A bill introduced recently by Hon. Linus Okorie, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party from Ebonyi State in the House of Representatives, seeking amnesty for treasury looters has continued to receive flaks from all corners, writes James Emejo
A bill for an Act to establish a scheme to harness untaxed money for investment purposes and to assure any declarant regarding inquiries and proceedings under the Nigerian laws and for other matters connected therewith has passed the first reading in the House of Representatives.
If passed into law, corrupt officials and treasury looters including tax evaders will no longer account for their crimes or face any form of prosecution, probe or inquiry in the country.
Sponsor of the controversial bill, Hon. Linus Okorie (PDP, Ebonyi) is seeking a comprehensive amnesty structure for suspected looters of public treasury as well as shielding them from any prosecution; and â€œshall not be compelled to disclose the source of their looted fundsâ€™ as long as they invest their wealth in Nigeria.â€
Okorie claimed the bill was â€œproposed as a practical, though temporary solution to a national cankerworm known as corruption â€“ which has afflicted all generations of our society, since independence and forced us continuously down the development pyramid.â€
However, the bill appeared to be dead on arrival, going by the verbal antagonism and body language of most of the lawmakers in the green chamber.
The draft legislation provides that â€œany person may make, on or after the date of commencement of this Scheme but before a date to be notified by the Central Bank of Nigeria in an Official Gazette, a declaration in respect of any income chargeable under the income-tax law for any assessment prior to the enactment of this Act.â€
Another section of the bill stipulates that â€œWhere the income chargeable to tax is declared in the form of investment in any asset, the fair market value of such asset as on the date of commencement of this Scheme shall be deemed to be the undisclosed income for the purposes of sub-section (1).â€
In lieu of prosecution, it details that â€œThe amount declared from the undisclosed income shall (after payment of the tax, surcharge in respect of the declaration) be invested in Nigeria by the declarant in any sector of the Nigerian economyâ€ adding that â€œBeing an interventionist Scheme, the bill proposes a time-frame of three years for the commencement of its implementation unless extended by the Executive, through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Essentially, the bill seeks to pardon anyone, who seizes the opportunity of the amnesty to disclose his loots and invests same in the country. So, Nigerians who ought to have benefited from the funds in the first place could still benefit anyway.
But many people have wondered why the proposed legislation was allowed to sail through first reading in the House and not thrown out.
In a country, where corruption is largely endemic and where people have long hoped to see an end to the menace through severe retribution and prosecutions, the news of a possible leeway to acquit treasury looters of their crimes may have shocked many Nigerians, who have long waited for a system that would finally hold people to account for their stewardship at various capacities, given the level of rot in the system.
Nigeria is consistently associated with corrupt practices in the eye of the international community and has struggled to improve its ranking in the global corruption index.
One of the first opponents to the bill was the Executive Director of SERAP, Adetokunbo Mumuni, who in an open letter to the House urged the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, not to accommodate the bill but allow justice and accountability prevail in grand corruption cases.
He argued that the amnesty bill for suspected looters unquestionably conflicted with Nigeriaâ€™s obligations under the UN Convention Against Corruption to establish territorial criminal jurisdiction over corrupt acts, prosecute offenders, and apply prescribed sanctions through fair trial.â€
Furthermore, almost all the lawmakers in the lower chamber who have had to express their views dissociated themselves from the legislation, fearing possible backlash from the people.
Majority of the lawmakers, who spoke to THISDAY appeared not be totally aware of the bill while others are still trying to establish its merit. This is partly because the bill may be queried for deviating from the current administrationâ€™s trajectory on fighting corruption.
There are several bills on anti-corruption, which emanated from the executive arm to the legislature and awaiting passage. Some of them carry severe punishment for treasury looters as well as other forms of financial crimes â€“ a situation which further calls Okorieâ€™s draft legislation to question.
The proposed bill further states that, â€œOutside the exception on grounds of national security, no declarant shall be required to state the source or sources of the assets or income declared.â€
Okorie is of the view that the bill â€œProvides a window to the quagmire facing all repentant (past and present) actors, who may have assets and resources within and outside Nigeria and find it difficult to acquit themselves under extant anti-corruption and related criminal laws of the land.â€
But as the lawmakers and Nigerians alike continue to wait for the resurgence of the controversial bill on the floor of the House, its inherent flaws may have heralded its defeat on arrival. Indeed, the proposed bill is better dismissed as a comic relief before it presents Nigeria as a nation of clowns before the outside world as it is not acceptable, both in form and content.