Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Immunity mere distraction

EXCITEMENT often overtakes the serious matter of reviewing the Constitution. Many agree, the Constitution in its present state is hugely responsible for various setbacks for the country.

The portions that are readily condemned include those that centralise many functions of government.

However, every effort to review the Constitution is lost to some convoluted issues that serve the interest of a few and these finally thwart the review.

Work that took months and consumed billions of Naira was wasted in 2006 with the rejection of tenure elongation. There were about 100 others due for review. This time, distractions have emerged.

Immunity for certain public office-holders is at the forefront. So much energy has been invested in defending or attacking immunity that it appears to be Nigeria's only problem.

Corruption is principally blamed on the immunity clause that shields certain class of office-holders from prosecution while in office. The emphasis on immunity as an obstacle to the fight against corruption is porous.

The President, Vice-President, Governors and Deputy Governors are only 74 out of more than 5,000 political office-holders. How has the fight against corruption fared against the others? How many state commissioners, ministers and legislators have been prosecuted for corruption? Do the 774 local government heads, who are routinely accused of corruption have immunity? Do civil servants have immunity?

Almost two years after they left office, how many of the former governors that we were told were corrupt, have been charged to court?

Immunity is not the issue. There is an unwillingness to tackle corruption decisively. The immunity clause is necessary to help the listed officials concentrate on governance instead of being sued in their individual capacities. What enhances corruption is the non-effective use of policies that can minimise corruption.

One of the policies is transparency in government activities. Different ways have been suggested to tackle this concern, which manifests in many ways, among them corruption. Governments take back-seats in providing quick checks to protect governance from the ravages of self-serving politicians and civil servants.

The Freedom of Information Bill that has walked the chambers of the National Assembly — and remains a bill — since 1999 is a good example of governments’ determination not to run their businesses openly.

Another distraction for the current constitution review is the unceasing agitation for state creation. The constitutional provisions for creating states are almost impracticable. They seem to have been made to halt further breaking of the country, which over the years has resulted in increased cost of governance without equal benefits for the people.

The constitution review should concentrate on areas that should devolve more powers to the states and local government areas. There are no more convincing reasons for a federation, where the centre controls electricity, rails, education, taxation, health, wages of public servants and all resources of the country.

In reviewing the Constitution, the National Assembly should cut distractions that can derail the exercise. The 2006 review provides enough lessons.