"We Can Never Support Immunity Bill"
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. 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. Opposing the bill In an interview with NAIJ.com, Sani Zorro, Chairman House Committee on IDP, Refugees and Northeast initiative, stated that the move by the minority leader to institute the idea of immunity or to confer immunity status on leaders and their deputies in both houses in the constitution, was misplaced and against the grain of public opinion.
“This is not right especially in the era where greater transparency as well as accountability as governance principles and process are the agitation not only in Nigeria but all over the world. “Despite that, there are some people who are lawmakers that are not sensitive to the greater yearnings of Nigeria for better forms of transparency and in fact, to widen the frontiers of transparency and accountability processes and it was rather unfortunate but all the same, it was the democratic right of every lawmaker to so present his motions, concerns and preferences as it went, but you could see how the whole house was pleached into the cloud of rowdiness.
“But let me say that if votes had been taken, if a division had been called as it ought to have been as the procedure governing the House of Representatives, that amendment proposal would have been defeated roundly and thoroughly but the Speaker choose to direct that the whole motion bill referred to the constitutional amendment committee, otherwise we would have just killed it because that is what it deserve, that motion didn’t deserve even a second reading because it is against the grain of thinking by majority, it is also anti- transparency and anti-accountability principles in governance and governance processes in Nigeria as it stance today. According to Zoro, “such bill came up because public offices who finds themselves in offices for the wrong reasons wants protection from the same public that elected them into office and this is very unfortunate, why should you want protection or extra protection from the people that actually installed you into office to serve them? That is why this contradiction must be resolved in favour of the people. “Before any lawmaker was elected, he or she knew actually the assignment, the responsibility, the sacrifice and obligations that are placed on his or her shoulder, that also include been accountable at all times to people that elected you into office, whether by way of answering questions through the media because the media has that constitutional responsibility under section 22 of chapter 2 of the constitution to compel you to account to the people that elected you or directly answering question from the people who elected you or utilizing what ever forum or every opportunity where there is any need for explanation. “I think those who are asking for extra protection are not confident people, maybe there are here for the wrong reasons, they have their agendas, that is why they need protection, but happily, the majority of the lawmakers are for greater transparency, openness, accountability and all other mechanisms that would promote free flow of exchanges of information between public officers and their masters.
“We the members of the House do not agree with the speaker for taking the decision he did and the fight still continues, the struggle still continues after second reading, the bill will also come up at some point in time and we are determined to make sure that it is not sustained,it cannot be sustained and Nigerians should not loose hope because from the procedures that requires the national assembly to process such proposals , alteration of the constitution also have to present them to the larger public fora.
“There would be zonal hearings, there would be interventions like public hearing and am sure, if we do not align ourselves to the preferences and feelings of the people, when they come for public hearing, there would take action against those proposals for alterations. It would not be in our favour, history will not judge us well and the people will determine our faith.
Speaking further, Zoro said the motion which was masterminded by the leader of the minority PDP got support from the PDP lawmaker adding that majority the APC lawmakers opposed it. “I think also there were element the PDP who thought it was not right to support it aNd then they went against it, the truth of the matter is that in a House with the composition of about 360 people, it is not possible go arrive at a consensus, days of party affiliation, no way. At so many times people would be free to vote across party lines, once you are satisfied and convinced,” he said. The lawmaker further stressed that the National Assembly should look into removing the immunity already conferred on governors and president adding that the bill was influenced by the trail of the Senate leadership. “The argument by the mover of the motion was that this leaders need protection that is immunity, if they had immunity what is playing out at the senate would not be entertained which means that correctly speaking what is happening in the senate has a bearing on the bill or was informed by what is happening on the other end? “What we need to do is to remove the immunity conferred on the president and governors so that anytime, they can stand trial as assessors or directly or as accused persons in cases of wrong doing especially in f criminal nature not after their offices, even in offices, they should be prosecuted look at what has played out in Brazil, the lady that was popularly elected was accused of involving in corrupt practises and she is no longer there, she has been impeached so the parliament as it is been called in some places has to play that role that the people want.