Recently, the House of Representatives passed for second reading, a bill that seeks to grant immunity to Supreme Court Justices, chief judges of the federal High Court and the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
The bill which is sponsored by the All Progressives Congress (APC) member representing Afikpo North/Afikpo South Federal Constituency of Ebonyi State, Hon Iduma Igariwey, seeks to alter section 308 of the 1999 constitution as amended by restricting legal proceedings against heads of courts in the country.
The bill, according to the sponsor, was informed by the need to protect the integrity and independence of the Supreme Court, the Federal and state High Courts. When passed into law, it will entrench the doctrine of separation of powers, thereby protecting the Judiciary from the perceived excesses of the Executive arm.
Curiously, the bill is coming at a time that the clamour for the removal of immunity currently being enjoyed by the President, Vice President, Governors and their Deputies, has continued to dominate public discourse.
Nigerians, across socio-political strata have consistently spoken on the need to strip the President, his Vice, Governors and their Deputies of immunity from criminal prosecution. The lawmakers are yet to respond to this demand by the Nigerian people. Now they are pandering to the niceties of the ruling elite. Judges and lawmakers already enjoy what is known as parliamentary immunity and that in the opinion of this newspaper, makes this bill irrelevant. If the House actually takes its legislative duties seriously, then they ought to know that immunity for any class of Nigerians is ill-timed. There are far more pressing issues that ought to demand their attention.
Interestingly, in our view, the latest move by the lower chamber is coming on the heels of a bill introduced by the senate seeking to strip the President, his Vice, Governors and their Deputies of immunity from criminal prosecution.
Sponsored by Deputy Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, the bill seeks to strip anyone who holds the office of vice president, governor or deputy governor, of immunity from prosecution if it is determined either by the Economic Financial Crimes Commission(EFCC), Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), the Police and the Department of State Services (DSS) through a collaborative investigation that the said person is indicted by a court of competent jurisdiction for misappropriation of funds belonging to the federal, state or local government.
It must be understood that authors of the constitution, especially section 308 (as amended), had lofty intention. But current realities have shown clearly that there is the need to expunge that constitutional provision.
For emphasis, the section stipulates: “… no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against a person to whom this section applies during his period of office.
“A person to whom this section applies shall not be arrested or imprisoned during that period either in pursuance of the process of any court or otherwise; and no process of any court requiring or compelling the appearance of a person to whom this section applies, shall be applied for or issued.
“Provided that in ascertaining whether any period of limitation has expired for the purposes of any proceedings against a person to whom this section applies, no account shall be taken of his period of office.
In our considered opinion, the application of the constitutional provision on immunity for certain categories of elected public officers in Nigeria has more negative than positive implications. Indeed, office holders have demonstrated lack of transparency, showed utter disregard for accountability and perpetrated other forms of abuse of power simply because they know that no court in the land will prosecute them since they are covered by the immunity clause.
Democracy begets good governance which also thrives on accountability and transparency. Sadly, we dare to point out, some public officers have jettisoned these important components of democracy and act in ways that betray its whole essence. And since they enjoy immunity from prosecution, there is nothing anyone can do to help the situation.
The mere fact that a sitting governor or president cannot be prosecuted for crimes committed against the state simply puts such individuals above the law. It is the same provision the lawmakers in the lower chamber of the National Assembly are trying to amplify through this new bill.
As a newspaper, we believe the move is not in the best interest of Nigeria and Nigerians and should be stepped down in the interest of all. The Judges, like other office holders, must be in a position to know that they will be held accountable for their actions at any time whether in or out of office. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason to contemplate granting them immunity.
Not only is there a compelling need for the lawmakers to perish this thought, they should join well-meaning Nigerians in clamouring for the scrapping of the immunity as currently enjoyed by some public office holders.