have carefully studied the Nigeria 1999 Constitution since its inception and nowhere in the Constitution is there any provision for special rights and immunities to be enjoyed by members of the two Houses of the National Assembly. Contrary to what I have heard from some of the talking heads on AIT and other Nigeria television stations, section 4(8) does not confer any immunity to any member of any legislative house anywhere in Nigeria. If anything, section 4, subsection 8 of the 1999 Constitution limits the exercise of legislative powers by the National Assembly, and instead makes their legislative powers subject to the jurisdiction of the courts of law and of judicial tribunals. This section of the Constitution even went further and strips away the power of the National Assembly to enact any law that ousts or purports to oust the jurisdiction of a court of law or of a judicial tribunal established by law. Are you confused yet? If not, you will be confused by the time I'm done. This is all legal mumbo jumbo but rather interesting stuff in light of all the ongoing hooplas generated by the attempt of the House of Representatives in Nigeria to amend the Constitution and grant themselves immunity.
Section 4 (8) was appropriate since unlike the UK we did not have the concept of Parliamentary Supremacy. In Britain the House of Lords is and remains the highest court in the land, and since the House Of Lords is part of the British Parliament (the upper chamber) and at the same time enjoys legal jurisdiction over all laws enacted by parliament, the outcome is that no one can challenge Parliament hence the phrase "Parliamentary Supremacy." In America, the courts have the power to interpret any law that is enacted by congress but mostly to determine whether the law is in line with the US Constitution, and can strike down any law that contravenes the Constitution. In Nigeria, our National Assembly is fashioned after the US system so section 4(8) is in order. Ever since the great charter of the liberties of England otherwise known as the Magna Carta of 1215 there has been constant battles between the Monarch and the English subjects. Originally it was the Barons who fought the Monarch against taxation, and later the Parliamentarians who fought for the privilege not to be prosecuted by the Monarch for anything they say in the course of performing their legislative duties especially while on the floor of Parliament.
Parliamentary immunity, also known as legislative immunity, is a system in which members of the Parliament or the legislature are granted partial immunity from prosecution from civil action for slander or libel while they are in the house. Today, nowhere in the world are members of legislative Houses not given some immunity from legal proceedings. In the UK or Us, they cannot be prosecuted for anything they say on the floor of the House or Senate. Most protections are against civil arrest or being sued for defamation for anything said or done in the course of performing legislative duties on the floor. Brazil is an exception, where immunity is extended to crimes committed outside a Parliamentarian's official duties, crimes like murder, theft, etc. Surely no one is advocating that for our legislators.
A bill has recently scaled the second reading at the Nigeria's House of Representatives. And it reads as follows; "A bill for an act to alter the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 by providing immunity for members of the legislature in respect of the words spoken or written at the plenary session or at committee proceedings, to guarantee that freedom of speech, debates and proceedings in the legislative Houses are not impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament and for related matters." I honestly don't understand why this bill. Have these guys in the House ever bothered to read up on our existing laws? Although we do not have the provisions in our 1999 Constitution, there had been in existence a legacy of our British colonial heritage. The "Parliamentary Privilege and the Bill of Rights" Act of 1958 grants members immunity from civil and criminal proceedings on account of anything said or done in the course of parliamentary proceedings as well as immunity from civil arrest. This law has not been repealed and unless it is inconsistent with any provision in the Constitution, it cannot be regarded as invalid. A suggestion that the 1958 Act violates the provision in section 4(8) prohibiting any legislation that ousts the jurisdiction of the court is not tenable because there is no ouster of jurisdiction. It merely postpones the time when action may be taken against the individual, that is, when he or she is no longer acting in an official capacity. It is not a must that such protections have to be written down in the Constitution as it is in the United States. England on the other hand does not have a written constitution, yet they have enjoyed this protection as a result of an Act of Parliament enacted since 1667.
Is there anything else our members of the House of Representatives are trying to sneak into the ongoing Constitutional amendment that we need to know? The bill that has passed second reading in the House is as constituted a mere duplication of an existing and valid 1958 bill. Are they afraid of what happened to Farouk Lawan, and are now trying to create loopholes to protect themselves from similar occurrences? I hope not, for it would simply amount to an exercise in futility. Other than Brazil, attempted protections from criminal activities for legislators have repeatedly failed in the courts. This is not only true for legislators but also to other arms of government from states to federal executives. Through the years in America many legislators have been imprisoned for criminal offenses committed while sitting in the legislature. Jason Jackson Jr. is apparently now heading to prison for violations involving abuse of his campaign funds. Several sitting governors from Fife Symington of Arizona to Rod Blagojevich of Illinois have been sent to prison right from their executive chairs in the governor's office, and many other governors across America have faced similar fate.
In a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones against President Clinton in 1994 reaching the Supreme Court and in a landmark Supreme Court decision in Clinton v. Jones (1997), it was established that a sitting president of the United States has no immunity from civil law litigation against him, for acts done that are unrelated to the office. President Nixon most certainly would have been tried criminally for his authorization of the Watergate burglary if not for the pardon granted him by President Ford. And that authorization was made while Nixon was a sitting President of the United States. It appears that in Nigeria, we have copied the American system of government but have not followed its practice. I often hear that the EFCC is waiting for a governor to complete his term before they can bring criminal charges against them for defrauding their states. That is wrong. Presidential, Governorship, and Legislative immunity is and should be limited to protection against them for anything they said or did in the course of carrying out their duties. If you steal money from the federation, state, or any other branch of government, why should these immunities protect you from that? Only in Kangaroo governments and Banana Republics do such things happen. I'd like to believe that we are be better than that now 14 years into our latest Democratic adventure.
My final word to the House of Representatives, the bill you are trying to pass for immunity is already in existence. To amend the Constitution as suggested by that bill may not pass the muster of our Supreme Court unless, of course, you intend to share some of your vast constituency allowances with them. Besides, the cumbersome hassle of amending the Constitution for a privilege already enjoyed by your members makes no sense to me at all. If indeed you have other plans to add clauses for criminal protection in the amendment, then you all better be ready for a fight. Instead of trying to pull wools over our eyes, perhaps you are better advised to remain in good terms with the Presidency, who will readily pardon you in due time just like he has now pardoned many big boys like Ex-Governor of Bayelsa State, Alamieyeseigha, Diya, Adisa and all the others. If not, you should start saving your constituency allowance, for you might need to spend them on the judges so they can declare that you have no case to answer just like your former Speaker, Bankole. If all these fails, perhaps you can just do your job, which is what is expected of you, and you won't have any need for any protection whatsoever.