As Nigeria continues to grapple with corruption in all sectors, particularly in government, it has been agreed by a vast majority of the population that one of the main factors that continues to encourage graft is enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; the Immunity Clause.
Over the years, those saddled with the responsibility of protecting Nigerians have abused that particular clause which immunizes the President, Vice President, Governors and their deputies from prosecution. The clause occupies Section 308 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and it states that “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this constitution, but subject to the sub section (2) of this section-
(a) No civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against a person to whom this section applies during his period of office
(b) A person to whom this section applies shall not be arrested or imprisoned during the period, either in pursuance of the process of any court or otherwise and
(c) No process of any court requiring or compelling the appearance of a person to whom this section applies, shall be applied for or issued”
Before the recent public sessions on constitution amendment held in all the 360 Federal Constituencies in the country, debates have been on regarding whether the clause should be retained or expunged from Nigeria’s Constitution.
Some of those in favour of its retention have argued that the removal of the immunity clause would cause distraction for the leadership of the country and also bring governance to a standstill.
Citizens who have become worried by the abuse of the clause have however postulated that it should have no place in the constitution and its removal will not in any way affect governance negatively. They are always quick to point out that there was no immunity in the First and Second Republics and there were no distractions then. It was even pointed out that there were no frivolous cases in court then. They also argued that the removal of the clause would help to keep the leaders in check. Arguments that its removal would cause a standstill were met with the variance that after all, the first two Republics did not collapse because of the Immunity Clause.
While speaking at a public forum, the father of a member of the House of Representatives in Ibadan opined that the removal of the clause would give opposition parties something to capitalize on in the quest to frustrate the party in power. Giving an example, he said “they could go as far as murdering someone and putting the corpse behind the Governor’s house since he is not immune to prosecution, just to give him something to worry about.”
Proponents of the removal believe that the distraction, if any would arise cannot be compared to the grandiose looting that is being perpetrated as a result of the immunity being enjoyed, especially by Governors. To them, the earlier the corrupt politicians are stripped of immunity against prosecution, the better.
In the view of a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Modibo Belgore, “the immunity clause has become a leeway for looting public treasury by heads of the executive arm of government at the three tiers of government.”
Another set of Nigerians believes it is not the constitution that needs to be reviewed or changed but the people occupying the positions of authority.
In the view of a former Speaker of the Oyo State House of Assembly, Hon Kehinde Ayoola, the “immunity clause should be removed partially.” Giving his reason, he said “let it be there for civil matters but it should be waived for criminal matters.”
Another argument that has been put forward is that removing the immunity clause as a means of reducing graft will neither work nor make any difference because there are laws and institutions that should tackle graft and they have not been able to achieve much.
It has also been observed that the number of former state chief executives being dragged to court for financial improprieties has continually been on the rise. In almost all the cases, anti-graft agencies have had to wait till the exportation of the tenure of the affected Governors before moving against them.
Incidentally, the clause is not only abused in cases of fraud; a former Governor once made it clear that anyone who stood between him and his dream of running for a second term in office would be putting his life at risk. According to the Governor, “not only would such a person lose his life, nothing would come out of it because before the end of the eight years I will spend in office, the matter would either have been forgotten or all evidence would have been erased”.