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Many Nigerians say the ‘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’ being considered in the House of Representatives is in bad taste and want the lawmakers to kill it.

Last Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed for second reading a bill seeking to grant immunity to principal officers of the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly. The bill sponsored by Olusegun Odebunmi, the lawmaker representing Ogo-Oluwa/Surulere Federal Constituency of Oyo State seeks to alter Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution to extend immunity to cover presiding officers of legislative institutions.

Section 308 of the constitution provides that “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Constitution but subject to subsection 2 of this section (a) No civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against a person to who this section applies during his period of office; (b) 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 (c) No process of any court requiring or compelling the appearance of a person to whom this section applies shall be applied for or issued. Subsection 3 of the section spells out specifically the persons to whom the privilege of immunity from prosecution applies as the president, the vice president, governors, and deputy governors.

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The bill before the House of Representatives titled “‘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,’ seeks to extend immunity to four presiding officers of the National Assembly and those of the state Houses of Assembly, two in each of the 36 states.

Leading the debate on the bill, the sponsor, Odebunmi, said the proposal was to protect the legislative arm of government. He said: “Extending immunity to the presiding officers of the national and state assemblies is not a means of shielding them from answering any question generated by their actions, or preventing members of the House from exercising their powers of choosing or changing their leaders when required as provided for by the laws, but a genuine way of protecting the most sacred institution in a democracy.”

Many lawmakers opposed the bill, including the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, who noted that he would only support the proposal if it would take effect from 2023 after the end of the tenure of the current leadership. Nevertheless, the House resolved to take the bill to Nigerians to either reject or accept it through a public hearing.

It could be recalled that on January 27, 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari assented to the Legislative House Power and Privileges Act to provide protection for decisions taken by members of parliament in the country. The law grants the Legislative Houses in the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly immunity from litigation for actions taken in plenary or committee proceedings of the House or committee.

The law also strengthens the power of the Legislators to carry out their Lawmaking functions. These include the power to summon any person to appear before her, give evidence, as well as the power of an officer of the legislative House to arrest any person who commits an offense against the Act.

So, the question Nigerians are asking is what further immunity are the lawmakers looking for? Is immunity for principal officers of legislative institutions a major concern of the country presently?

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Deputy Director of Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Kolawole Oluwadare, was among those who condemned the bill instantly. He warned that “providing 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.”

Oluwadare said: “The leadership of the House of Representatives must immediately withdraw this obnoxious bill. We will 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 offenses 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.”

Speaking with The Guardian, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Chekwas Okorie, described the bill as an abuse of legislative privilege.

“The bill is in very bad taste. For me, it is an abuse of legislative privilege. Nigerians have been clamoring for the removal of immunity especially on criminal matters on governors and deputy governors. And that much was overwhelmingly agreed on at the 2014 National Conference. It was one of those recommendations that attracted the consensus opinion of all the delegates from all over the country. And here we have our elected people without even consulting their constituents want to give immunity to their officers from criminal and civil actions for misconduct.

“So, I think they want a legal provision that would enable them or their principal officers to perpetrate crime. That is why I said that it is in very bad taste; they should kill it. It is an embarrassment both nationally and internationally that it went up to the second reading. It shouldn’t go beyond that. If it goes to public hearing they will be so thoroughly embarrassed by what Nigerians will say. So, they should just save themselves from such embarrassment.”

For Chief Goddy Uwazurike, a lawyer, those sponsoring that bill are jobless and self-seeking. He explained: “This is because the Parliamentary Immunity Act confers immunity on legislators for anything said on the floor of the legislature in Nigeria. Now, why go the whole hog to seek immunity? Immunity for what?

“I am against any act or any bill seeking to confer immunity on those people. A true legislator does not need that. All he has to do is to follow his conscience, speak conscientiously and he will be okay. I am not aware of anybody who has been sued for his activities on the floor as a senator, member of the House of Representatives or member of the House of Assembly. So, the bill is misplaced.

“And let me just caution. We have enough problems in this country. Immunity for the legislators is not one of them. And right now, the legislators are swimming in the ocean of infamy. For example, people are angry that they are emphasizing the use of foreign-made vehicles as an official car. In India, they took a decision to promote Tata and of course they banned the importation of cars for everybody and everybody had to follow suit. Do you see Americans insisting that they must go to Europe and bring in Volvo or Jaguar? They don’t do that. In Britain, do you see them insisting that they want American cars instead of their Rolls Royce? It’s never done.

“So, at the moment our legislators should think hard and seriously. Improving the quality of their representation should be their priority. Very soon they will be one year in office and the only thing they think of is immunity for principal officers. I condemn it, sincerely.

“There is the Parliamentary Immunity Act and every legislator is covered by that act. That is why nobody has sued them for anything they do there.”

He added: “Now let me give you this small example. When Buhari came, because they didn’t want Saraki and Ekweremadu, they dragged them to court and charged them for allegedly forging the rules of the Senate. This same Attorney General was the main prosecutor. Of course, those of us who know about legislative immunity knew that the case would not see the light of the day. The moment it is in court and they raise the issue of legislative immunity that is the end of the case. That was why after a number of attempts, they simply dropped the charges. You do not question anything done on the floor of the legislature, nothing at all. That is why they can get up and say anything and sit down.”

Reminded that the bill could have arisen as a response to the crisis that engulfed the 8th Senate when the Federal Government was prosecuting former Senate President, Bukola Saraki, for alleged non-declaration of assets at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, Uwazurike said the only ground a lawmaker should be exempted from prosecution is when the alleged offense has to do with his functions as a lawmaker.

“The sponsors of the bill didn’t understand what happened to Saraki. If you remember, they were saying that he did not declare his assets at the end of his tenure as a governor. If the sponsors of the bill are saying now that the case should have waited until he finished serving as a principal officer of the National Assembly that is rubbish. The Code of Conduct tribunal is there. So, if they really want, all they have to do is to go after the Code of Conduct Act and amend it. After all the Chief Justice of Nigeria was dragged there; any judge can be taken there. So, to save any legislative officer from any pending case is misplaced completely. If it relates to his job as a legislator, he is already immune. If it relates to something he was doing outside there should be no immunity.”

Notwithstanding the mounting opposition against the bill, it is expected that the House would, in accordance with its resolution, present it for a public hearing where Nigerians would give their final verdict.