By Kolawole Olaniyan
Imagine that members of the 8th National Assembly had announced during the recent general election campaigns exactly how they were going to tear up section 308 of the 1999 Constitution (which protects the president, vice president, governors and their deputies against civil and criminal proceedings while they are in office) to grant their leaders immunity from prosecution for corruption and money laundering.
“Fellow Nigerians and patriots, we promise you that we will immediately after the elections make sure that our leaders enjoy immunity from prosecution for corruption, money laundering and other similar crimes. We will make sure that our leaders are no longer subject to the criminal law to reflect their powerful positions and show that you are not like any one of us. We stand here today to tell you that we will be doing this to shield us and our leaders from our political foes.”
Had they done this, it’s almost certain that they would not have been elected (or re-elected) as parliamentarians in a free and fair election. But a few months after becoming ‘Honourable members’ of the 8th National Assembly they announced through the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Mr. Leo Ogor that they would begin the process of constitution amendment to grant the Senate President and his deputy, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and his deputy immunity from prosecution for corruption and money laundering.
According to reports, extending constitutional immunity to these powerful officials is the only way to counter what they see as ‘the constant external influence and manipulations in the choice of presiding officers of the National Assembly.’
This immunity initiative is coming on the heels of the trial of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki on 13 counts of false assets declaration before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, thus suggesting that the two may not be unconnected.
The immunity initiative looks like a revenge job, and one for self-aggrandisement. This is undoubtedly a low period in public esteem for our ‘lawmakers.’
Yet, the success of President Muhammadu Buhari’s proclaimed fight against corruption hinges not only on his ‘integrity record’ or members of his cabinet but also the collective involvement of all branches of government, in particular the National Assembly and the judiciary.
What the National Assembly is doing is patently at odds with the ‘anti-corruption agenda’ of President Muhammadu Buhari and the ‘political change’ that Nigerians voted for. This is like taking Nigeria back to the middle ages. And it clearly undermines the rule of law as it portrays the lawmakers as being above the law.
It’s double standard for the lawmakers to make laws to regulate others while tearing up the constitution to be free of regulation themselves.
The 1999 Constitution (as amended) recognizes the role of the National Assembly to “make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the Federation.” This suggests that when it comes to issue of corruption, members of the 8th National Assembly should worry less about their own interest and more about the citizens who are the real victims of corruption.
As a law-making body whose primary duty it is to make laws for good governance, its purpose ought to be to rid the country of impunity for those who will commit high level official corruption, with a philosophy that doesn’t recognize immunity or give leeway to the most powerful or influential.
Extending rather than limiting immunity from prosecution for corruption involving parliamentarians is a licence to impunity and lawbreaking, which clearly isn’t compatible with good governance. Parliamentarians promoting and granting immunity to themselves can only serve to launder the rule of the powerful rather than the rule of law.
And it’s patently inconsistent with the United Nations Convention against Corruption to which Nigeria is a state party. The convention in fact requires Nigeria to achieve “appropriate balance between any immunities” and to “ensure effective investigation, prosecution and adjudication of corruption offences.”
Part of making laws for good governance of Nigeria is to serve the desire of victims of corruption for accountability, for justice, for dignity, and the members of the 8th National Assembly will be fulfilling their constitutional role by, for example, addressing as a central priority the situation of victims of corruption including by clearing the way through public hearings and progressive legislation that can provide legal standing and access to effective remedies for victims of corruption.
It is not by clinging to whatever will shield them from their perceived political foes that members of the 8th National Assembly will better perform their law-making role. And it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the fight against corruption.
After all, there is always the judiciary and due process of law to take care of any perceived abuse of anti-corruption laws by the authorities.
If only members of the 8th National Assembly can grasp the thinnest slice of what victims of corruption experience they will re-think their proposal to grant their leaders immunity from prosecution for corruption.
In his seminal work The Anatomy of Courage Lord Moran observed many years ago what seems so obvious to us now, that “Courage is a moral quality; it is not a chance gift of nature like an aptitude for games. It is a cold choice between two alternatives…Courage is will power.” It is to be hoped that members of the 8th National Assembly will have the courage to drop this out-of-fashion-immunity-proposal for the ‘love of the country’ and its impoverished citizens.
Also, President Buhari should be aware that the immunity initiative poses serious risks to his anticorruption agenda, and the likelihood of it being compromised is very high. He should speak out and move swiftly to dissuade members of the 8th National Assembly from taking forward the immunity initiative if his vision ‘to be remembered as a Nigerian president who fought corruption to a standstill’ is to be effectively realised.
Olaniyan is Legal Adviser at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, London, and author of ‘Corruption and Human Rights Law in Africa.’