The bill seeking to accord immunity to lawmakers at both at the federal and the state levels and sponsored by a member of the House of Representatives, Mr Ali Ahmed (PDP- Kwara), is generating controversy.
The bill which has passed through second reading, seeks to amend Section 4(8) of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
According to the bill, verbal or written comments made by lawmakers in the course of legislative duties, will not be questioned in any court of law.
Rep. Zakari Mohammed, the Chairman, House Committee on Media and Publicity, defends the bill, arguing that it is in tandem with parliamentary practice worldwide.
He lists countries where such legislation exists to include Tanzania, United Kingdom, United States, Malaysia, Indonesia.
However, a legal practitioner, Mr Maxwell Opara, said the motive behind the bill is questionable.
Opara noted he can not readily remember a time any legislator had been arrested based on his comments on the floor of the House.
He said that Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution as amended, grants immunity to the President, Vice-President, Governors and their Deputies so that they will not be distracted while in office.
“Legislative immunity is not healthy for our democracy at this point in time; it is being pursued in bad faith,” he notes.
A PDP chieftain in Osun State Chief Abiola Ogundokun, opined that universally, lawmakers are not liable for their utterances at plenary and at committee sittings.
According to him, “they don’t need it because it is a universal convention that is applicable everywhere, as every issue in the house is a parliamentary one.
“The rights and privileges of what you say in the house begin and end there.”
Ogundokun said that a bill seeking to provide them immunity outside their functions as lawmakers is superfluous and should be discarded.
He wondered why the lawmakers should be pursuing this issue at a time when people are clamouring for the removal of the immunity clause.
He stated that Nigerians need to be enlightened on the rights and privileges of lawmakers as contained in the constitution.
Malam Umar Mustapha, the National Chairman of Kowa Party, observed that the bill has portrayed the lawmakers in a bad light.
“It is like seeking protection against criminality and if they do not have anything to hide, they have better things than passing a redundant bill.
“The 2015 election is around the corner, let them put in place laws that will enhance good governance, social and economic development and job creation, rather than immunity law,” he said.
The spokesman, Save Nigeria Group (SNG), Mr Yinka Odumakin, described the bill as an “aberration” which should be challenged by all Nigerians.
“While Nigerians are talking of removing immunity clause completely from the constitution to checkmate corruption, the legislators are coming up with their own bill.
“It is only in Nigeria that legislators will be asking for immunity which they do not need, except they have plans to contravene the law,” he remarked.
Human rights lawyer Fred Agbaje urged the lawmakers to drop the bill and address more fundamental issues.
“Rather than putting in place laws that will enhance good governance, the lawmakers are busy thinking of laws that will shield them.
“This bill is mundane and cannot enhance Nigeria’s national growth,” Agbaje said.
Mr Festus Keyamo, another human rights lawyer, said if the lawmakers pass such a law without constitutional amendment, it will be null and void.
“The constitution guarantees immunity and has covered it all. The bill is inconsistent with the existing law.
“Apart from the legal side, on the moral side, those elected to represent the people want to shield themselves.”
Chief Charles Nwodo, former National Chairman of de-registered Progressive Action Congress (PAC), said that the bill is unnecessary as the lawmakers could make speeches that could heat up the polity.
“Our fear is that some people can hide under the immunity to subvert the state, by taking laws into their hands, all in the name of immunity.”
According to him, the spate of insecurity, terrorism and other vices in the country make the bill ill-timed.
Nwodo further said that the passage of the bill could ridicule Nigeria’s democracy in the international community.
“No National Assembly member has been arrested, detained or tried for what he/she said, but the law can only go after them when they are involved in corruption,” he said.
He said the lawmakers should eschew trivialities in the course of their duties in order to strengthen the system for the overall good of the nation.
Nwodo also urged them to place higher premium on national interests in all their activities than their narrow interests.
“Instead of the representatives engaging in building bridges at this time of security challenges in the country, they are debating on the need for immunity for lawmakers,” he added.
The Senate, however, differed with the House of Representatives.
Chief Enyinnaya Abaribe, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Information, Media and Public Affairs, noted that the powers being sought by the lower chamber are extant in the Legislative Powers and Privileges Act.
“I do not think that the bill will pass on the floor of the Senate, because whatever you say inside parliament is already covered under the Privileges Act.
“If we see such a bill, then we consider it based on merit,” Abaribe said.
Analysts want the lawmakers to remember that they are representatives of the people and should, therefore, concentrate on making laws that will have positive impact on the lives of the people and not to embark on self-seeking agenda.
Okoronkwo writes for the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)