- Post 24 December 2008
- Last Updated on 24 December 2008
- By Moses Ebe Ochonu
President Yar’Adua recently called for the removal of the immunity clause from the constitution as part of the proposed constitutional review. This was not a bold presidential intervention. It was a lame attempt to score a populist rhetorical punch. It merely recycled the facile—not to mention escapist—understanding that attributes official corruption to the immunity conferred on some public officers by the constitution. It was a convenient exculpatory alibi for a man whose government is plagued by inaction and corruption—both authorized by the growing appearance of a power void in Aso Rock.
Yar’Adua’s perspective obviously misses the dual immunity system that currently operates to shield corrupt but subservient public officers from legal recompense. Constitutional immunity is at best an operational subordinate in this system of impunity. There is a more sinister, corruption-sustaining element at work. It is, for lack of a more expressive term, called politics as usual.
It is not exactly surprising that Yar’Adua endorsed this superficial rendering of the immunity phenomenon. Here is a man whose very ascendance to the presidency is a subject of never-ending legitimate questions. And whose administration is remarkable for its lack of administrative character or operational identity. Yar’Adua’s immunity clause declaration was a seminal effort to grapple with the legend of his administration’s incompetence—and the rampant whispers about its inexplicable hospitality to corrupt politicians of the Obasanjo regime. It was an attempt to confront this entrenched public perception by opportunistically endorsing a misplaced but popular rhetoric of anti-corruption. It failed precisely because Yar’Adua is a poor messenger for a noble, if over-sensationalized, effort to nix the immunity provision of the constitution.
Like Yar’Adua, most Nigerians are opposed to the constitutional immunity clause. Their reason is however different. Most of them genuinely desire a country in which larcenous federal and state executives and their deputies are stripped of a constitutional license to steal and oppress. Their naivety is to assume that the removal of the immunity clause would be a fatal strike against sleaze. And to ignore the impunity and swagger being displayed by non-constitutionally immunized public officers who walk secure in the assurance that prosecution and restitution would not be their fate.
When Yar’Adua and other government officials hop on the immunity clause bandwagon, their motive should be scrutinized and their convenient declarations juxtaposed against the political biography of officials who exited the constitutional immunity system only to sneak into another type of immunity—the one secured through unquestioning allegiance to the government of the day. The one lubricated by generous contributions of money and muscle to the ruling political oligarchy. Yar’Adua and his rhetorical kin should be made to explain why Nigerians should disregard the persistence of political arrangements that not only confer immunity but enforce it with the might of the state and the power of the presidency.
Then there is the small footnote about track records and credibility. Yar’Adua’s presidential track record violates the spirit of his newfound rage against the immunity clause. The most potent mechanism for communicating such angst is to burn with zealous investigative and prosecutorial fervor at the loss of constitutional immunity by its most visible and notorious beneficiaries—governors. Have we seen any such angst or haste to bring justice and reckoning to the immunity clause’s most arrogant beneficiaries? Quite the contrary. Yar’Adua’s coziness with ethically vulnerable and constitutionally unimmunized former governors is the stuff of charged conversations in the vibrant, multi-media Nigerian public sphere.
With such a track record, Yar’Adua’s pontification on the immunity clause has a shallow and depressingly familiar ring to it. And the script is frighteningly reminiscent of our recent political experiences. The narrative comes from a dubious line of opportunistic articulations by ethically embattled Nigerian leaders desperate for a new public persona. Mr. Obasanjo similarly railed against the immunity clause even as he inscribed corruption and anti-corruption as legitimate political weapons. For good measure, he tormented a few corrupt but politically expendable individuals to consolidate any populist gains his hypocritical anti-corruption rhetoric may have garnered with impressionable Nigerians.
Yar’Adua’s curious but understandable excursion into the realm of contradictory rhetoric must be situated in the deceptive antics of his political mentor, and in the imitative sameness of this government’s anti-corruption operations.
To be sure, the immunity clause has no business being in the Nigerian constitution. It is a burden and luxury we can ill afford at this juncture in our political evolution. But that consensus is so self-sustaining it requires no presidential ascent. Using presidential political capital to bring about the removal of the immunity clause is the political equivalent of swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. Presidential power can be put to more productive use and should not be squandered on doing the inevitable, or on articulating the obvious. It was already understood that the removal of the immunity clause would top the menu of the constitutional review exercise. This is why the presidential hysteria on the immunity clause is suspect at best. It betrays an attempt to deflect emphasis from an infinitely more devastating prop for corruption: lack of political will to fight it.
A few years ago, during the Obasanjo years of anti-corruption noise-making, when calls for the removal of the immunity clause swept through the nation and corrupt and corruption-hugging politicians found in it a convenient alibi for justifying their inaction against (and active promotion of) corruption, my good friend and London-based Nigerian activist, Kennedy Emetulu, wrote a perceptive—and now prophetic—essay that intervened critically in that debate. In it, Emetulu, contrary to the immunity-clause-is-the-problem consensus, contended that the lack of political will to fight corruption was the most potent enabler of corruption in Nigeria, not the presence of the immunity clause in the constitution.
This was before the political immunity granted to ex-governors and their open embrace by Obasanjo and now Yar'Adua illustrated the academism of the immunity clause debate. Kennedy saw ahead of the curve; ahead of people like me, who gave him some grief for his counter-intuitive, against-the-grain intervention. Every time some do-nothing, corruption-nurturing politician invokes the immunity clause as the foundation of public corruption in Nigeria, I recall Emetulu's piece and shake my head in dismissive derision. All I have to do to reinstate Emetulu's logic is to survey the political landscape for the tens of ex-governors, ex-ministers, ex-Speakers, and ex-many other things who continue to walk free despite having been charged with high corruption crimes.
Every time someone brings up the immunity clause bogeyman, our answer as a vigilant, skeptical citizenry ought to be a list of names that rubbishes it: Orji Kalu, Igbinedion, Ibori, Odili, Iyabo Obasanjo, Etteh, Bankole, Bode George, Anenih, Akume, Yerima, Nnamani, Nyame, Dariye, Julius Makanjuola (Obasanjo's cousin), Tinubu, Ladoja, Abubakar Audu, etc, etc, etc.
What these individuals have in common is a type of immunity that is more immunizing against investigation and prosecution than the fabled constitutional immunity clause. They all have political immunity. It is granted by Aso Rock in exchange for supporting its primary occupant. It kicks in at precisely the moment when a subject loses his immunity. It also takes the place of constitutional immunity where an Aso Rock-favored politician lacks it.
Let’s hear Yar’Adua’s position on political immunity and the mortal threat it poses to anti-corruption in Nigeria. Let’s hear his righteous outrage on how the political utility of political immunity has made the debate on constitutional immunity passé. Making occasional declarations in support of the widespread public angst against the constitutional immunity clause is not going to cut it.