The Anti-Corruption Network, a fledgling civil society organization, visited the House during the week and demanded the removal of the Immunity Clause from the 1999 Constitution. Executive Secretary of the group, Mr. Dino Melaye, led the delegation on the visit to the Green Chamber. In delivering the anti-graft gospel, Melaye described the controversial clause that shields some public office holders from arrest and prosecution as a constitutional aberration in Nigeria.
Under the 1999 Constitution, the President, Vice-President, Governors and Deputy Governors enjoy this immunity. Legal luminaries have persistently tried to draw a line between the intendment of laws and their application in society.
In respect of the Immunity Clause, the intention of the drafters of the 1999 Constitution was that the immunity would insulate these top executives at the federal and state levels from the distractions that often come with public offices. A former local government chairman who later became a member of the House of Representatives in the Sixth Assembly once confessed that immunity was a necessity for the heads of the various tiers of government giving the penchant of some Nigerians to file court suits on almost any issue.
The former lawmaker said he had a nasty experience during his tenure as a local government boss as he was perpetually in court over suits emanating from the inability of the council to pay contractors for jobs done even before his tenure.
But Melaye made a strong case against the retention of the Immunity Clause. He did not mince words when he met with the Speaker of the House, Hon Aminu Tambuwal and other principal officers. He stated unequivocally that the clause had become a defence for public officials who assume offices for the purpose of enriching themselves through corruption. He argued that the clause should be removed to serve as a deterrent to public officers and politicians with corrupt tendencies.
He charged the House to use the opportunity presented by the ongoing constitution review to delete the Immunity Clause.
Indeed, it is true that our politicians have found in the clause a safe haven where they hide to steal public funds unchallenged. It is an open secret that in Nigeria political office holders are lords and not in office for the good of the people. Even after they vacate office they remain above the law because of the sheer quantum of wealth at their disposal having helped themselves to the commonwealth while playing the steward or servant- leader.
The politician knows that the laws of the land are weak and can only hold the poor man who lacks the means to buy justice and the naïve who does not understand the secrets of the game.
Every Nigerian including Tambuwal and his colleagues knows the truth of the matter. We all condemn corruption but do nothing tangible to combat it. It is also said that the average Nigerian condemns corruption, its roots and manifestations while praying for an opportunity to also be in a position to take a bite at the forbidden fruit.
This immunity clause has created so many political godfathers some of who are either currently in jail, out of jail or hiding in some dark corners of the country like Osama bin Laden did in Pakistan. What is wealth if the wealthy must continue to hide under his bed for fear the long arm of the law may catch up with him.
Although Tambuwal did reiterate the commitment of the House to the war against corruption after listening to the gospel according to Melaye, he did not give any assurance that this particular demand would be met or at least given serious consideration. Is it a case of playing the ostrich?
The Backsliding Apostles of Subsidy
President Jonathan incurred the wrath of the nation last New Year’s Day when, in a nationwide broadcast, he announced the total removal of subsidy on petroleum products.
In that broadcast, Jonathan said that given the huge cost of financing the subsidy on fuel and the unbridled corruption associated with it, the scheme had become unsustainable.
This single policy review almost cost Jonathan his exalted position as a whirlwind of protests swept across our major cities and threatened to capsize the ship of state.
The House of Representatives had championed the cause of the average Nigerian against the removal of fuel subsidy. It was the same House that galvanised the support of organised labour and the civil society to ensure the policy was reversed at least partially.
Since then a whooping N888bn has been spent paying subsidies to petroleum product marketers and many of the marketers have been shouting at the rooftop demanding to be paid what they call their outstanding bills.
Flowing from this scenario, President Jonathan last week sent a supplementary appropriation bill of N161,617,364,911 billion to the National Assembly for consideration and passage. Jonathan had asked the two chambers of the National Assembly to approve the extra budget to enable the government have funds to settle arrears of fuel subsidy claims owed oil marketers and maintain a steady flow of petroleum products, especially in the run-up to the yuletide season.
One would have expected an expedited passage of this bill in the Green Chamber but the bill has rather faced some hurdles. On the day it was scheduled for debate on its general principles and billed to pass Second Reading, all manner of issues were raised against the subsidy bill. The debate had to be suspended to allow some key committees brief the chamber properly on the necessity or otherwise of the bill. Even when the House granted it passage through the “second gate”, the following day it did so grudgingly.
The lawmakers raised several questions on the forensic audit conducted by the Presidency, which informed the extra budgetary request. In fact, they raised issues and made demands that only another subsidy probe may resolve.
The House is not a rubber stamp parliament and scrutiny is part and parcel of its job. However, one cannot demand for something without getting ready to pay the price.
What exactly is the problem? Are the apostles of subsidy backsliding?