By Kemi Yesufu
The backlash was sharp and heavy. Many who spoke against the suggestion by some Senators for presiding officers of the National Assembly to be placed under immunity in the constitution and on pension, out rightly described the move as selfish and anti-people. They would have thought the House of Representatives will simply take note of the condemnations coming from different angles and back out from these two unpopular plans. But surprisingly on Tuesday, July 12, the House passed for second reading, the bill, sponsored by House Minority Leader, Leo Ogor ( PDP, Delta ) seeking to alter Section 308 (3) of the Principal Act of the constitution to add Senate President, Speaker, Deputy Senate President, Deputy Speaker, immediately after the word ‘Vice President ‘ and also to include Speaker of a State House of Assembly, Deputy Speaker of a State House of Assembly immediately after the word ‘Deputy Governor’.
In a replay to what happened at a-two day retreat on Constitution Review organised by the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Constitution Review in Lagos, which had senators sharply divided on both proposals, members of the House took opposing positions on the matter. Leading the debate on the bill, Ogor who is certainly not new to parliamentary battles argued that the proposed immunity for National Assembly principal officers was to protect the legislative arm and to ensure that the leadership of the National Assembly fully concentrates on its duties. “The amendment is straight forward but it needs some clear explanation. The amendment seeks to strengthen the National Assembly; they (leadership) should be protected in the period they are in office”, he said. He had support, as speaking in favour of the other ranking member, Ossai Nicholas Ossai ( PDP-Delta ) said the alteration was targeted at protecting the independence of the legislature. He further posited that primary duty of legislators is to make laws for good governance and they needed to be protected.
But rising in total rejection of the proposed amendment, Majority Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila (APC-Lagos) stated his opposition to the bill, saying that there was not a single democratic country where heads of the legislature enjoy immunity. Gbajabiamila insisted that the timing of the bill was wrong especially now that the Senate President Bukola Saraki was facing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and the FCT High Court. He said: “I oppose the bill because we are here to legislate and on behalf of our constituents but the question is what are we here for? Timing is very important here and we don’t want to send the wrong signal, because of what is going on in the Senate, it will be misinterpreted. I’m not aware of any country where such applies. Let us do what will endure. In most countries, only the President and the Vice- President enjoy it”.
In his intervention, Speaker, Yakubu Dogara stated that being a constitutional matter, the bill would be referred to the Adhoc Committee on Constitution Review. But lawmakers voiced opposition to the bill, with shouts of ‘no immunity’ from different sections of the green chamber. The shouting between lawmakers in support and against the bill lasted for over 20 minutes. While some converged around the Speaker to find a middle ground, other lawmakers broke into groups with many making efforts to justify their positions. Deputy Whip, Pally Iriase was largely ignored by lawmakers as he tried in vain to restore decorum to the House. Ali Madaki ( APC- Kano ), who insisted that his point of order be taken could hardly be heard, but he stressed that the integrity of the House should be protected by jettisoning the bill. At a point, the Speaker had to invite the Chairman, House Committee on Appropriation, Jibrin Abdulmumim ( APC-Kano) to speak to him privately, but the lawmaker who is a known ally of Dogara held a piece of paper with ‘no immunity’ written on it. When the Speaker eventually sought the intervention of Deputy Chairman, Committee on Rules and Business, Olabode Ayorinde (APC -Ondo) on the position of the House Rules on such matters, the lawmakers cited Order 8 rule 98 (3) that upon second reading, the bill shall be consigned to special committee on constitution, but his clarification didn’t go down well with lawmakers who insisted that the order was specific on the bill being transmitted to the committee ‘after debate’. And Despite the loudly voiced complaints by his colleagues, the Speaker stated that his decision to commit the bill to the constitution review committee was in order as the experts in the committee would scrutinise it with professionalism. “If we throw the bill out, we will never see it again,” he said, as he put the question, to have it referred to the ad hoc Committee, banging the gavel to signal an end to the heated debate. The atmosphere in the green chambers was so heated that many didn’t realise that the Clerk of the House didn’t read the full title of the bill.
The clash of positions was largely unpredicted even if it’s happening at all was quite predictable. Right from when senators stirred the hornet’s nest by raising the issue of immunity for presiding officers and pension for this select group, Ogor who spoke to Daily Sun and a few other lawmakers stated their positions on the matter, each sounding uncompromising on both issues. In a phone interview with Daily Sun, the Minority Leader expressed support for the senators.
Also backing the Senate, Deputy Chairman House Committee on Appropriations, Chris Azubogu (Anambra-PDP) said: “You see, the office of Speaker and that of the Senate President, are offices you don’t play with. They need to be covered to effectively carry out their duties. Governors enjoy immunity, so I absolutely support presiding officers being covered by immunity”.
But taking a different position, Chairman, House Committee on Financial Crimes, Kayode Oladele (Ogun-APC) said including presiding officers on the immunity list can hardly be justified. “There are some things that we undertake as National Assembly members, that we can justify and some things we cannot. So, I will not support any move to grant presiding officers of the National Assembly immunity”, he said.
The lawmakers equally differed on the move to place presiding officers on pension. Ogor opined that the issue should be thoroughly scrutinised. On his part, Azubogu argued that presiding officers should be placed on pension like the head of the judiciary and the president.
“Judges, don’t they have pension? Doesn’t the president have pension? Then, there is nothing that stops presiding officers of the National Assembly from being placed on pension”, he said. Taking a similar position, Oladele said: “ I will back the issue of pension for the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President. But I am not sure I will agree for the same treatment for other principal officers, like the Majority Leader and others”. During the review of constitution by the 7th Assembly , 33 of the 36 states of the federation had voted in support of the alteration of Section 84 of the constitution to insert a new subsection, 5A to guarantee life pension for President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives at a rate equivalent to their annual salaries.
Daily Sun investigations point to the fact that lawmkers are a little amenable to pension for their leaders but are very much sharply divided on the vexed issue of immunity. The mood in the House played out at the weekly briefing of the House Committee on Media and Publicity when in a rare display of disunity, members of the committee differed on the immunity issue. As expected, chairman of the committee, Abudulrazak Namdas described the outcry against the move to amend the constitution to include the principal officers of the National Assembly for protection under the immunity clause as uncalled for. “It (bill) will undergo a process. It could be retained or dropped. But people are reporting the issue as if we have already given our principal officers immunity” he lamented.
When asked if Speaker Yakubu Dogara erred by ruling that the bill be transmitted to the Yussuff Lasun-led Adhoc Committee on Constitutional Review, without the Clerk reading its full title, owing to the rowdy atmosphere at the plenary, Namdas insisted that the Speaker did not breach the rules. Namdas had strong backing from his deputy, Jonathan Gbefwi (Nasarawa-APC) who added that the Speaker was right to adhere by the House rules even if the mood in the House was unfriendly towards his ruling. “You cannot breach the rules because of the current mood. If you do that, you will be setting a bad precedence” he stated.
The House spokesman, maintained that the move to place National Assembly presiding officers under immunity would not be of benefit to the current leadership. But another colleague in the committee, Jerry Alagbaso (Imo-PDP) countered: “we are not doing this because somebody has a problem. So, let no one leave here with the impression that we have a motive”, adding that the bill, “will also be put up for debate by the public” and Olufemi Adebanjo (Lagos-APC) insisted that, “I and some others will never support immunity for the legislature. “ Indeed, the power lies in the hands of Nigerians, many who have wondered why the House cannot prioritise important bills that will positively impact on the lives of majority or simply steer clear of laws that will only worsen its reputation as an institution dominated by persons who love to seek means to live like lords, simply because they are in government. As argued by lawmakers, members of the public can make their voices heard and push for the bill to be defeated at the public hearing stage. Ideally, it is based on the report of the committee that a bill is referred to after second hearing; that determines if it is read for a third time, sent to the Senate for concurrence and possibly for presidential assent.
But in some cases, the wish of committees have been the deciding factor and not the real feedback from public hearing and other findings. Another factor that could be a challenge is the largely out of sight manner the House Adhoc Commitee on Constitutional Review has conducted its business. It will most likely be difficult to monitor how the controversial bill is treated by the Lasun-led Committee.