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Immunity for self-serving legislators

News » Editorials

Date: 20th March, 2013

Image: Nigeria’s House of Representatives

Nigeria’s House of Representatives is currently considering a bill which seeks to grant legislators constitutional immunity from whatever is said or done in plenary or committee proceedings, as already obtainable under the existing Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act, and to further exclude the constitutional powers of judicial review of our courts over legislative acts.

From the threshold, it must be stated that our legislators currently enjoy immunity from prosecution in respect of all communications on the floors of the legislatures or their committee sessions, written words in reports, resolutions or bills, and the service of court processes within the precincts of the legislatures. However, our honourable members of the House of Representatives now argue that because these existing immunities are not contained in the 1999 Constitution, but in the old Legislative Houses (Powers and Privileges) Act, they are palpably undermined by the other arms of government. So now, they are not only seeking to include those immunities in the 1999 Constitution, they further want to extend them by ousting the jurisdiction of our courts over all legislative businesses. They have backed their selfish bid with the supine argument of separation of powers under the presidential system of government, which we currently practice in Nigeria.

It is pertinent to distinguish between constitutional immunity from prosecution of legislators for whatever they say or do during legislative plenary or committee proceedings, and constitutional immunity to oust the jurisdiction of the courts to vet the actions of the legislature. The courts’ constitutional power of judicial review in any democracy must as of necessity include the ability to determine whether the act of any person or authority was done in accordance with the dictates of the law. Where any government body or authority, particularly the law-making arm, seeks to circumvent or truncate this essential function of the judiciary through the introduction of ouster clauses in the Constitution, it must be deemed an undue leverage with the potential to snowball into authoritarianism and tyranny, or in the case of the lawmakers themselves, a clear intention to be above the law, and these are not healthy ingredients of constitutional democracy. Or what else is equality before the law if the courts, the sole interpreter of the law in any democracy, cannot even have an opportunity to investigate whether or not you followed a prescribed procedure to arrive at a particular act for which you were empowered to do by the same law?

What the House of Representatives seeks to achieve under this sought amendment is to become a grundnorm unto themselves, whereby they can even choose, for example, to impeach the President or Vice President, or in the case of a State House of Assembly, Governor or Deputy Governor, without any available recourse to their targeted victim, as there will be no machinery to subject the veracity and legality of their action. This will be a terrible arm-twisting weapon which the legislature will always use to have its way against the executive arm of government.

We are not unaware of the fact that there has been a persistent power tussle between the executive and legislative arms of government over the way government business should be handled. A recent example is the length of time it took President Goodluck Jonathan and the National Assembly to give us the 2013 budget. In spite of the recent official announcement that the President had assented to the 2013 Appropriation Bill which was delivered to him since late 2012, nobody saw when it was signed and nobody has seen a signed copy of the 2013 Appropriation Act, to date. The information we got is that both parties are still haggling and negotiating behind the scene, as the purported signing was a mere face-saving move by the President to avoid a veto on the bill by the National Assembly. It appears these are the kind of issues the House of Representatives is seeking to surmount with the introduction of an ouster or inviolability clause for acts of the legislature in our Constitution.

We are, however, of the view that any immunity that ousts the jurisdiction of the courts in respect of vetting acts of the legislature amounts to taking the perennial power tussles between arms of government too far, as the House of Representatives has clearly misconceived the legal import or purport of such a supreme provision in our Constitution. We believe our democracy should develop, be fine-tuned and strengthened through genuine experiences garnered over time from healthy rivalry and nationalistic intercourse amongst the arms of government, and not through arm-twisting, chicanery and subterfuge perpetrated by any particular arm seeking to manipulate the Constitution in order to confer itself with undue advantage over the others. At best, what the House of Representatives will achieve by such high-handed practice is a pyrrhic victory, which will boomerang on our democracy, and shall not stand the test of time. The Honourable members of the House of Representatives must realise that their constitutional power to make laws for the order and good government of Nigeria is a public trust which, as trustees, they must not breach, abuse or denigrate for any selfish or epicurean purpose.

Article Credit: Daily Independent News

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