House of Representatives came under knocks on Tuesday over a Bill on immunity for presiding officers in the legislature which scaled second reading in plenary.
The Bill is seeking an amendment to Section 308 of the Constitution which grants immunity from prosecution to the President, Vice President, governors and deputy governors while in office. It is sponsored by Mr Olusegun Odebunmi representing Ogo-Oluwa/Surulere Federal Constituency, Oyo State.
The Bill prescribes immunity for senate president, deputy senate president, speaker and deputy speaker of House of Representatives, speaker of House of Assembly and deputy speaker.
Leading the debate, sponsor of the bill Odebunmi said since democracy has come to stay in Nigeria, there is the need to arrange the system to fit in the dynamics of a democratic society.
According to him, the legislature is of utmost importance to the survival of democracy, hence the need to further protect the legislative arm of government.
He argued that in spite of the uninterrupted concentration required for carrying out effective legislative duty, the institution has suffered serious distractions in the past.
He said: “Either genuine or not, such distractions have had serious negative impact on quality of legislation as well as discouraging presiding officers of the Legislative institutions at national and state levels from taking the bull by the horn or to take certain critical decisions when necessary for fear of the unknown.
“Therefore, for our democracy to continue flourishing, no action meant to strengthen the legislative institution could be out of proportion.
“Extending immunity to the Presiding officer of the National and State Assemblies is not a means of shielding them from answering any question generated by their action 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.”
However, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila dissociated himself from the content of the bill saying if passed, it should take effect from 2023 when the tenure of the current presiding officers would have expired.
The Speaker said: “Mr Odebunmi, before you lead the debate, this bill seeks to confer immunity on presiding officers, correct? I am going to need clarifications on some things here. If this bill is for presiding officers, then, I cannot preside on this bill because there is an inherent conflict of interest.
“But if the bill seeks to confer immunity on subsequent presiding officers, after this Assembly, then, perhaps, I may preside.
“I will suggest that if the bill does not have a futuristic commencement date, we should put a commencement date from 2023, so that I’m not conferred with any kind of immunity. That is my suggestion.
“But if you insist that it is supposed to be from this point, moving forward, as soon as the bill is signed, then I will need to step down.”
Minority Leader Ndudi Elumelu in opposing the bill, said the lawmakers’ paramount interest should be welfare and security of their constituents. He faulted the timing of the bill.
“Outside there, our people are being killed and butchered. We are coming up with a bill on issue of immunity while some of us are saying that people should be held accountable for what they do. I think it is wrong and it should not be allowed”.
Also opposing the bill, Mr Sergius Ogun said the proposal came at a time when many Nigerians were insisting that immunity clause be removed from the constitution.
He said: “I do not think this is what we need today. Granted that the principal officers relate with the Executive from time to time, I don’t know what they need immunity for. I don’t think it is necessary”.
Another lawmaker, Mr Solomon Bob, said if passed, the bill would show that the lawmakers were “further indifferent” to the security challenges facing the country.
“I rise to oppose the bill. We will be replicating the immunity in 76 places. In my mind, it is totally unnecessary. We do not need any immunity now. I’m already against immunity currently being enjoyed by the president and the governors. The basis for this bill is unnecessary. I vote against this bill totally.”
Supporting the Bill, House Leader, Mr Ado Doguwa said the bill is not about individuals, but about the institution of the parliament.
Doguwa said it should be passed for the simple reason that it provides protection for leaders of the legislature considering the important work of lawmaking.
Mr Luke Onofiok (PDP, Akwa Ibom) said since it is constitutional amendment, when passed and assented to by the President, the bill will start immediately, hence commencement date does not apply. He suggested that “since we are in the process of constitutional amendment we should include it there”.
Deputy Minority Leader Toby Okechukwu argued that it will guard against compromising the legislative arm, saying, “We are all witnesses to how the presiding officers were subjected to trial. We should prevent such from happening again”.