Friday, October 23, 2009

Immunity for Legislators?

The move by the House of Representatives to amend the legislators’ Powers and Privileges Act is apparently a pursuit of self-interest taken to a ridiculous level. This will, no doubt, further dent the public image of the lawmakers – unless the bill is thrown out soon.
The very argument of its sponsor, Honourable Henry Dickson, Chairman of the House Committee on Justice, has veritably weakened the proposition. According to him, the “sensitive” nature of legislative duties renders legislators vulnerable, hence the need to protect them from “indiscriminate” arrests that might be masterminded by their political foes, especially as the 2011 general election approaches. He also thinks that members of legislative houses should be protected against “frivolous” charges to enhance their performance.
It is remarkable, however, that this attempt at securing immunity for the legislators has received opposition even from the lower chamber itself. Honourable Ita Enang reacted pointedly: “The bill seeks to create a class of people above the law but we should know that we are bound by the Constitution and any law that is against the Constitution is null and void.”
That admonition is timely. In the first place, in granting immunity to the president, vice-president, governors and their deputies, the framers of the Constitution took into consideration the consequences of some litigants holding those officers, who are the heads of their respective governments, to ransom. But because of the abuses that have so far been recorded in the polity by some of the beneficiaries, even the rare privilege is being contested at the court of public opinion. The clamour to jettison this political right is not restricted to Nigeria. Not long ago, the constitutional court in Italy removed it from Prime Minister Silvio Belusconi who is enmeshed in scandals. The message is clear: Since all men are equal, they should be treated equally before the law, no matter the position they occupy in life.
Our legislators should, therefore, move with the times rather than take retrogressive steps. Perhaps they should be reminded that there are many other jobs in the country that are even more prone to dangers – only that their practitioners are not in the position to make self-preserving, discriminatory laws. Already, the National Assembly (NASS) and many state assemblies have, through exerting disproportionate energies on matters relating to their own welfare, inflicted themselves with a poor public perception – of underachievement. But they need not continue along this ignoble path. Instead, as they enter into the second half of their tenure, they should seek to justify their respective mandates by passing people-oriented laws rather than engaging in misplaced acts of self-preservation.
Nigerian legislators seem to be driven by self interest and preservation. This is hardly a good public perception of elected representatives who are supposed to work for the general interest of those they claim to represent in government.
Our legislators should concentrate on their core responsibilities of law making and oversight functions. Bills like Freedom of Information (FoI), electoral reform, and the Petroleum Industry Bill are begging for urgent attention. These instruments are vital to the deepening of our hard-won but fragile democracy. As for holding the executive arm of government accountable for approved programmes and projects, proofs of failure are not in short supply throughout the federation. With a largely comatose infrastructure and grossly inadequate social security, the citizenry is becoming disillusioned. This ought to bother the honourable legislators.
True greatness, after all, lies in genuine service to others, in this case, those the lawmakers claim to represent, and not in obvious self-defensive plots.