Prominent Nigerians have spoken up against the proposed amendment to the 1999 Constitution that would grant immunity and life pension to leaders of the nation’s legislature.
Nigerians who spoke on the matter taunted the federal lawmakers and described the proposed legislation as “unconscionable, criminal and insensitive.”
Section 308 of the Nigerian Constitution provides for immunity from prosecution for persons holding the offices of president, vice-president, governor or deputy governor.
But rights activist and Executive Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nnimmo Bassey, said it was improper for the nation’s lawmakers to think of ways of additional perks at a time the nation’s economy was bleeding.
He called on the Nigerian people to reject any plans to introduce pension for leaders of the legislature at all levels.
“It should not even be contemplated. Why would anyone earn a pension for spending four years in the Senate or in the House of Representatives? This cannot be justified even if it is the case in other countries,” Mr. Bassey argued.
“What members of the NASS currently earn coupled with the outrageous allowances and perks are currently considered out of sync with our national realities. To speak of pensions, in a context where workers cannot predict when to expect payment of their meagre monthly wages, and pensioners routinely disrespected and made to queue in futility, is unconscionable.”
“On the issue of immunity, I would not so much oppose that, provided the legislators understand that they must be sensitive to an average moral compass requiring that they step down when huge question marks are hung over their ‘honourable’ characters.”
But the President, Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Anyakwee Nsirimovu, said Nigerian legislators already enjoy privileges that allows them to perform their duties in accordance with the provisions of the law.
Mr. Nsirimovu, therefore said he was averse to the demand for pension and immunity as canvassed by lawmakers.
“What is being demanded by the lawmakers in this case has gone beyond the known privileges,” Mr. Nsirimovu said. “They want to be shielded from prosecution while they are in office and that is unacceptable.”
“As a country, we should not get to a point where we cannot question our representatives or take them to court. Doing that would greatly hurt our democracy. It is not acceptable and we are condemning even the one that governors enjoy.
“On the issue of pension, the essence of the parliament is to make laws for the good governance of the country. It is important for the lawmakers to look at the size of the nation’s economy and make sacrifices for the country to grow.
“What else do they need? The allowances and other perks available to them are enough to take care of their needs for the period they are serving the nation. If they are looking for pension, they should look for other kinds of jobs and leave parliament.”
On its part, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) described the move as “self-serving and despicable.”
The group’s executive director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, berated the lawmakers for exploiting their legislative powers to alter the 1999 Constitution so their leaders could enjoy perks for life at the expense of economically and socially disadvantaged Nigerians.
“SERAP calls on the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, to show leadership and refocus the National Assembly to perform their lawmaking functions in a manner that will rid the country of impunity for corruption and not tolerate it,” SERAP said.
“Granting senators and representatives immunity and life pension would neither enhance governance accountability nor contribute to the betterment of Nigerians.”
“Nigerians will reject any self-serving attempt by the senators and representatives to tear up section 308 of the 1999 constitution to grant their leaders immunity from prosecution for corruption and money laundering.
“Nigerians will also reject the despicable attempt by the senators and representatives to grant themselves life pensions.”
SERAP said it would pursue all legal avenues nationally and internationally to compel the senators to drop the immunity and life pension proposals.
Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, also criticized the planned constitution amendments.
Mr. Falana described the proposal as insensitive, irrational, and immoral.
“Indeed, it is the height of insensitivity for legislators to propose life pension for their leaders at a time that workers are owed arrears of salaries in many states of the federation,” said Mr. Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
Mr. Falana said the lawmakers’ proposal to shield their presiding officers from prosecution is “provocative.”
“No serious nation can grant immunity to legislators who have been linked with criminal diversion of public funds, forgery and rape,” he said.
“We can assure the concerned members of the public that the satanic proposals of the legislators will not succeed.
“It is pertinent to inform the legislators that the members of the human rights community have resolved to mobilize the Nigerian people to reject both proposals.”
However, constitutional lawyer, Sebastian Hon, brought a fresh perspective to the argument when he threw his weight behind the immunity clause for leaders of the legislature.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, Mr. Hon, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, argued that since the executive had always retained immunity for itself during successive constitutional reviews, there was need for the privilege to be extended to both the legislature and the judiciary.
“I am not against retaining the immunity clause with the way we are in the country. If the immunity is removed, the executive will be exposed to frivolous lawsuits and that would cause a lot of distraction and destabilisation of the country’s leadership at all levels,” he said.
“Now the legislature is also saying that drawing from that, they need immunity. I have mixed feelings about it. If I say no, then I would be exposing the legislature to the same destabilising legal proceedings.
While not asking for Mr. Saraki to be shielded from prosecution, Mr. Hon argued that if the executive enjoyed immunity, it would not be out of place for the legislative and judiciary arms of the government to be covered too.
Continuing, he said, “If there should be stability in the system, it should be total and not just for the executive arm. In any case where the immunity clause is inserted now, it shall not have a retroactive effect as to shelve the current leadership of the National Assembly from prosecution.
“I wouldn’t want Nigerians to interpret that Saraki is seeking immunity for his own protection. It would be unfair to say that because the constitution cannot be implemented retroactively. On this case, I go with the National Assembly.”