One of the most recent additions to the seeming endless lists of dictions in Nigerian political dictionary is “Budget padding”. A friend of mine on Facebook posted a joke about some ladies who “pad” their bodies just to look good. He wondered whether there was anything in Nigeria that is not “padded”, including its budget!
Listening to several Television programs on the topic of budget padding last week, two things crossed my mind. First, the operational word “should” presupposes that there is a moral burden on the part of who will do the investigation, not necessarily, according to the law. In this regard, one recalls the recent Brexit fiasco which shook British political establishment leading to the resignation of the erstwhile Prime Minister (PM), David Cameron. Save for the predictable British political culture which “mandates” a political leader to “resign” after losing a major political battle, nothing else really compels Cameron in any relevant Act of Parliament or written document(s) to do so. The word, “should” in this regard only meant the PM need to follow the part of honour by resigning after a vote of “no confidence” passed on him after the Brits chose to leave the European Union (EU) in the referendum. The question of who should investigate the National Assembly in this regard appears to me like we a political culture in Nigeria that places moral, not legal burden on an institution to perform its tasks even without been “ordered” to do so!
The second thing that struck me on this matter is the question of law or its technicality(ies). There are those who argue citing things like “separation of powers” “Parliamentary immunity” or “independence of the Legislature” and the likes. Those who argue in this line have maintained citing relevant sections of the Constitution that “the National Assembly shall determine its own rules and procedures.” They also maintain that since the National Assembly is an independent organ of government, it should be a self-regulating institution having its own “immunity”. These ones argue that by inviting external bodies to investigate an issue involving the National Assembly is to compromise the independence of the institution.
At this point, I think it will be good to put issues in their proper perspectives. Before doing this, we will need to be clear on some things. What constitute(s) matters that are purely parliamentary? What are those matters that are criminal even when committed in the legislature? To what extent is the legislature in the case the National Assembly independent?
Recently, the House of Representatives is engulfed in budget padding. A former Chairman of the House appropriations committee, Hon. Abdulmumin Jibrin, has accused the speaker, Hon. Yakub Dogara of padding of the N6.06 trillion in 2016 budget and has announced that he would be visiting Nigeria’s major anti-corruption agencies. This move by Jubrin to invite external agencies to investigate the matter has generated heated debates in public discourses as to whether these “external agencies” have such power to investigate matters that are purely parliamentary.
One recalls that President Buhari refused to sign the 2016 Appropriation Bill because of his suspicion that some extraneous items not included in the original draft have found their way into the document. Little did many know that “padding” and the “padders” were in full action only waiting for the official seal of authority which the president will not want to give in to such idiocy!
As these debates went on, I have heard it said by one of the lawyers who as a guest panelist on a national television station speaking on this topic noted that agencies like the Directorate of State Services (DSS) and similar bodies had no business investigating the legislature. He notes that as parliamentarians, they are immune from arrest or prosecution because of “parliamentary immunity”. Oh my God!
I am not a lawyer but I know this man must have either been poorly educated or he is just doing his best to look silly. If there is anything Parliamentary Immunity I know, as the name connotes, is that the immunity covers only “offences” or speeches committed during parliamentary debates or committee meetings. This has little to do with criminal prosecutions!
The most important thing in applying parliamentary immunity is whether the legislator’s actions fall within the “sphere of legitimate legislative activity.” There are actions a legislator may take, even when s/he is engaging in activities related to s/he legislative office, that do not fall within this sphere. If an action is not a legitimate legislative activity, the legislator is not protected by legislative immunity. Nothing in granting parliamentary immunity to National Assembly members prevent them from arrests save from, performing their legislative duties.
When we say, “legislative duties” we mean: actions that a legislator takes during formal legislative proceedings, such as chairing a committee, debating, making motions, and voting; legislative committee investigations; impeachment proceedings; Enacting and enforcing legislative rules and others. Also, a legislator is “immune” from arrest on his way to, or from a parliamentary proceeding; committee meeting or any other official legislative function(s) or for whatever he said or has done on the floor of the parliament. This is how far the issue of parliamentary immunity goes.
If we take budget padding as criminal, just like forgery, our perspectives may become clearer. Let us agree a little with former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo stated during a visit to the Presidential Villa recently that the emerging revelation on the padding of the 2016 budget goes to confirm his earlier position that lawmakers are “armed robbers and rogues.”
Obasanjo in issuing this opinion is probably speaking from his experience working with the National Assembly for 8 years as president which makes his opinion to be somewhat trustworthy.
As to whether the DSS has the power to investigate the issue, Femi Falana said: “Since the padding of the national budget is a straight forward case of economic crime which is not concerned with the internal security of the nation the SSS should not play into the soiled hands of the criminal suspects in the House of Representatives as they may later turn round to challenge the legal validity of any criminal charge arising from a faulty investigation report.” (The Punch, 31 July, 2016).
While we agree with the Human Right Activist that the question of budget padding is not a security issue so must not involve the DSS, we must be conscious of the key words “economic crime” which Falana used. Since the 1999 Constitution appear to be largely silent on who should “investigate” the National Assembly on matters of this nature not covered by “parliamentary immunity” and if we agree that budget padding is an “economic crime” can the agency responsible for prosecuting “economic crime” the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) then be invited to do its job?
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