Udora Orizu in Abuja
The House of Representatives yesterday passed for second reading, a bill seeking to give leaders of the federal and state legislatures immunity from prosecution.
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,’ sponsored by Hon. Olusegun Odebunmi, was narrowly passed as members were divided over it.
The Presiding Officers are: President of the Senate, Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of a State House of Assembly.
During plenary at the House of Representatives yesterday, the sponsor of the Bill, Hon. Odebunmi Olusegun while leading the debate said it is intended to protect the institution of the legislature from distraction caused by unnecessary legal actions against Presiding Officers.
The lawmaker explained that either genuine or not, such distractions have had serious negative impact on quality of legislation, as well as discouraging Presiding officers of the Legislative institution’s at National and State levels from taking the bull by the horn or take certain critical decisions when necessary for fear of unknown.
But some of the lawmakers were not in support of the bill, saying it runs at variance with the spirit of democracy which shows transparency, probity and accountability.
They reasoned that conferring such on the presiding officers of the legislature when there was clamor to remove the immunity currently enjoyed by the President of the country, the deputy, State governor and their deputies was not for the best interest of the people.
Hon. Serguis Ogun from Edo State said it was not needed in Nigeria at this time, adding that there is even a clamor to remove the immunity the President is enjoying.
Debating further, Hon. Solomon Bob from Rivers State said it was unnecessary granting immunity to the presiding officers of the legislature.
In his words, “In my mind, it is totally unnecessary. We do not need any immunity now. I am against the immunity enjoyed by the president and the governors.”
On his part, Hon Onofiok Luke from Akwa Ibom State advised the Speaker, saying that once the law it passed, he would be a beneficiary which brings about a clash of interest.
He said: “This is a constitutional amendment. If by reason reason of procedures, you can exonerate yourself. No matter how you look at it, there is an issue of conflict of interests. Let’s subject this as part of constitutional amendment.”
Supporting the Bill, Hon. Yakub Buba said that the membership of the national legislature was too large to leave their presiding officers without immunity.
“Let’s look at this away. Only two people are voted by Nigerians and if you come to national assembly, we have 360 members in the House and 109 in the Senate. So, the presiding officers need to be protected. The harassment from the Executive stops us from going our job. Without this arm of government, there is no way we can fight corruption”, he said.
Others who supported the bill included Abubakar Fulata ,Chairman, Rules and Business, the Chief Whip of the House, Hon. Mohammed Tahir Monguno, deputy minority leader, Hon. Toby Okechukwu and Nkem Abonta from Abia State.
Earlier the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila commenting, said that it would not be morally right for him to preside over the debate if he was going to be a beneficiary of the immunity.
He asked to step aside but later advised that the sponsor of the bill should amend it and make the commencement date for implementation futuristic.
He said, “The Bill must be tweaked in such a way that the present presiding officers will not benefit from it, make it futuristic in terms of commencement date. The commencement date should be 2023 when the present leadership of the National Assembly tenure elapses.”