Senate Committee stirs Hornet’s nest over immunity clause, life pension NASS leaders
The Senate Adhoc Committee on Constitution amendments appeared to have stirred the hornet’s nest over its recommendations that leaders of the National Assembly enjoy life pension and immunity just like state governors and the President.
The decision arrived at after its two-day retreat in Lagos at the weekend presided over by Deputy Senate President, Ike Eweremadu which also seeks to stop the President from vetoing a bill have received thumbs down from prominent Nigerians who have read undue motives to the action of the lawmakers.
Many of those who have reacted and condemned the action included Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana, (SAN), Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Prof. Itse Sagay, (SAN), Trade Union Congress (TUC), the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), amongst others.
Falana condemned the National Assembly for its proposed life pension and immunity from prosecution for the Senate President and other presiding officers.
In a statement, Falana described the proposal as insensitive, irrational, immoral, provocative and satanic, saying: “Indeed, it is the height of insensitivity for legislators to propose life pension for their leaders at a time that workers are owed arrears of salaries in many states of the federation.
“The lawmakers’ proposal to shield their presiding officers from prosecution is “provocative. No serious nation can grant immunity to legislators who have been linked with criminal diversion of public funds, forgery and rape.
“We can assure the concerned members of the public that the satanic proposals of the legislators will not succeed. It is pertinent to inform the legislators that the members of the human rights community have resolved to mobilize the Nigerian people to reject both proposals.”
The lawmakers, at the end of a two-day retreat on constitution review on Saturday, decided to guard its presiding officers, as well as those of state Houses of Assemblies, from prosecution arguing that since the other two arms of government, Executive and Judiciary, are enjoying immunity, the third arm ought to follow suit.
Prof. Sagay, asked President Muhammadu Buhari to disregard any bill from the National Assembly on life pension and immunity for the principal officers of the National Assembly, describing the proposal as outrageous and annoying.
He said the Senate seemed to be an institution where members only sought to promote their personal interests adding he did not understand the rationale for life pension when the lawmakers received salaries monthly.
His words: “I have always said that the Senate seems to be an institution of people who are there to promote their personal interests. Saraki is a former governor. Is he not earning pension in Kwara already? The proposal is annoying, immoral and outrageous; it is the height of insensitivity. These demands show that they don’t fear Nigerians.
“Those pushing for the demands should have asked how the public would react before presenting the demands. I will ask the President to totally disregard the bill. The President should veto such bill if it ever gets to his desk.”
On the immunity for the principal officers of the National Assembly, Sagay said seeking immunity was tantamount to planning for a crime and demanding immunity in advance to cover up.
“Many are still questioning the immunity granted the President and the governors and then some are proposing immunity for senators. Should all Nigerians be asking for immunity then? I am so shocked that some could be dreaming of such outrageous and annoying idea, it is nonsensical,” he added.
TUC, also lambasted the proposed life pension for members of the National Assembly, NASS, and advised them not to ask for more since they earn well.
This was contained in a statement by its President, Bobboi Kaigama and acting Secretary-General, Simeso Amachree in Lagos who said it was unfortunate that such suggestion was being made at a time like this, when the nation is experiencing difficulty in the economy.
“We want the politicians to be abreast with the groaning of the masses. Lawmakers are proposing life pension at a time when there is massive job loss and poverty.
“We are worried that members of the National Assembly are not perturbed by the prevailing realities in the economy. Are they bent on frustrating the effort of the president at revamping the economy”, it asked.
The union said that the benefit of the office of the Senate President and other principal officers was too juicy to demand for more adding that it was regrettable that some senators would not initiate a bill for the four-year term while earning higher than some foreign presidents.
The Union also said that the two-day retreat on Constitution Review organised by the Senate Ad-hoc Committee would have been used to address some grey areas in the constitution.
If the lawmakers did not jettison the proposal and make laws that would improve the lives of the people, TUC would be forced to protest, the union added in the statement.
The NLC also took a swipe at the National Assembly saying such attempt to bestow National Assembly principle officers with life pension was disingenuous and amounted to greed of the highest order.
NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, in a statement said: “NLC argued that the plan was merely to extend “excessive privileges for Senate President and House Speaker and their deputies are neither desirable nor necessary.
“Senate President/House Speaker are elected by members and not the public, unlike the president and governors and their deputies; the privileges already enjoyed by the leadership of the two chambers are enormous.
“Unlike the leadership of the executive, the leadership of the legislature has no tenure limitation.
“We at the NLC would want to go on record as having opposed the idea of putting the President and Speaker of the House of Representatives and their deputies on life pension.”
The NLC President said: “We have quoted copiously from the arguments for life pension in order to expose the ludicrousness and vanity of their logic. We are convinced, nothing but ego and greed are the over-riding interest for wanting to put the leadership of the legislature on life pension.
“What the governors have done is unrealistic and immoral and rather than ensure the right thing is done, some senators have elected to set-up for themselves a model that is at once bad, immoral, illegal and unsustainable.
He added that “the concept of pension derives from 35 years of meritorious service. However, politicians in time, subverted this time-honoured practice by awarding themselves generous severance packages after four years in office. These packages not only make a mockery of what public servants take, the beneficiaries are paid up front while the average public service pensioner dies on the verification queue!.
“The height of this infamy and greed was when exiting governors literally coerced or seduced state Houses of Assembly into writing into “Law” their severance packages which take a sizeable percentage of the state’s budget.
“We at the congress believe that politics is about service-delivery and not robbery. Senators should therefore get their priorities right, whip themselves into line and perform the tasks for which they are elected. These tasks as defined by the constitution are law-making, over-sight and investigation.
There are issues in the Constitution begging for attention such as devolution of power, autonomy for local governments etc. These are amendments that will not only bring government closer to the people but will unleash the potentials of local government councils.
“We also expect the Senate to outlaw the criminal pensions for ex-governors and any other undeserving retiree through an amendment of the Constitution.
“Similarly, Nigerians have consistently expressed their desire to have removed from the Constitution absolute immunity clause for the president and governors and their deputies. Rather than heed to their demand, Senators are more interested in feathering their nests or how they can over-shine the executive and their judiciary in perks and perquisites.”
NLC observed that “in their blind quest, they completely forgot that for any member of the judiciary to qualify for life pension, he or she must have spent a minimum of 35 years in service.
“The Senate is advised to be focused instead of indulging in self-serving frivolities. Anything to the contrary will draw the wrath of the people,” Wabba stated.
One of the resolutions followed the submission of speakers of state Houses of Assembly present at the session that presiding officers at the state levels had become endangered species arbitrarily thrown out of office in view of the easy way of removing speakers.
The proposal was overwhelmingly adopted by the committee members in expression of their solidarity for their counterparts at the state level. The decision was also adopted in the spirit of sportsmanship as some senators said it was only right for them to encourage the speakers whose co-operation would be needed to pass amendments proposed by the National Assembly.
The speakers explained that in coming up with the proposal, the 36 presiding officers of the state Houses of Assembly had met and collectively adopted the proposal which is meant to make the process of removing speakers more complex and rigorous so that it will no longer be attractive to their colleagues in the Houses of Assembly.
The committee also re-opened the amendments passed by the seventh National Assembly which were vetoed by former President Goodluck Jonathan, prominent among which was the move to remove presidential assent on constitution amendments.
This decision was arrived at after a heated debate with some senators who argued that having secured the two-thirds majority support of members of each house of the National Assembly as well as state Houses of Assembly, the assent of the president is no longer necessary.
But those against the move argue that the principle of checks and balances would be defeated if the president is barred outright from assenting to constitutional amendments.
They also contended that in as much as no bill can become a law unless assented to by the president, it is only normal to retain presidential assent on constitution amendments.
However, when the issue was put to vote, majority supported the removal of presidential assent on amendments and the resolution was passed.
Members of the committee also approved autonomy for local governments. Before arriving at the decision, members of the committee elaborately brainstormed on the plights of Nigerians at the grassroots especially teachers who are owed several months of salary arrears.
They blamed the trend on the inability of council chairmen to independently control finances due to them and therefore resolved that the only way to put paid to the trend is to make financial autonomy of local councils a constitutional affair.
The committee also approved the incorporation of independent candidacy into the constitution with the belief that the move would provide a platform for individuals who are shut out of their parties’ nomination to test their popularity on the ballot box.
It resolved to recommend immunity from prosecution for senate president, deputy senate president, speaker and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. It also agreed to remove “force” from the “Nigeria Police Force” and consequently rename it Nigeria Police.
In the same vein, it resolved to recommend for Senate approval, pension for presiding officers of the Senate and House of Representatives. Members of the committee had argued that if the president, vice president, governors and deputy governors are entitled to life pensions, the presiding officers in the legislature do not deserve anything less.
However, the committee dropped proposals such as the introduction of indigeneship into the constitution with the intention to confer indigeneship of a particular area on anyone who has resided in that area for 10 years and above. It also dropped the proposal to include education as a fundamental right.
The committee also dropped the move to inculcate electoral offence in the constitution, which was meant to ban anyone convicted of electoral offence for not less than 10 years.