the same privileged and powerful leaders of parliament that regularly make laws that consign ordinary, powerless Nigerians to prison for even trivial offences yet again want to establish elite immunity to protect themselves from any consequences for serious crimes of corruption and money laundering.“’ Whereas countries like Guatemala have voted unanimously to strip their president of immunity from prosecution for corruption, our own lawmakers are moving in the opposite direction.
“”The message seems to be that in Nigeria, powerful and influential actors must not be and are not subject to the rule of law. It’s simply not proper for lawmakers to be the chief advocates of immunity for corruption.“”It’s a form of political corruption for the parliamentarians to abuse their legislative powers, intended for use in the public interest but instead for personal advantage.
This is an unacceptable proposition as it gives the impression that both the principal officers of the National Assembly are above the law.“”If the House of Representatives should have their way, this will rob Nigerians of their rights to accountable government. Public officials who are genuinely committed to the well-being of the state and its people, and to the establishment of an effective and functioning system of administration of justice, should have absolutely nothing to fear.”
A misplaced priority —Labour
In his reaction, President of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, Ayuba Wabba, said: ”It is a misplaced priority. How will it benefit the masses? We should remove all forms of immunity against criminal prosecution from our laws.
”All citizens should be equal before the law. Only politicians with intent to comment crime will propose such laws.”
On his part, General Secretary of United Labour Congress of Nigeria, ULC, Didi Adodo, said: “Immunity is not for fun; it is for those performing executive duties so that they are not distracted while performing their duties.
”Also, parliamentarians have immunity in the course of debate in the hallowed chambers. What other immunity do they want?”
Passing resolution, maneuvering won’t work – Junaid Muhammed in his reaction, Second Republic lawmaker, Junaid Mohammed, said: “The constitution has no provision for immunity to these officers. If the constitution does not provide it, they cannot do it themselves.
”So by simply passing a resolution or maneuvering won’t work. As far as I am concerned, they don’t have immunity but, of course, in a situation where the government is in a complete halt, quite a number of people are bringing agitations that are of selfish motives. There seems to be nobody in charge of the governance of the country. I am opposing to it.”
It’s an offensive, odoriferous idea — Afenifere
Also reacting, the pan-Yoruba socio-political organization, Afenifere, described it as an offensive, odoriferous idea.
Afenifere’s National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, said: “Why don’t they propose immunity for all members of the National Assembly, state assemblies and all those who are in government in Nigeria so that they can be above the law?
”It is an offensive and odoriferous idea. It is a confirmation of the fact that politics today in Nigeria has become a criminal enterprise that is why everyone wants to be in office and perpetuate crimes without consequences. It is a shame.”
Similarly, Chairman, Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, Bayelsa State chapter, Chief Thompson Okorotie, dismissed the call for immunity for the President President and other principal officers. Chief Okorotie, who was the pioneer majority chief whip of old Rivers State House of Assembly said: “I believe there is no need of granting immunity to the aforemenrioned officers because I don’t see to what extent their work is being disturbed.
”What about the other members of the National Assembly? In anyway case, they are not as exposed as the governors and president. So, I believe there is no need for their immunity.
“Also, they are already enjoying some measure of parliamentary immunity. There are things you say at the parliament which are not subjected to some kind of liability. I believe they can do their job well without immunity as canvassed. ”