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Legislative Immunity to Nigerian Lawmakers: A Very Bad Idea

Nigerian Senate President David Mark

 By Akintokunbo A Adejumo

Nigerian Senate President David Mark

Nigerian Senate President David Mark

Many Nigerians were naturally shocked, concerned and apprehensive at the news on 07 March 2013 that the (notorious, inept and ineffective) Nigerian House of Representatives is planning to include immunity for federal legislators in the on-going amendment of the 1999 constitution, with the bills passing a second reading, and inevitably will be overwhelmingly passed as an Act.

It was reported thus:  “a bill for an act to alter the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 by providing immunity for members of the legislature in  respect of the words spoken or written at the plenary session or at committee proceedings, to guarantee that freedom of speech, debates and proceedings in Legislative Houses are not impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament and for related matters” and a “bill for an Act to alter the provisions of the constitution to guarantee freedom of speech and legislative actions of members of the National Assembly,”

On the face of it, I have nothing against Legislative Immunity, which is a legal doctrine that prevents legislators from being sued for actions performed and decisions made in the course of serving in government. This doctrine does not protect legislators from criminal prosecution, nor does it relieve them from responsibility for actions outside the scope of their office.

Parliamentary immunity, also known as legislative immunity, is a system in which members of the parliament or legislature are granted partial immunity from prosecution. Before prosecuting, it is necessary that the immunity be removed, usually by a superior court of justice or by the parliament itself. This reduces the possibility of pressing a member of the parliament to change his vote by fear of prosecution.

Legislative speech and debate immunity grew out of centuries of struggle between the English parliament and throne.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, some English monarchs sought to intimidate legislators–especially those not sympathetic to the Crown’s viewpoints–through legal action. The adoption of the English Bill of Rights in 1689 sharply limited this practice by granting immunity to members against civil or criminal action stemming from the performance of their legislative duties.  It provided that “the Freedom of Speech, and Debates or Proceedings in Parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parliament.”

In America, the constitutions of 43 states provide legislators with a fundamental protection of free speech and debate.  This immunity protects legislators from punitive executive or judicial action.  The intent is to allow lawmakers to work independently and unimpeded by the threat of intervention from the other branches of government in the discharge of their legislative duties.

Legislative immunity was in the news in Arizona some years ago when a newspaper reported that Gov. Jan Brewer was briefly detained — and handcuffed — by state police after a freeway accident in 1988 when she was a legislator. Officers thought Brewer was under the influence of alcohol, but they decided that legislative immunity prohibited an arrest. Brewer denied being under the influence the night of the accident. She didn’t invoke the privilege but an officer determined she was a senator by noticing an identification placard on the floor of her car, a police report said.

An Arkansas sheriff’s deputy last year mistakenly thought legislative immunity meant he couldn’t arrest a speeding legislator who led officers on a high-speed chase through two counties. The lawmaker was let go with a scolding but later charged and convicted of fleeing, careless driving and improper passing. He appealed it.

The problem with such immunity in Nigeria is based on the fact that we are a country, or a people notorious for flagrant violation norms, ethics and of the Rights of Man. Every strata of the society violates the law; we disregard the Constitution, laws, rules and regulations, standards of behaviours, the environment. The Governments disobey or completely ignore court orders, the Judiciary is corrupt, decadent and untrustworthy; law enforcement and security agencies are the very epitome of corruption, misinterpretation of the law and fragrant abuse of authority and powers; politicians do not know, nor bother to know what the Constitution of the country is about; our bloated and inept Civil Service are the bedrock of corruption despite their holier-than-thou hypocrisy; the Military are undisciplined and flout the law every time. The Press are about as clean as a child trying to eat melted chocolate with his hands. The business community and so-called business moguls and captains of industry consider themselves above the law because they are wealthy. The Academics are not exempt from this complicity. The society, the ordinary people are even worse. We do not respect any law. In fact, Nigerians believe that when a law is made, it is meant to be broken. Hence the reason why leaders produced in such a society are no different, and are even worse than the society that begat them. A Catch-22 situation for us, really! The society has to change before its leaders can change, except somehow we manage to find a leader who is not a direct beneficiary of the evil that our society is spewing out on a daily basis.

Any wonder why our society is in this quagmire of corruption, abuse of power and authority, poverty and permanent state of regression and underdevelopment.

Look around you, on a daily basis. There are abuses of power, authority, perquisites, and the environment. There are abuses of children and women, government and personal properties, abuses of trust, abuses of religion and ethnicity, of culture and tradition and technology, of energy generation and usage, even of  wealth, of education, even of food (e.g. wastage), all you can think of.

Give a Nigerian an inch, and they will take a foot; give them a foot and they will take a yard….that is us. Your mechanic will always try to take advantage you, as would your carpenter, tailor, painter, bus-driver, taxi driver, vulcaniser, bricklayer and plumber, butcher, petrol attendant, not to talk of the market-woman. Even your lecturer in the university.

No! We cannot be trusted to uphold any law in this artificially distorted, confounding and exciting country. I don’t even know why people are panicking about the Petroleum Industry Bill, so called PIB, when we all know it will be only as good and effective as the paper it is written on. What happened to the Freedom of Information Act? Is anybody, for example, the Press and Media, benefiting from it?

That is why if a Parliamentary Immunity, much as it is a decent and integral part of a civilised and democratic society, is granted Nigerian legislature, the level of abuse, as unregulated as it will be by the same people – legislators – who passed the bill and act into law, will be colossal.

Judging by the behaviour of our legislators, ever since Independence, I have no doubt that such immunity conferred on them will be further used to intimidate the citizenry and their political opponents. Most importantly, it is virtually a licence to loot the treasury, if indeed, we have one.

Scenario: Lawan Farouk, the federal legislator accused of receiving a bribe from business man, Femi Otedola, could easily say that the bribe was received while he was in parliament and therefore during the course of his legislative duties and whilst serving the country. He might therefore invoke parliamentary or legislative immunity easily. And that will be the end of it. What with a corrupt judiciary and an avid crew of lawyers.

The attempt to pass such a bill has enraged Nigerians again, and we no wonder our so-called law-makers have now been labelled SIN-ATORS and LEGIS-LOOTERS.  Our leaders are crooked and criminally smart and I see this as an attempt to exclude any form of prosecution against them whilst in office.  Soon, such dubious immunity will be extended to the State Houses of Assemblies, and before you know it, Local Government Chairmen and Councillors. And then Civil servants will have Immunity too! I wonder what type of Immunity we will call that, but trust Nigerians to come up with something. Never a dearth of ideas; but a dearth of implementation.

Nigeria is not your average normal, civilised or democratic country, in all their different ramifications. We are still basically a primordial people still trying to evolve. Apologies to Pan-Africanists, but events and history of the last 50 years in most African countries have not been encouraging. Blame the colonialists and Europeans, Americans all you can; Africans are the architect of their own future.

Our “honourable and hard-working” legislator are very quick to pass bills which will be selfishly beneficial to them, but when it comes to bills that will be of use and beneficial to the development of the country or the upliftment of the people at large, they dilly dally. A bill to establish a National Food Safety Policy and Commission has been with them since 2009, and has only been read twice, while a bill on corruption has been stagnant and considered as not deserving attention.

All in all, I am opposed to this bill only because I do not trust our legislators, our politicians and governments not to turn it upside down. As it is, even without this Immunity Act covering them, we see they are already untouchable, and this is illegal and unconstitutional; so one can imagine if they are backed by law and the Constitution. It is practically a Licence to be corrupt; licence to steal, to kill, to lie, to be disrespectful to the electorate, to disregard the law.

They will ride roughshod over the people. And being naturally arrogant, they will now have the licence and constitutional backing to deal with the electorate and the judiciary with disdain. They will also be prone to manipulating and interpreting this particular Act as they please or deem fit. And they will not be short of our legal luminaries, our lawyers and SANs who will see easy money to be made by obfuscating and grandstanding us, the poor condemned.

They are indeed the players and we are the spectators.

It is not going to be a pretty sight. And this is why possibly, most Nigerians are aghast at this suggestion that our legislators should be “immunised” (so to speak) because of their notoriety for crass and obtuse irresponsibility, corruption, selfishness, self-service, bare-faced lying and duplicitousness, obstinacy and tyrannical tendencies, ignorance and charlatanism.

Unfortunately, do we hear any protest from our labour leaders and human right activists? No, they are mute in the meantime, watching how the game goes and when the Act is passed into law,  they will raise a little bit of dust and noise, and will start accusing the courts and waste a bit more of the workers’ money.

I must confess I have not seen or read the suggested Bill,  but I will assume that it is intended to  protect legislators from punitive executive or judicial action, with the intent to allow them to work independently and unimpeded by the threat of intervention from the other branches of government in the discharge of their legislative duties.   This is a noble attribute of democracy, if practiced right.

Questions remain, however.  While legislators will be protected from certain liabilities, will they also be protected from having to testify about their legislative actions?  Will they also be protected from criminal prosecution if they commit crimes such as stealing, corrupt practices, murder, perjury, bribery, and even traffic offences? Will legislative documents be protected from judicial inquiry?  These are just some of the questions that may not be fully resolved by the Act.

In most civilised and democratic countries, appending the title of “Honourable”, means to have behaved honourably and be behaving honourably at all times. But in Nigeria, people who steal or connive to steal ballot boxes; people who can behead human beings without feeling any guilt, are those that are honoured and respected as “Honourable”. The title has been much abused, and hence you can see where I am coming from; sure as hell, any Immunity for our irresponsible lawmakers will surely be abused.

The Truth must be said always.

This article is dedicated to the memory of my dear brother-in-law, Mr Dele Odegbami, (senior brother to Segun and Wole Odegbami, and to my wife, Toyin and her 2 sisters) whose untimely death took place in the floods of Lagos on the night of Monday, 4th March, 2013 at the age of 66. He is survived by wife and children and grandchildren. ONE LIFE! Rest in Peace.

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