The passage by the National Assembly of the bill cited as the Constitution (fourth alteration) Bill 2014 takes the nation one step forward and two steps backward. The Senate is the arm which initially entered this amendment providing for immunity, in a way technically done, proposing that in the course of their law-making functions, the parliamentarians should be immune from prosecution. If approved by the required number of state assemblies, this will confirm widely-held assumptions that the upper chamber of the parliament is gradually transforming itself into a safe haven for men and women who otherwise would gone by names other than “Distinguished Senator” they have prefixed to their names.
I read an angry reaction to this proposed constitution amendment by a group calling itself Human Rights Writers Association, HURIWA, describing the Senate version of the draft law as “a wild card for this category of executive politicians to commit heinous crimes and massive corruption.”
The Senate’s move is understood to come from impatience with frivolous and mischievous litigations against the National Assembly and its members. And in all fairness, the norm all over the world is that comments and actions on the floor of parliament are privileged, and therefore hardly ever subject to litigation. What the National Assembly has done, by this proposed legislation, is to borrow the convention of parliamentary immunity as obtains in the Westminster system which is not a constitutional provision over there, to make it a part of our supreme laws. That is the strange thing about the proposed amendment. Under the presidential system of government, in both concept and theory, parliamentary immunity is alien.
The danger as foreseen by many of the Senate’s critics, is that what is merely a privilege to say and do about everything on the floor of the legislative chamber to advance law-making may be stretched to, for instance, cover physical and verbal abuse, a penal offense, or the alleged corruption that dogs about every inquisition or undertaking by our parliaments.
It is too early to say whether the amendment will get the approval of the country’s diverse state legislatures.
It is however pertinent to warn even at this stage that unless they put the brakes on their endless quest for personal safety, itself fuelling the perception of their imperviousness to the law, the Senate will trip on its overreach.
When you look at the current composition of the Senate, you see that 10 percent of its membership is made up of ex-governors. These eleven are: Bukar Abba Ibrahim,Yobe; Kabiru Gaya, Kano; Ahmed Makarfi, Kaduna; Bukola Saraki, Kwara; Abdullahi Adamu, Nasarawa; Chris Ngige, Anambra; Andy Uba, Anambra; Danjuma Goje, Gombe; George Akume, Benue; Joshua Dariye, Plateau and Ahmed Sani Yarima, Zamfara. Taken together with the ex-Deputy Governors in the Senate, the ex-Governors form the largest trade group in the National Assembly, perhaps far more in number than manufacturers, bankers, medical doctors and professors.
While the Senate appears to be largely addressing itself to the development challenge at hand, and is clearly conscious of the need to be seen to be doing so, there many in the hallowed chamber who have veered towards passivity. Again, confirming widely-held notions that they are merely there to be safe. Majority of them, as part of the larger National Assembly have joined the others to approve trade agreements, irrigation projects, roads, schools and a countless number of development projects. Together with the civil society, they have formed a bulwark against the return of the military, on account of which we are today celebrating 15 years of unbroken civil rule.
But what is it that derives governors from the comfort of the State Houses to the Senate? Is it for protection? When they leave office, we all know that they lose the immunity against prosecution, on account of which, the ant-corruption agencies swoop on them but as soon as the ex-Governors scale the fence and land themselves in the Senate, the investigation goes cold, loses steam and pace. With quite a number of such parliamentarians carrying on with liberal bail conditions from trials that have no end in sight, there is that perception that the lawmakers have found a protection around themselves, making it near impossible for the anti-corruption agencies and the courts of law to deal decisively with them.
These anxieties continue to gain impetus as more and more of the graduating class of governors bid for Senate seats in the coming elections. This must be very frustrating for groups with grievances against such graduating governors. What for instance, are the options for teachers in Benue State who have remained unpaid for several months, and are of the view that Governor Suswam had seized their salaries so can have enough for the electoral contest ahead of him? How would the petitioners against Governor Akpabio be answered and get justice when he jumps into the warmth of the Senate from the State House in Uyo?
Even more frustrating is also the fact that when they go in there, Senators behave like tenants from hell. They don’t want to leave. To remove them from those seats, it sometimes requires a surgical intervention. If not this, the Supreme Court must come in. In a patronage-driven/ridden political process, the situation is compounded by the conferment of automatic tickets as reward by the ruling party for anyone showing blind support for the President. By several accounts, many back in the states were not enthused by the offer of automatic tickets to the Senate’s Principal Officers, many of whom have lost their magical illusions. The continued stay of some Senators is in clear breach of the agreements on zoning of such offices, on account of which thy came to Abuja.
What then can Nigerians do to leverage the National Assembly when, in addition to everything else, it confers immunity on its members? If the power of the votes cannot rid a constituency of an unwanted Senator, what is there for them to do? Self-help?
At a stake here is public trust in the National Assembly and the anti-corruption agencies which have, over the years lost a substantial part of their credibility when it comes to dealing with VIPs. To help the institutions overcome this challenge in the overall national interest they claim to serve, political parties may do the needful by prescribing a one-year time out for graduating governors, to give them time to overcome State House eccentricities and clear all investigations before they rejoin the political process. In addition to this, state Assemblies should take it as a part of their duty to the nation by removing absurdities going by the name of immunity for the executive as well as the legislature. We don’t need tin-gods in the parliament or anywhere for that matter.