Immunity for all


It is one of the most seminal ideas – no, I take that back:  It is far and away the most seminal idea ever proposed from the floor of the National Assembly since constitutional rule was restored in 1999.

This time, I will not economise my material and keep readers in suspense as is my wont.  I will come right out with it and state without fear of contradiction that the proposal to confer immunity on the principal officers of the National Assembly, with collateral benefit for the Chief Justice of Nigeria, lest the judicial branch feels neglected, is the most thoughtful and sagacious matter that ever came out of its hallowed precincts.

Its wisdom is self-evident.

When the president of the Senate is hauled from one court to another to answer charges resulting from criminal investigations, he is bound to be distracted.  When he is distracted, the business of the Senate is bound to be disrupted.

Only this past weekend, another official of the Senate was grilled for some nine hours by the  EFCC in the investigation of serious fraud.  And the indications are that, in the coming weeks, more lawmakers will be called in for questioning by one anti-corruption agency or another.

This practice, if not checked, will cripple the National Assembly.  And the public the Assembly serves with such unstinting devotion and solicitude will be the loser.  It will undermine the autonomy of the legislative branch that Senate President Bukola Saraki has been guarding so jealously.

The immunity being canvassed for principal officers of the legislature and the chief justice is therefore a step in the right direction, a major step to be sure, but only a step. And it is flawed, dangerous flawed, as I see it, in one important respect:  it is limited to only a few officials who constitute less than one per cent of the population.

How can democracy thrive in such a setting?  Limited immunity is, like limited franchise, inegalitarian.  Being inegalitarian, it is incompatible with democracy.  If we are serious about enthroning democracy – and I am persuaded that we are, since all our policy makers never tire of so proclaiming – we should widen the immunity the National Assembly is mulling.

Since all citizens are equal before the law and the Constitution, the immunity will have to be accorded all citizens without exception.  “Immunity for all,” not in 2020, but today, now, should be the new rallying cry.

The President, Vice President, governors and their deputies enjoy constitutional immunity,  as they should.  But the immunity ends the moment they leave office.  Should they have to face any kind of harassment thereafter?  Conferring them with immunity that has no limit will insulate them from such indignity.

Judges and officers of the law also enjoy the legal protection for what they say or do in the discharge of their official functions.  Again, why a limited immunity?  What would be lost by granting them full immunity in every context and contingency, so that they can live the rest of their days in peace and contentment?

How about the police?  If they had to worry about the consequences of arresting, locking up or beating up the wrong suspect, would they ever move diligently against suspects or actual criminals?  And, mind you, many of those they go after are dangerous men and women packing superior firepower.  It is bad enough that the police are ill-clad,  ill-housed and ill-paid.  Must they also be denied total and unfettered immunity?

Recently, some courts have been issuing orders restraining the police in perpetuity from arresting, detaining or prosecuting some suspects in the investigation of criminal activity.  That is a kind of immunity all right, but only for some favoured and well-heeled persons.  Why not democratise the whole thing and confer immunity on everyone in the community?

Lawmakers already enjoy parliamentary immunity.  Whatever they say on the floor of the House properly convened about anybody in the course of a debate or discussion, however injurious it may be to an individual or institution, is absolutely privileged.  No successful defamation law suit can flow from it.

But why limit the immunity to statements made during parliamentary debates?   Why not extend it to the statements they make outside the National Assembly, and to their conduct generally? If they had to worry about the intended or unintended consequences of their conduct, would they ever pursue their work diligently?

And if the media had to worry about defamation lawsuits, can they really uphold the duty and accountability of the government to the public as enjoined by the Constitution?  To do that, they have to be accorded boundless immunity.

Before American-style medical malpractice lawsuits cripple our healthcare delivery system, doctors and hospitals will have to be granted full immunity.  If they had to answer for everything that goes wrong under them, they will spend more time worrying about the vast sums they will have to shell out as damages than thinking of how to improve their skills.

Through sheer terror, drivers of taxis, mini buses , trailers, tankers and articulated vehicles and their unions conferred immunity on themselves long ago.  They drive unmindful of other road users, they park anywhere and obstruct the flow of traffic, and are ever so ready to visit violent reprisal on anyone who questions their behaviour.

Full and unfettered immunity might just be the elixir that will make them more amenable to civilised conduct.

When I was growing up, parents and teachers operated on the principle that if you spared the rod, you spoiled the child.  These days, teachers are wielding the cane less frequently, for fear of what Ade’s parent might do if they gave him a real spanking.   So, even under the greatest provocation, they cannot touch Ade.   The result is that Ade grows more and more intractable.

Granting teachers full and complete immunity is the surest path to restoring Nigeria’s lost educational glory.

Several years ago, a principal who made it impossible for students to cheat in the West African School Certificate examination was punished, the authorities said, for putting the students at a competitive disadvantage.  That would not happen in a situation where teachers enjoy complete immunity.

As for those who aid and abet examination malpractices by selling live questions to willing buyers, they already enjoy close to absolute immunity.  As far as I know, no one peddling live exam papers has been arrested, much less prosecuted.  All that remains is to formalise the immunity and extend it to their sundry patrons.  The immunity will also have to extend to parents who from sheer desperation take university matriculation exams as proxy for their children who cannot make the cut.

Landlords who forcibly evict disobliging tenants should not have to answer at law.  Whose house is it anyway?  But in a society that guarantees equal protection under the law, the tenant who stands his ground should also enjoy the fullest immunity.

Under this new doctrine, banks that advance dubious loans to even more dubious borrowers  should enjoy the fullest immunity from liability.  So should delinquent borrowers.

I almost forgot the elections umpire INEC, which gets shafted with more law suits in a single year that all other public agencies combined.   Should it not be insulated from such rascality?  And should election candidates also not enjoy complete immunity from whatever INEC does or fails to do?

As the late and much-lamented Dr K. O. Mbadiwe would have said, let immunity jam immunity.

The Nation news – culled from:


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