April 12, 2021

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Darkside of parliamentary privilege

5 min read

By Emmanuel Oladesu

 

It could not be ascertained whether Smart Adeyemi, journalist, All Progressives Congress (APC) chieftain and senator from Kogi West District, had an axe to grind with Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu before his recent inflammatory statement on the floor.

The remarks threw Senate President Ahmad Lawan off balance. He was taken aback by the use of insulting language. Some Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) legislators also cried foul, saying that the the attack was unprovoked, unwarranted, unjustifiable and indefensible.

While contributing to a debate on the Safe School Initiative, Adeyemi, who spoke with passion, was said to have veered off. In what had been described by observers as a clearly patronising manner, the former Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) president compared his native Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello and his Abia counterpart, saying that the former had lived to expectation while the latter had failed provided security for school system.

The senator derisively described Ikpeazu as a lover of alcohol; a Champagne-drinking governor, whose misdemeanor had unleashed poverty on the Southeast state. The general interpretation was that a Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry-turned drunkard is governing Abia. The opposition in Abia, for partisan reasons,  were happy.

The speech, if recorded in the Hansard,  cannot be questioned. The National Assembly has the right to record and publish its activities. In fact, the document can be references for research in the future.

Adeyemi reportedly said:”In some states of Nigeria today, where we have highly intelligent people, highly educated people, very enterprising people, like Abia, they are governed by drunkard. The governor of Abia is a Champagne-drinking man. Abia people are impoverished more than before. Abia people are unfortunate.”

Ikpeazu is aggrieved. It is not without basis.  He now submits his personal life for scrutiny, saying he abhors ‘hot drink’ or spirit. Flaunting his achievements, he said he had achieved more than the Kogi governor in terms of project implementation, education funding and inflow of investment to his state.

Also, his predecessor, Senator Theodore Orji, has said he never handed over to a beer addict. He chided Adeyemi for regression into indecorous and uncouth behaviours. Senator Ifeanyi Abaribe, a former Abia deputy governor, is also demanding apology for Ikpeazu and the entire state, saying the tagged source which Adeyemi erroneously relied upon before making an unfounded allegation, was faulty. So far, the Kogi senator is not retracing his steps.

To observers, Ikpeazu is helpless. He cannot opt for litigation for the redress of injustice arising from the uncomplimentary remarks that had dented his image. His tormentor, Adeyemi, is covered by parliamentary privilege; a rare immunity that cannot be tampered with. Perhaps,  only the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly can call him to order.

However, the implication is that the encounter has crippled socio-human relations between the senator and the governor.

In some mature democracies, there is a window of opportunity for the injured to seek judicial intervention. Constitutionally speaking, the option is non-existent in Nigeria. Judging by experience, the abuse of parliamentary privilege can occur. Emotions are not kept at bay on the floor. On some occasions, the parliament may temporarily become rancorous in the aftermath of heated debates. Yet, discussions are tempered by maturity and a sense of honour exhibited by the presiding leadership of the legislature.

Historically, the parliamentary privilege on civil matters is absolute. The overriding legal immunity shields lawmakers from civil liability for statements made in the course of legislative duties on the floor and during oversight functions at the committee level. This is crucial to the protection of the integrity and genuineness of parliamentary processes or procedures. Its core element is the abolition of punishment for contempt. As a corollary,  the parliament is insulated from diversionary tactics, subversive acts and other antics of unpatriotic people outside the hallowed chambers.

Lawmakers who have scores to settle may hide under the curious privilege to get a pound of flesh from perceived foes.

Since there may be no limit to parliamentary immunity, the legislative arm needs to evolve constraints or devices to check the likelihood of parliamentary oppression, intimidation and dictatorship. It is in the interest of the democratic order.

The court lacks the power to declare an Act of Parliament unconstitutional. It cannot also declare as illegal any heresy or unintelligent utterance on the floor or prosecute lawmakers for indecent speech. It may therefore, mean that under the Nigerian democracy, parliamentary privileges are superior to fundamental human rights. Its means that while upholding the supremacy of the parliament and the exceptional freedom of speech by lawmakers, the rights of citizens may be violated on some occasions.

The solution is self-restraint. Politicians should imbibe the virtue of moderation in public speech and discourse. In spite of their differences, socio-personal relations should not be ruptured. Hot words that are libellous and hurtful should be avoided.

A lot of points can be made without employing the tools of abuse.

In earlier dispensation, political actors failed woefully to pay attention to decorum. Two ministers of Balewa Government, who were locked in rivalry and antagonism, Dr. Kingsley Mbadiwe  (Industries, ) and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh (Finance), once threw caution into the winds while marshalling arguments for and against foreign loans for sundry industries at regional and federal levels.

Suddenly, an argument ensued between the two NCNC ministers, during a meeting with the Prime Minister at his Bauchi country home. The scene was captured by frontline civil servant, Augustus Adebayo, in his book: ‘Power in politics.’

Okotie-Eboh fired salvos at Mbadiwe, saying:”People who know nothing finance think they can come here to open their mouths and talk rubbish.” Mbadiwe replied:”I studied Money and Finance in the USA and without opening any textbook, I can lecture you on Finance for the next five years.”

Taking an exception to that, the Finance minister retorted:”We are talking about practical finance, he is talking of his outdated schoolboy textbooks. Ignorant man like you…”

Mbadiwe, brimming with anger, said:”Mr Prime Minister, but for my respect for you, I will not tolerate being insulted by illiterates who happened to stumble into wealth.”

The encounter was about degenerating into a physical combat. Balewa, who reminded them of their status, asked Western Regional Finance Minister Oba Claudius Akran to pacify them. The purpose of the meeting was not achieved.

Also, a seed of discord was sowed when former Finance minister Chief Anthony Ani openly blasted his Petroleum counterpart, Chief Dan Etete, over an alleged non-repair of the refineries. Etete , in his response, said:”Sensible neighbours do not adopt the antics of a mad man who choose to dance naked at the village square.”

In a Southwest state, a governorship candidate,  in a bid to have an upper hand, described the wife of his opponent as a mad woman. He was later defeated by the man he wanted to publicly disgrace. That was during at the onset of the Second Republic.

During the 2015 poll, a governor said a presidential candidate was going about with pampers, to convey the impression that he was unfit to run.

Last week, a governor labelled his colleague as a terrorist. Yet, he could not prove it.

It is desirable that all should act, in relation to others, within the bound of decency, and refrain from sacrificing politeness on the altar of partisanship.