Federal lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Tuesday resumed into a rowdy session following disagreement over a procedure adopted by Speaker Yakubu Dogara in referring a Bill for an Act to Alter Section 308 of the Constitution to provide immunity against litigation for presiding officers of the National and state Houses of Assembly.
The bill which was sponsored by minority leader of the House, Hon. Leo Okuweh Ogor (PDP, Delta), was introduced for debate soon after lawmakers had listened to the usual announcements by the speaker and points of order on matters of urgent public importance raised by members.
Leading the debate on the general principle of the bill, Ogor said that the bill was aimed at altering section 308 of the constitution to enable presiding officers of the National and State Assemblies come under the protection of constitutional immunity currently being enjoyed by the executive arm.
He said: “Mr. Speaker, this amendment is aimed at moving clearly the National and State Assemblies as independent institutions separate from the executive which heads should also be accorded the same constitutional protection under the immunity clause”.
“For instance, as the Speaker is seated here, he’s not seated here as Hon. Yakubu Dogara, but seated as the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”, Ogor stated, urging colleagues to support the passage of the bill for second reading.
Also supporting Ogor’s position on the bill, Hon. Osai Nicholas Osai, another member from Delta State argued that “the issue is protection of the independence of the legislature”.
“The National Assembly is empowered to exist and make laws for the good governance of Nigeria. A governor in the state who’s not known to the national hierarchy of protocol enjoys this impunity, so why can’t presiding officers in the National Assembly enjoy same?” Osai queried.
Osai in his characteristic style urged members to “pass the bill for second reading with speed of light”, adding, “It behooves on us to protect this institution that will guarantee the sustenance of our democracy”.
However, House majority leader, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila (APC, Lagos) punctured all arguments advanced by Hon. Ogor and Osai who made case for the independence and protection of the legislature.
Gbajabiamila said the clamour for immunity for legislators will only cast doubt on the integrity of individuals elected to lead the National Assembly as well as the sincerity of lawmakers who are chosen to represent the masses.
He said: “With deep sense of responsibility, I rise to oppose this bill. We are here as representatives of the people of Nigeria. And we must in doing the job for which we were elected feel the pulse of the people”.
He questioned the timing of the demand for immunity at a period when the constituents they represent are going through unprecedented socio-economic hardship for which the National Assembly should be working to remedy.
“There’s something also about timing. Timing is very important in doing things. There are critical issues facing the people whom we represent today. How do we now start telling them that we are fighting to give immunity to their representatives when they are in crisis? How does immunity for presiding officers in the legislature put smiles on the faces of those we represent”, he said.
At this point Speaker Dogara attempted referring the bill to the House Special Ad hoc Committee on Constitution Review for further deliberation without putting the question for votes.
This attempt was met with resistance as members insisted the bill must be put to question and voted for or against before any referral can be made.
Despite the protest, Dogara kept his cool and waited for the commotion to ease off, after which he directed the Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Rules and Business, Hon. Olabode Ayorinde from Ondo to guide the House on what the rule says.
The lawmaker in his counsel quoted Order 8 Rule 49 (3) saying that “a Bill on constitution amendment is referred to the ad hoc committee upon passage for second reading on the floor of the House if a question so put is approved via popular vote”.
Determined to have his way, Speaker Dogara took a deferring view away from what the rule says as he told colleagues that “the bill before us is for the alteration of the constitution. No single individual has the power to kill a bill that’s meant to amend the constitution. Bills like these go to the constitution review committee and it’s only the special ad hoc committee that has the power to either consider it or throw it out”.
He therefore hit the gavel passing and referring the bill to the ad hoc committee on constitution review amid protest from mostly APC lawmakers who towed the line of the House Leader, Femi Gbajabiamila.