The move to end the constitutional immunity from prosecution enjoyed by the President, Vice-President, governors and their deputies while in office may soon bear fruit. Although the clamour for the removal of the immunity clause has been on for years, it gained fresh impetus during the week when the House of Representatives approved the removal of the clause from the constitution.
The immunity clause, which protects the stated officials from prosecution while in office, was enshrined to forestall situations where senior public servants are distracted from the business of government by court cases.
The House of Representatives resolved to dump the clause after deliberating on the recommendations made by its Committee on Constitution Review.
The proposed amendment scaled through after 252 of the 261 members who voted when the matter was put to vote voted in favour of its removal.
While supporters of the removal hailed the resolution, others had argued that it was not likely to be approved by the Senate.
The Senate and the legislative assemblies of states would have to approve the amendment before it can take effect.
But senators who spoke with SUNDAY PUNCH on the issue in Abuja on Friday gave indications that the proposal might be approved by the upper house.
The senators noted that since the issue was part of the amendments which the conference committee of both chambers of the National Assembly had agreed upon, the Senate would likely uphold the amended clause.
The National Assembly had set up a conference committee of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to harmonise the report of the two chambers on the document.
The senate could not discuss the report of the conference committee on the amended constitution when the matter came up last Wednesday. This was because senators who attended the day’s sitting did not form a quorum as required by the Senate Standing Rules.
Senate President, David Mark, subsequently adjourned deliberations on the report until the Senate resumes this week.
But Senator Femi Lanlehin, the Senator representing Oyo-South Senatorial District, said the clause-by-clause consideration of the report of the senate committee led by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, had been taken and approved.
Lanlehin also shared his opinion on the matter. He said, “Personally, I believe that anybody, regardless of his or her position, should answer criminal charges preferred against him or her even while in office. This will reduce to the barest minimum the issue of impunity and the flagrant disregard to the rule of law.
“Once a prima facie case of criminal activity is established against the president or governors, they should answer the charges. That is my position.”
Similarly, Senator Gbenga Kaka, who is one of the senators supporting the removal of the immunity clause toldSUNDAY PUNCH, in a telephone interview on Friday, that there was no reason for elected officials to live above the law.
He said, “I am in total support of the removal of the immunity clause because I see no reason why we go to the people to seek for their mandate and not to be accountable to them. It should be removed so that anybody who is elected should be made to face the law especially when he or she is criminally liable. It is only fair that we are all seen to be equal before the law.”
Other senators who spoke on the issue on the condition of anonymity also expressed their willingness to vote in support of the removal of the immunity clause from the constitution.
However, as the Senate prepares to deliberate on the amendments, SUNDAY PUNCH has learnt that governors are opposed to the removal of the immunity clause.
On Friday, the Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, Dr. Babangida Aliyu, kicked against the removal of the clause, warning that the removal could affect governance adversely.
He noted that if the clause was removed, it would take the focus of leaders from administrative issues to “frivolous issues and unnecessary litigation.”
Aliyu said, “I note that if governors and President have no immunity on certain issues, they may waste government resources on cases that normally should not have gone to court.
“There are things that we should put into consideration; many at times, cases that could have been resolved outside courts are allowed to go to court. If the immunity clause is removed, you will find people going to court on matters that have no bearing with the issues that have been taken to court.”
The Niger State Governor, who is the Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, explained that although he was initially in support of the removal, he had had a change of heart.
He said, “This is a dicey situation. When I came newly, I was one of those who said the immunity clause should be removed. But with the insight I have now, I think we should look at the issue properly.
“I think we should look at this properly and ensure that we do not burden the leaders with only going to court instead of attending to administrative issues. We have to find a situation in the country whereby people can solve problems and issues among themselves without going to court.”
His Ogun State counterpart, Ibikunle Amosun, who spoke through the State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu, warned that the lawmakers should define the context within which a governor or president would lose immunity.
Olaniyonu said, “Even in the United States of America, they still have immunity clause in their constitution and it covers government officials in the performance of their official duties.”
He stressed that his principal worked within the ambit of the constitution, and therefore had no reason to be afraid.
But the Kwara State Government, according to Dr. Muyideen Akorede, would rather await the final draft of the amended constitution before making its position public.
Akorede, who spoke to one of our correspondents in Ilorin on Friday, said, “The Kwara State Governor will wait till the constitution is amended on the removal of the immunity before making comment.”
The Presidency has however argued that since the process of constitution amendment is still ongoing, it will be premature to make a pronouncement based on the decision of the House of Representatives.
Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, told SUNDAY PUNCH on Friday that the process of amending the constitution did not end with the House of Representatives.
He said Senators and state Houses of Assembly would still have to make inputs.
The presidential spokesman said, “It is premature to speak on the matter. We all know that the amendment process is still ongoing.
“The fact that the House of Representatives has taken a position on the matter does not mean it has become a law.
“We all know that the Senate and state Houses of Assembly will still have inputs into the process.”