The bill on immunity for principal legislative officers is uncalled for

A bill seeking to amend section 308 of the 1999 Constitution to provide immunity for presiding officers of the National Assembly including the Senate president, speaker, deputy senate president and deputy speaker has scaled the second reading. Sponsored by Hon. Olusegun Odebunmi, the justification for the bill is that immunity from prosecution would protect the presiding officers from distraction and make them to fully concentrate on their legislative duty. But as we have argued in the past, there can be nothing more self-serving than this proposition and we hasten to urge the lawmakers to perish the idea.

We recall that the 7th National Assembly introduced the immunity clause for legislators in the proposed amendment to the 1999 Constitution. While it was defeated during the public hearing, the lawmakers nonetheless still smuggled the clause into the amendment bill. But the story ended when President Goodluck Jonathan withheld his assent. During the 8th National Assembly, the then Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Hon. Leo Ogor, brought back the idea. He argued that “If the head of the executive arm, the president and his vice should enjoy immunity, the heads of the other two arms of government, the legislature and the judiciary, should also benefit from the immunity.” By Ogor’s warped logic, immunity “would reduce distractions and crisis in the National Assembly”.

Sadly, it is this same argument that Odebunmi is rehashing as justification for conferring immunity on National Assembly presiding officers. We note with dismay that this is coming at a period in history when the law has continued to whittle down immunity for heads of government across the world. As things stand today, under international law, a sitting president cannot plead immunity with respect to involvement in allegations of crimes against humanity and genocidal activities. In the particular case of Nigeria, apart from the president, no other public officer is covered by immunity of any sorts outside the country. That perhaps explains why the late DSP Alamieyeseigha and Joshua Dariye, then sitting governors of Bayelsa and Plateau States respectively, were arrested in the United Kingdom some years ago on charges of money laundering.

Even at that, a sitting president or governor does not enjoy immunity with respect to petitions challenging his/her election or eligibility to contest elections while public officers who enjoy immunity can be investigated and indicted by the police and anti-graft agencies. An independent counsel may also be appointed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) to conduct an inquiry into allegations of corruption involving public officers who are protected by the immunity clause. So, we fail to understand what Odebunmi and fellow travellers are talking about.

If it is about their work as lawmakers, the Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act of 1957 already confers immunity by defining the powers and privileges of the legislative houses established under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In fact, Section 3 of the act states: “No civil or criminal proceedings may be instituted against any member of a Legislative House – (a) in respect of words spoken before that House or a committee thereof; or (b) in respect of words written in a report to that House or to any committee thereof or in any petition, bill, resolution, motion or question brought or introduced by him therein.”

However, the immunity being sought by the lawmakers is the one that would place their presiding officers above the law of the country. Unfortunately for them, since such move requires a constitutional amendment, the Nigerian people would have to mobilise against such patently irresponsible idea if and when it is eventually brought up. It must not pass!