Remove Impunity, Not Immunity

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Section 308 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides immunity for the President, Vice-President, State Governors and their deputies. It states:??Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this constitution, but subject to 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 that 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.?

Impunity could be defined as ?exemption from punishment, penalty or fine for flaunting laws or rules.? Impunity appears to be the most suitable word to describe the motivation behind the reckless looting of public treasury by several former public office holders.

Former Delta State Governor James Ibori defrauded the state of 23 million pounds ($37 million) through the sale of Delta State?s shares in V. Mobile, a Nigerian privatized phone company. How was he punished? A Nigerian court in Asaba, Delta State, headed by Justice Marcel Awokulehin cleared him of all the charges brought against him, before a United Kingdom based court convicted him for fraud and money-laundering.

Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former Governor of Bayelsa State was arrested with an amount close to one million British pounds in cash, in his London home. He was charged by British authorities with money-laundering. He later jumped bail and returned to Nigeria. What was his punishment for this offence? A Nigerian court sentenced him to merely two years in prison in July 2007 and he spent a few months in jail. Today, he is a free man.

The former Governor of Edo State, Mr. Lucky Igbinedion embezzled N2.9 billion but was asked by Enugu High Court to merely refund about N500 million and forfeit three properties.

The list of examples of reckless looting of public funds by public officers is endless. A High Court at the Federal Capital Territory recently sentenced a former Assistant Director in the Police Pensions Office, Mr. John Yakubu Yusuf to two years imprisonment with an option of fine of N750,000.00, after he admitted that he connived with others to steal over N20 billion that should have been used to pay retirement benefits. Many retirees who lost their lives and their dependants have been victimized as a result of Yusuf?s crime. The minor punishment issued by this judgment has reduced their value to something of less value than the paltry N750,000 fine that Mr. Yusuf paid as punishment for his offence. In fact, the controversial judgment by Justice Talba seems to suggest that federal civil servants should continue to loot public treasury since very minimal punishment would be given to them if they are eventually caught or found guilty in the law court.

The punitive measures against impunity in Nigeria suggestively encourages, rather than discourage it. From the examples mentioned above, it appears the challenge of fighting corruption among public officers has more to do with impunity than immunity. The argument for removal of the immunity clause has been based on the fact that it encourages corrupt practices by those it seeks to protect (i.e. the President, Vice President, Governors and their deputies). However, there are some former State Governors who are now serving federal legislators. There are also some current Local Government Chairmen and chief executives of federal agencies. These are not protected by section 308. Some of them have allegedly committed, and some are still committing criminal offenses, including looting of public funds. Yet, they walk freely on the Nigerian streets without any citizen or organisation pressing charges against them. Those entrusted with public funds steal them unscrupulously because they know and believe that nothing severe would happen to them when they are caught.

Therefore, the removal of immunity clause from Nigeria?s constitution will contribute very little to the on-going anti-corruption programmes of the present administration. It could only lead to a situation whereby the few public office holders presently protected by the clause, would be required to appear in court almost on a daily basis due to litigations by the opposition. This would amount to a total distraction and create more excuses for failure of such politicians to perform, during their tenure.

Rather than striving to eliminate immunity clause that only a few public officers enjoy, it would be more reasonable to channel such efforts towards the discouragement of impunity displayed by public office holders and many other citizens.

First, it is important that the existing laws against corrupt practices, including embezzlement of public funds, are strictly enforced to serve as a deterrent to potential offenders. The strict enforcement of existing laws in Nigeria?s constitution will help to reduce impunity.

Secondly, stealing of public funds should attract capital punishments such as death by hanging. This will also go a long way in reducing the rate at which public funds are stolen. Those who are found guilty of this crime should be punished and seen to be punished.

Again, the judiciary should begin to live up to expectations as regards its role in the crusade against corruption among public office holders. Judges of questionable character should not be allowed to handle high profile cases of corruption.

At instances where justice is suspected to have been compromised, punishments should be issued to indicted representatives of the judiciary to avoid total loss of confidence in the last hope of the common man.

The on-going review of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is an opportunity to review the nation?s laws and strengthen sections that are capable of taming impunity among public office holders and the generality of Nigerian citizens.

Eliminating impunity will be more fruitful in the fight against corruption than removing the immunity clause.

ALBINUS CHIEDU

CEO, OUTPUT COMMUNICATIONS,

29, Adeniyi Jones Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos

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