House on Collision Course over Immunity Bill

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The House of Representatives was recently embroiled in a rowdy session over a bill seeking to amend Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution to include presiding officers of the Senate, House of Representatives, and the Houses of Assembly. Damilola Oyedele reports

The first plenary of the lower chamber after resumption from the Sallah recess was marred by tension and rowdiness that stalled proceedings for about 25 minutes. The brouhaha was over a controversial immunity bill.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Yakubu Dogara had at a recent interview in Lagos made efforts to justify immunity from civil or criminal proceedings for presiding officers of the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly while in office. A bill to that effect is already before the Senate, and it has resulted in controversy due to the on-going trial of Senate President Bukola Saraki and Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu.

Contentious Trial

Saraki is facing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal following allegations of false declaration of assets. He has also been charged to court, alongside Ekweremadu, for allegedly forging the senate rules to pave way for their emergence as presiding officers.

Several Nigerians have, however, argued that the two trials are part of a political vendetta for emerging principal officer against the wish of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress. Perhaps, worried by these cases, which many of them consider a distraction to the legislature, the legislators are canvassing the inclusion of the legislative arm of government in the immunity clause.

The bill seeking an alteration to Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, provides for immunity for the Senate President, Deputy Senate President, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, as well as presiding officers of the Houses of Assembly.

Rowdy Session

During the consideration of the immunity bill in the lower chamber, the Minority Leader, Hon. Leo Ogor, in his lead debate, hinged his argument in support of the bill on the need to establish the independence of the legislative arm of government. He added that immunity would protect the presiding officers from unnecessary distraction.

Ogor made reference to the travails of Saraki and Ekweremadu, adding that if both men have to appear in court on the same day, proceedings at the Senate may have to be suspended.

His argument was supported by Hon. Ossai Nicholas Ossai, who noted that the current constitution was a produced by the military governments and, therefore, only took the interest of the executive into account.

“It behoves on us, National Assembly members, to protect the institution,” Ossai said “When you protect the legislature, you protect the people, and it is the people who mandated the executive to implement laws.”

The Majority Leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila however, held a contrary view. He opposed the amendment on the grounds that the timing was faulty for the same reason Ogor cited: Saraki and Ekwemadu’s trial.

Gbajabiamila maintained that the wrong timing of the bill was a serious blemish capable of conveying a dangerous impression to Nigerians about the legislature. This is given the situation in the Senate, where the senate president and his deputy are being tried for criminal offences.

“We are here to legislate at the behest of the people. We must feel the pulse of the people we represent,” Gbajabiamila stated. He added, “We don’t want to send the wrong message or signal. Yes, there are issues concerning the Senate, there is no way we can convince the people that we are not doing this because of the Senate.”

Gbajabiamila also argued that there was no country where the head of the legislature enjoyed immunity while in office.

As Dogara made to rule, to refer the bill to the Special Ad hoc Committee on Constitutional Amendment, since it was a matter of constitution alteration, several lawmakers began to voice their opposition without prompting. They insisted that the bill be killed at plenary and not referred to the committee.

Hon. Aliyu Madaki, speaking into the microphone while the rowdiness continued, said it was a matter of integrity for the lawmakers.

Proceedings were stalled, as lawmakers left their seats to confer with others, while some stood in clusters holding intense arguments.

The lawmakers ignored the Deputy Chief Whip, Hon. Pally Iriase’s repeated call for order.

However, overruling the protests, Dogara cited the Order 8, Rule 98, sub rule 3 of the House Rules, which states that such bills (on constitution alteration) “shall be committed to the Special Committee on Constitution Amendment, upon second reading.”

He thereafter made the reference to the committee, eliciting applause from pro-immunity lawmakers.

More Anti-immunity Arguments

Surprisingly, many of the Speaker’s allies were also chanting “No Immunity” at the session. Chairman of the Committee on Appropriation, Hon. Jibrin Abdulmumim, said there was no justification for the demand for immunity for presiding officers of the legislature.

Abdulmumim had during the rowdy session displayed a makeshift placard, which read “No Immunity”. He later told THISDAY, “In my five years here, I have realised that what we actually need as a legislature to be independent is not immunity, but introspect.”

Other allies of the Speaker who spoke with THISDAY off record expressed their opposition to the amendment to the immunity clause.

“Already, there are calls that the immunity being enjoyed by the executive should be removed. So how can we start to say we want immunity for our presiding officers? What argument would you present to convince Nigerians that we are doing this in the interest of Nigerians, and not for Saraki?” a lawmaker asked.

Caution

Just like the bid to amend the CCB Act, and vest the powers to oversight it in the National Assembly, rather than the presidency, the current move to amend the immunity clause is one that would always be dogged by suspicion. It would be faulted very step of the way.

Many believe to proceed with the amendment to the immunity clause at this time would surely tend to strengthen the widespread view that the legislators are a group of people out to serve their personal interests. And this may have an adverse effect on the Saraki and Ekweremadu case, and erode whatever public sympathy they may have.