Since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, one of the most debated issues is the immunity clause in the country’s constitution. Contained in Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution, it shields the President, Vice President, governors and their deputies from all civil and criminal proceedings against their persons for the duration of their time in office.
This means that as long as they are in office, no civil or criminal suit can be brought against their persons. They can only be tried either at the expiration of their terms in office, or if they are impeached by the National Assembly or their state House of Assembly, according to the laid-down guidelines in the Constitution (Section 143 for the President and Vice-President; section 188 for governors and deputy-governors).
The contention has always been whether the immunity clause should be retained, modified or totally expunged in the constitution in order to put the country’s democracy on track.
Until 2007, virtually all public office holders were in support of its retention. Their reason being that anything otherwise would drastically affect Nigeria’s nascent democracy, because, according to them, such public office holders will be more pre-occupied with numerous frivolous suits in court than their statutory roles, which is governance.
On the other hand, proponents of its abrogation argue that immunity encourages corruption and therefore gives room for bad leadership. Their position is given credence by the current numerous allegations against some of the country’s former Heads of State and Governors.
Interestingly, it was the late Nigerian president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who, as a serving President, first took a different stand in far away Davos, Switzerland upon his emergence as President in 2007 when he said “nobody in Nigeria deserves the right to be protected by law when looting public funds”. He went further to argue that the immunity granted public office holders breeds corruption.
Since then, others have also toed the same line of argument. For instance, Alhaji Ibrahim Shekarau, the Governor of Kano State has also thrown his weight behind the abrogation of the immunity clause.
A group, Champions for Nigeria (CFN), had also followed suit. The group had gone ahead to forward a petition to the National Assembly on the need to amend Section 308 of the Constitution. They reeled out countries that jettisoned the idea of immunity for their elected leaders. All arguments on this divide point to one direction, which is “immunity promotes corruption”
It is in this light that many view the current bill seeking to accord immunity to lawmakers at both the federal and state levels. It has thus once again brought to the fore salient points regarding the immunity clause.
Sponsored by a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Ali Ahmed (PDP – Kwara), 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.
The argument against this bill is that, with such proposition coming at this point in Nigeria’s democracy, which has recorded such astronomical development in terms of awareness, it can only portend danger.
A legal practitioner, Mr Maxwell Opara was quoted as saying that the motive behind the bill is questionable. According to him, “Legislative immunity is not healthy for our democracy at this point in time; it is being pursued in bad faith”.
He explained that there had never been any case of a legislator being arrested or charged to court over his comments on the floor of the House. This is further buttressed by the argument that the legislators do not need such immunity because lawmakers are not liable for their utterances at plenary and at committee sittings.
It is, in fact, noted that legislative immunity is a universal convention, applicable in every democracy; that every issue in the House is a parliamentary one, hence “the rights and privileges of what you say in the House begins and ends there”.
The question, therefore, is “why the lawmakers should be pursuing their immunity at this time when many Nigerians are clamouring for the removal of the already existing immunity clause, given its apparent protection of corrupt officers?”
Many are asking if Nigeria’s democracy is still nascent; so much that facing her economic problems squarely (which is a determinant of its ability to resolve other problems) should continually be sacrificed for a few individuals privileged to be at the helm of affairs?
If so, at which point will Nigeria’s democracy be mature enough to truly consider making her leaders aware that they can be made answerable to their actions at any point of their stewardship? An unprejudiced answer will, to a large extent, determine the extent to which public office holders see themselves as servants or masters.