OrderPaperToday – The National Assembly has commenced moves to amend the constitution to criminalize contempt of the legislature. And this could cost N500,000 or two years in jail or both for defaulters should the move sail through.

Parliamentary immunity…

By virtue of the law, a member of the National Assembly cannot be arrested in the chamber of the National Assembly or anywhere within the precincts of the legislative House. The powers and privileges act (2017) gives them this immunity and many more.

According to the explanatory memorandum of the act, it is to give “the legislature the desired powers and immunity to be able to carry out its duties.” However, there is a provision in the act that is perhaps more important to the House than any other thing and this relates to contempt of the National Assembly.

Enormous powers…

The National Assembly has enormous powers in terms of lawmaking, oversight and appropriation. Section 80 of the 1999 Constitution, for instance, explicitly stipulates that no money shall be withdrawn from the consolidated revenue fund or any or any other public fund without approval of the National Assembly. Section 88 of the Constitution also gives the parliament powers of oversight on any matter it has powers to make laws over. In fact, section 88 (1b) states that the national assembly through resolution can direct investigations into “the conduct of the affairs of any person, authority, ministry, or government department.”

On summons…

To carry out an investigation, section 89 (1c) gives either the Senate or the House or its committees the powers to summon anyone, and to even issue a warrant to compel the attendance of anyone who fails to honour the summon. The section also made provision for fines by the National Assembly and can “issue a warrant to compel the attendance of any person who, after having been summoned to attend, fails, refuses or neglects to do so and does not excuse such failure, refusal or neglect to the satisfaction of the House or the committee in question, and order him to pay all costs which may have been occasioned in compelling his attendance or by reason of his failure, refusal or neglect to obey the summons, and also to impose such fine as may be prescribed for any such failure, refusal or neglect; and any fine so imposed shall be recoverable in the same manner as a fine imposed by a court of law.”

It is important to note that the section did not fix a specific fine but rather says the cost of enforcing the summon will be treated as a fine. It is also not a criminal affair and there is no option of jail for defaulters. However, enforcing this section has been tasking, particularly with respect to top political appointees like ministers, some of whom wantonly disobey summons of the National Assembly. Earlier this year, the Speaker of the House of Representatives had reason to caution the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama over repeated defaults in this regard.

Fines and jail terms…

It is this defect that the Powers and privileges act of 2017 was intended to cure as it contains provisions for sanctions against the contempt of the National Assembly. Section 14(3) prescribes a fine of N500,000 or 24 months in jail or both for anyone convicted of contempt of the National Assembly. “Where a person who commits a contempt of the legislative house, under this subsection 12 of this act is liable on conviction to a fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for a term of two years or both,” it says.

The challenge, however, is that this section is not consistent with Section 89(1c) of the Constitution. Thus, for the act to be effected, the constitution has to be amended. On Wednesday last week, the House of Representatives began the move to amend this section via a constitution amendment bill. The bill is seeking to delete 89(1c) and replace it with the following: “To issue a warrant to compel the attendance of any person who after having been summoned to attend, fails, refuses or neglects to the satisfaction of the legislative house or the committee in question.”

Beyond the amendment, the lawmakers went on to create a new section 89 (1d) which reads: “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this constitution, any person who after having summoned to attend, fails, refuses, or neglects to do so and does not excuse such failure, refusal or neglect to the satisfaction of the legislative house or committee in question, commits an offence and his liable on conviction to such punishment as shall be prescribed by act of the National Assembly.” The bill sponsored by Femi Gbajabiamila scaled second reading on the floor of the House and has been referred to committee on constitution amendment for further legislative alteration.

The rationale…

According to a legislative brief on the bill, the import is to among others, “give constitutional seal to the already passed provisions for Contempt of Parliament in the Legislative Houses powers and Privileges Bill; to demonstrate the degree of importance and seriousness attached to protecting the sanctity of Parliament and stopping the issue of contempt/disrespect of the Legislature; to criminalize the failure, refusal or neglect of summons of the Parliament; and places a criminal burden on anyone who elects to dishonour the invitation from parliament.”

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