For several years now, the debate over the immunity of the president, state governors and other top government officials as enshrined in Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution has continued to rage.
The constitution states that no civil or criminal proceeding can be instituted against the president, vice president, governors and deputy governors while in office. Recently, however, the Justice Alfa Belgore-led constitution amendment committee set up by President Goodluck Jonathan recommended the removal of the clause.
In line with the recommendation, the National Assembly is contemplating to expunge the clause from the constitution. The hint was given by Emeka Ihedioha, deputy speaker, House of Representatives and chairman of the House’s ad hoc committee on constitution review. According to him, the committee would consider the yearning of Nigerians to review the immunity clause.
Rattled by that proposal, state governors called a meeting last week, moving against it. They argue that the removal of immunity clause will cause a dislocation in the system.
Meanwhile, some Nigerians are of the opinion that the removal can be partial (modified), in such a way that the concerned public officer can sue and be sued. According to this school, the public officer can be investigated, the findings published and trial begun only after his tenure expires.
It is argued that total removal of immunity will bring about distractions from people who might write fictitious petitions in order to destabilise the polity. The feeling is that opponents of state governors or the president could capitalise on the removal of immunity to cause embarrassment to governments by harassing them regularly with flimsy allegations. The fear is that the time such public office holders would have devoted to governance would be wasted on endless legal tussles.
But the point needs to be made that for years, Nigerians have watched elected governors plunder their individual states while hiding under immunity clause. We have come to a sad conclusion that the immunity clause needs to be revisited. Since 1999, we have seen high level of corruption being perpetrated by politicians who enjoy the immunity. We have heard allegations of politically-motivated murders and other heinous offences committed under the immunity cover.
Elsewhere, immunity for elected public office holders is not an issue because things are done decently and in order; those who abuse office usually do not go free. As soon as they leave office, they answer for their errors of omission and commission. In many parts of the world, we have seen past leaders go to jail for their deeds while in office, unlike in Nigeria where no Nigerian ruler in a democratic setting has ever gone to jail for his misdeed, despite the level of corruption among the ruling class in the country.
Indeed, here, it is difficult to prosecute former governors who have stolen so much with which they bribe their way out of the long arm of the law. James Ibori’s case is a good example.
The cases of Charles Taylor, former Liberian warlord, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir showed that there is no absolute immunity anywhere in the world.
In the light of abuse of the clause, it has therefore become necessary to remove the immunity clause to ensure that the president and governors would be more careful in their dealings in office, knowing that they could be arrested and prosecuted even while in office. It will also curtail the culture of impunity by that category of people. There is no better way to bring sanity in the system than this.