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The House of Representatives should follow the Speaker’s lead and banish the thought of immunity for foremost legislative principal officers

BY design of the 1999 Constitution, lawmakers are supposed to be the closest leaders to the people. This is one reason they are encouraged to regularly hold consultation with their constituents.

It is, therefore, antithetical to both the letters and spirit of the supreme law of the land for lawmakers to even contemplate shielding themselves from the people; and take preemptive action against prosecution for crimes that might be committed against the people or the state.

It is no redemption, at all, that the immunity bill, as proposed, would cover only the President of the Senate and his deputy, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, as well as Speakers and Deputy Speakers of the 36 state legislatures.

The lawmakers must be told the truth: they cannot run away from their shadows. There is nowhere people are handed so much privileges without responsibilities. The attempt to cloak lawmakers with immunity from arrest, detention and prosecution was made by the eighth National Assembly. But despite being popularly appealing to the legislators, it caved in under the weight of opposition from the public.

Now, it has resurrected in the House of Representatives, where it is gathering steam. Whereas many thought it would not receive any support to push it beyond the first mention at plenary, it had dangerously received acclaim that took it beyond the Second Reading. Now, it’s at the critical Committee stage. We hope the relevant Committee would not be clever by half by rigging the process.

It is obvious that, going by the popular sentiments among the federal legislators, they could just arrange a form of public hearing that would shut out individuals and organizations believed to be opposed to the insidious Bill.

We, therefore, call on all Nigerians to be vigilant and hold their lawmakers accountable. As was the case when President Olusegun Obasanjo made surreptitious attempts to smuggle in a provision to allow Presidents third term in office, Nigerians should keenly follow the process, taking nothing for granted.

It is true that the new Bill seeks to limit the immunity cover to the presiding officers of the legislative chambers and their deputies, but there is no assurance that it is not a stepping stone to extending it to all lawmakers in the country. That would be a disaster, given the level of indiscipline exhibited by lawmakers, many of whom could be best described as lawbreakers.

Many are still answering to charges by the law enforcement agencies for alleged crimes committed before their election. While elected executive leaders are limited to two terms, legislators could be returned ad infinitum. Some in the National Assembly have been there for five sessions. Would it then mean that such cases would be frozen forever?

It is bad enough that we have to live for now with Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, which grants immunity to the President, Vice President, governors and deputy governors, to prevent them from being distracted by a highly litigious society. If that provision cannot be scrapped yet, the bracket should not be expanded. Already, we have seen presiding officers of the legislative houses who abused their offices and had to be removed. If they had the incentive of immunity, they would likely have fought harder to stay on.

It is obvious that legislators have little respect for the people, otherwise a proposed legislation that was so roundly condemned would not have been brought up again, when there is nothing to suggest that the public could be more receptive to it now. Besides, why do the legislators think their presiding officers need immunity, more than presiding officers of the Judiciary?

Still, we must commend the House Speaker, Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila, who has expressly distanced himself from the Bill. He pointed out that if ever the Bill was to be added, it should not take effect until the life of the Ninth Assembly had lapsed. But should the House demur on the take-off date, and he could end up being a beneficiary, then he would be obliged to step down from the deliberations over the bill; since his participation would amount to a conflict of interest and illicit self-help.

This is a noble stand coming from the Speaker. We understand he is only a first among equals, since he holds office, at the pleasure of his colleagues. Still, we move that he keeps employing all the moral authority at his disposal to dissuade the House from continuing with this hugely unpopular Bill. It is gratifying that, even at plenary for the Bill’s Second Reading, there appeared sizable and impassioned dissent, across party lines. The Speaker should, therefore, as a moral duty keep galvanizing these opposing voices: to save the House against itself, enhance its standing among Nigerians and strike a big blow for legislative integrity and democracy.

Fortunately, the House of Representatives alone cannot pass an amendment to the Constitution. It requires the concurrence of the Senate and a minimum of two-thirds of the state Houses of Assembly and the President’s assent. However, it is better to kill the intention in the chamber of first mention.

In a country where corruption thrives, indiscipline is rife and leaders take pleasure in abusing privileges of office. It is, therefore, preposterous that lawmakers seek immunity — immunity to do what?

In other countries, we have seen leaders charged with crimes, prosecuted and jailed. We would expect a progressive National Assembly to be measuring public opinion on the desirability or removal of the immunity clause in the Constitution. Bringing up, in any or whatever guide, an extension of the immunity clause, is an indication that those elected to protect public interest have disdain for the people; and would rather go to any length to protect only their own selfish interest.

Nigerians should rise above cleavages to robustly defend their common and national interests, against such brazen abuse.