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Immunity bills: One National Assembly, two aspirations

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The two bills in the National Assembly – one at the House of Representatives seeking immunity from prosecution for presiding officers of legislative institutions and the other at the Senate seeking removal of immunity from the vice president, governors, and deputy governors – portray both chambers as working at cross purposes.

The move by the Senate to withdraw the immunity clause in Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution that bars the prosecution of certain public officers including the President, Vice President, Governors, and Deputy Governors until the expiration of their term of office has put the upper legislative chamber on a collision course with the House of Representatives. Senators had during last Thursday’s plenary session voted in favour of the “A Bill for an Act to Alter the Provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 to Qualify Criminal Liability for Certain Public Officers Under Section 308.”

The bill scaled the second reading at the Senate and was referred to the Senate Committee on Constitution Review for further legislative work.

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Sponsored by the Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege, the bill provides that a president, vice president, governors, and deputy governors shall lose their immunity “if it is determined either by the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), Nigerian Police and State Security Service through a collaborative investigation that the said person is indicted by a court of competent jurisdiction for: “(i) Financial misappropriation of funds belonging to the federal, state or local government; or (ii) Sponsoring of thugs to perpetrate violence that cause injury or death of political opponent, a member of his family, agent or personal representative.”
But the House of Representatives recently passed for second reading a bill seeking to grant immunity to principal officers of the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly.

The bill sponsored by Olusegun Odebunmi, lawmaker representing Ogo-Oluwa/Surulere Federal Constituency of Oyo State also seeks to alter Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution to extend immunity to cover presiding officers of legislative institutions.

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The bill titled ‘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,’ seeks to extend immunity to four presiding officers of the National Assembly and those of the state Houses of Assembly, two in each of the 36 states.

Leading the debate on the bill, the sponsor, Odebunmi, said the proposal was meant to protect the legislative arm of government.

He said: “Extending immunity to the presiding officers of the national and state assemblies is not a means of shielding them from answering any question generated by their actions, or preventing members of the House from exercising their powers of choosing or changing their leaders when required as provided for by the laws; but a genuine way of protecting the most sacred institution in a democracy.”

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To many observers, the two bills portray the 9th Senate and the 9th House of Representatives as working at cross-purposes. While the former seems to be in pursuit of transparency in governance with the bill, the latter appears interested in expanding the existing order.

Commenting on the development, a public affairs analyst, Mr Jide Ojo, noted that the two chambers are independent of each other and can initiate bills independently. He, however, predicted that nothing would come out of the two bills.

His words: “You cannot prevent the two chambers from bringing ideas but they should be able to work harmoniously. How can the Senate be saying they want immunity removed from the vice president, governors, and deputy governors and the House of Representatives is saying that they want immunity for their speaker, deputy speaker and the speaker and deputy speaker of the state Houses of Assembly. It shows that they are working at cross-purposes; nothing will come out of it. I can tell you for free that the two bills are dead on arrival.

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“The one that the House of Representatives is proposing has been generating serious public opprobrium and dissension because it is against the principles of open governance and war against corruption.

“So, among the two proposals, one is more popular with the Nigerian public, and that is the one in the Senate. Nigerians really want the immunity clause to be removed from the governors to the president so that they can face prosecution if they commit any crime.”

He added: “Now the question is: If the two chambers pass those bills, will they be able to have a conference committee that will adopt them? That is where the challenge will be. So, I foresee a situation where if the Senate passes its own and the House of Reps passes its own, they may not get the concurrence of each other.

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“Secondly, the bills have to do with constitutional amendments and there is a need for the concurrence of two-third of the 36 states, which is 24 states. To now get that, it means the governors of those states will be on the same page with you. And because you want to remove immunity from a governor, they may just instruct the state Houses of Assembly to drop the idea and ensure that the bill does not pass.

“The same governors will also thwart efforts by the speaker and deputy speaker of the state Houses of Assembly to be on equal pedestal with them in terms of immunity because they would think that they want to measure up to them.”

The days ahead will show which chamber gets the upper hand or whether both will fail in their bids.

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