In this piece, KAUTHAR ANUMBA-KHALEEL writes on the recent passage of a bill seeking to provide legislative immunity for some legislators by the House of Representatives and the upset it has generated
Only eight months into its inauguration, the 9th National Assembly looks to enjoy courting controversies with the sort of proposed legislations it has churned out recently.
Just as the dust is yet to settle over its decision to spend an estimated N5.04 billion to purchase 400 units of Toyota Camry 2020 model cars for its members, the House of Representatives like its counterpart in the Senate, is in the news again, this time over its passage of a bill on legislative immunity.
The immunity bill was passed a day after the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, (SERAP), filed a case, asking a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja to restrain Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila and all lawmakers from spending such an amount on exotic cars.
The Gbajabiamila-led House last Tuesday passed for second reading, a bill seeking to confer constitutional immunity on presiding officers of the National Assembly. It is 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.’
The constitution currently confers immunity only on the president, governors and their deputies from criminal or civil proceedings.
Beneficiaries of the proposed immunity include, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives, deputy president of the Senate and deputy speaker. Others are speakers and deputy speakers of state houses of assembly.
The proposed Section 308 looking to be amended provides that “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this constitution but subject to subsection 2 of this section (a) No civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against a person to who this section applies shall be arrested or imprisoned during that period either in pursuance of the process of any court or otherwise and (c) No process of any court requiring or compelling the appearance of a person to whom this section applies shall be applied for or issued. Subsection (3).
This would be the second time the National Assembly will attempt the review section 308 in five years. It would be recalled that during the 8th National Assembly, a similar bill was introduced the House of Representatives. The proposed amendment however, was rejected.
Sponsor of the bill, Hon. Segun Odebunmi, argued that the proposed bill was meant to protect the institution of the legislature from distractions caused by legal actions against its presiding officers, adding that Gbajabiamila was not the only presiding officer that the bill would protect.
“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.”
Similarly, leader of the House, Hon. Alhassan Ado Doguwa, said it would help the legislature in carrying out its functions. “It should be passed for the simple reason that it provides protection for leaders of the legislature considering the important work the institution does.”
The deputy minority leader, Hon. Toby Okechukwu, noted that the bill, if passed into law, would guard against the compromise of the legislative arm. “We are all witnesses to how the presiding officers were subjected to trial; we should avoid such from happening.”
In the same vein, Hon. Uzoma Nkem-Abonta who said that the prosecution of a presiding officer could affect the performance of the chamber, noted that, “When Saraki was taken to court, we felt demoralized, though he was freed at last but calculate the embarrassment it caused the institution.”
But some other lawmakers kicked against the bill, as they opined that it was unnecessary and could send a wrong signal to Nigerians particularly, at a time when the country is faced with numerous challenges.
Hon. Sergius Ogun reminded the House that a lot of Nigerians have called for the removal of immunity for the president and governors, and wondered why presiding officers needed immunity.
“Granted that the presiding officers relate with the President from time to time. I don’t know what they need immunity for. It is unnecessary?” Ogun queried.
On his part, leader of the minority, Hon. Ndudi elumelu, reiterated the need for lawmaker to focus on their priorities and interest, which are their constituents.
“At this time in our nation, what is important is the provision of security and dividends of democracy for our people. Our people are desirous of being well taken care of. Outside here, Nigerians are being butchered, they are being killed. People can’t even feed themselves. Things are very difficult. Just yesterday, in one of the communities that make up my constituency, people were slaughtered,” Elumelu observed.
Meanwhile, the bill has been opposed by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), United Labour Congress (ULC), Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, Second Republic lawmaker, Junaid Miohammed, Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF),Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), and Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP).
However, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) threw its weight behind the bill seeking to provide immunity to the leadership of the National Assembly; the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives.
The quest for this immunity by the House is despite the fact that legislators in general, are armed with the Legislative Houses Power and Privileges Act which protects them from litigations over decisions or actions in the course of carrying out their official duties.
The Act which received presidential assent in 2018, confers immunity on legislative Houses (National and State Houses of Assembly) from litigations over actions taken and words spoken at plenary and committee proceedings.
The immunity provided for by the Power and Privileges Act is similar to that what is obtained in climes such as the United Kingdom, France, Greece to mention a few.
In the UK, parliamentarians enjoy partial immunity from civil action for slander and libel by parliamentary immunity whilst they are in the House. However, they do not enjoy such parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution.
Members of the French parliament enjoy what is called irresponsibility for what they did as parliamentarians. This means that they are immune from prosecution for speeches and actions taken while performing their duties as parliamentarians.
While members of parliament enjoy irresponsibility, they however are responsible for whatever actions they take as private citizens although, there are limitations to their prosecution as permission must be gotten from the Assembly except for instances where the lawmaker is caught red-handed.
Similarly, parliamentarians in the national Congress of deputies and senators as well as legislators serving in regional administrations enjoy privileges granted in the Constitution of Spain. These privileges which is contained in Article 71.1 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 include, Inviolability which means that members cannot be judicially prosecuted for opinions expressed or votes cast in the exercise of their official duties (Article 71.1). This is similar to what is provided for Nigerian lawmakers in the Legislative Houses Act. Spanish legislators may only be detained in flagrante delicto but authorization must be sought from the Assembly the legislator belongs.
The German constitution provides immunity for members of the Bundestag from court proceedings, disciplinary action over actions taken, or speeches made in the Bundestag or its committees’ proceedings. However, actions can be taken against a member for “defamatory insults”. If a need arises, the Bundestag can vote to lift immunity for specific member(s) to allow for prosecution of criminal acts even as it can order for the prosecution, detainment and suspension of a member.
Members of the Hellenic Parliament in Greece like their counterparts in Spain and Germany, are immune from criminal prosecution, arrest or detention while in office, with the exception of crimes committed in flagrante delicto. They are also immune from having to provide any information to any authority regarding their legislative functions and deliberations.
However, both the constitution and standing orders provides that an MP’s immunity can be lifted through voting over a particular crime following a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Prior to 20th May 2016, parliamentary immunity existed in Turkey. However due to denial of numerous requests for the suspension of immunity, and accused persons being selected as parliamentary candidate specifically to hide under parliamentary immunity, an amendment to the Constitution was been passed by the Parliament, to strip parliamentarians of their immunity from prosecution without a public referendum.
In the United States, congressmen enjoy a similar parliamentary privilege as German, British, and Nigerian MPs. They cannot be prosecuted for anything they say on the floor of the House or Senate. Members of several state legislatures enjoy the same privilege as provided by their respective constitutions.
Parliamentary immunity in Brazil as provided in its 1988 constitution, is somewhat different from the rest as, the immunity conferred on parliamentarians goes beyond speeches and actions taken by legislators while carrying out their legislative duties. It also extended to crimes committed outside a parliamentarian’s official duties (murder, theft, etc.). Members of parliament can be arrested only for crimes if caught at the time of the criminal act in flagrante for a crime with no possibility of bail.
The Brazilian version of parliamentary immunity appears to be what the House of Representatives is seeking for presiding officers of the National and State Houses of Assembly.
Be that as it may, the question remains, why do presiding officers need another form of immunity?