March 4, 2020

No immunity for legislative heads

National Assembly

NIGERIAN lawmakers must check their penchant to annoy the public with bills which shrink the democratic space and block elected and appointed officials from public scrutiny and accountability. They must align themselves to the realities of the political economy in which they operate.

Enough of obnoxious bills such as those attempting to regulate the social media, the anti-hate speech Bill, and now a new bill to include the presiding officers of the National Assembly – the President of the Senate and the Speaker, House of Representatives – among officials to benefit from the immunity clause.

At present, the 1999 Constitution (As Amended) at Section 308 shields the President, Vice President, Governors and their Deputies from criminal prosecution while their tenures run. Given the amount of stealing and money laundering that many of these officials have been indicted for, many Nigerians have called for the removal of this executive immunity to ensure prosecution of these officials when they commit crimes rather than wait till the end of their tenures.

But this argument has always been countered with the view that the immunity removal would bring distractions to these heads of government and cost the public huge sums as these officials would definitely defend themselves with public funds.

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This proposal for the extension of immunity to legislative heads, which was sponsored by Odebunmi Olusegun of the All Progressives Congress(APC, Ogo-Oluwa/Surulere, Lagos), in the House of Representatives, according to the sponsor, is meant to stabilise democracy and protect these officials from “frivolous suits”.

Although the Bill has scaled the second reading in the House, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, has already opted out of such immunity even if it is passed into law.

We join the community of other well-meaning Nigerians to totally condemn this Bill and call for its utter defeat. It does not reflect the mood of the people which favours more transparency and accountability in government, including the legislative arm which is the chamber of the people’s direct representatives.

We have seen former Senate President, Bukola Saraki and his Deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, put in the dock for alleged criminal offences. They successfully defended themselves and were let off the hook. The heavens did not fall. Rather, the course of justice was served in each case.

There is nothing like a “frivolous suit”. Once a court establishes a prima facie basis for any criminal offence against anybody, the trial must hold irrespective who is involved (exception, of course, those covered by Section 308, at least for now).

We commend Gbajabiamila for opting out of such purported immunity and call on both chambers of the National Assembly to throw out the Bill.

It does not add any value to our democracy and governance.