The Senator representing Anambra Central Senatorial District, Victor Umeh, advocates immunity for heads of the legislature, among other issues, in this interview with TONY OKAFOR
What is your impression of the rift between the Presidency and the National Assembly?
I think what is going on now between the Presidency and National Assembly is very unfortunate. It is a clear case of some people not coming to terms with the constitutional powers conferred on the various organs of government. The National Assembly is expected to carry out oversight functions on the executive. However, in a situation whereby the executive arm of government begins to trample on the rights of the legislature there is bound to be conflict and that is what we have seen so far.
The Senate President has been linked to the Offa robbery. What is your take on that?
The situation we have found in Nigeria presently is very unfortunate. The National Assembly can wield a very big stick in dealing with the attitude of the executive towards it. One is that the National Assembly can refuse to approve anything that needs approval by the President no matter what it is and if it fails to approve those things, the executive cannot be in place and cannot function. But, we know that when two elephants fight, the grass will suffer but we don’t want Nigerians to suffer. There was a time the National Assembly protested the denigration of its authority by the Presidency and resolved not to entertain any request from the President and it got to a stage that the executive directors, members of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank of Nigeria retired and needed to be replaced. The President sent a request for their replacement and the Senate had to bend backwards and considered the nominees and approved them. The National Assembly can shut down the executive arm of government but with maturity and patriotic disposition, we continue to tolerate the excessive intimidation by the executive. That does not mean that we are weak or helpless. It is just that we put Nigeria’s interest first in all we do. If the President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki, takes what he is subjected to, to be the basis for dealing with the Presidency, the National Assembly would have been incited into taken an action that will be very regrettable along the line.
Are you saying he doesn’t deserved to be prosecuted for wrong doings?
He has been undergoing trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal and of recent, they implicated him in the Offa bank robbery saga, dragging his name in the mud. Each time we meet at the executive session, we feel so sad about the development but then, what do we do? We have to think about Nigeria and our country, not about the President or the Presidency. There has been a consistent and sustained attack on the National Assembly, particularly the Senate. We have looked at it and we know that these things could be traced to the constitution we are operating. This present constitution, the 1999 constitution, was written for one individual – General Sani Abacha. The military ruler wanted a constitution with which he will govern Nigeria as a civilian President. He was gearing towards changing from a military President to a civilian President and he made a constitution that will make him the overlord. The people who wrote the constitution gave so much powers to the executive and weakened the legislative arm of government. In Section 30 of the constitution, the President and the Vice President are covered by immunity from prosecution against any form of crime. But in criminal and civil proceedings, you can’t bring a charge against a governor or deputy governor and the head of the legislature or the presiding officers of the legislature are not covered by any form of immunity. In other words, they can be prosecuted for any criminal allegation and so on. We believe that there should be balance of privileges in the constitution. The constitution that creates the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, envisaged that they have to be independent of one another and should enjoy equal protection under the law. The privileges ought to be equal. A situation, whereby you leave the entire National Assembly to the whims and caprices of the President, makes the NASS to be weak in the discharge of its functions. And that is what is playing out now. If Abacha were to be president, he may wake up and arrest all the members of the National Assembly and put them in jail. He could do that as a commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces – he controls all the police, the DSS, the Army. Anybody he wants to deal with he could deal with. But here we are because of this vulnerability of law makers they can be rattled.
I have argued in the Senate that for there to be balance in the discharge of our functions, the Senate President, the deputy senate president, the speaker of the House of Reps, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Reps, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Speaker of various houses of Assemblies and their deputies should have immunity because the sole reason for Section 308 is to prevent distraction of the chief executives so that you don’t drag them to court every now and then. The President of the Senate of Nigeria is the most distracted person today because it is either he is going to court of code of conduct or the other court. That is the major challenge and I believe the constitution must be amended to balance the privileges of these arms. When that is done, the insult of the President of the Senate implicated in a bank robbery will stop.
What is your reaction to your photograph on the social media suggesting that you are sleeping Senator? What really happened?
I think those who did not believe I will go to the Senate, those who swore that I can never go to the Senate, plotted that evil. Immediately I got to the Senate, they sponsored a propaganda and put a still picture of myself where I was holding a paper reading it with my head bent and they took a still photograph and say my people have made a mistake of sending a lion like me to the Senate. I laughed at it and that has been sufficiently debunked because motion pictures from television show that by the time the photograph was taken, I was flipping through some papers. It never indicated I was asleep. The person who was making contributions at that time showed I was alive to my duty. But that has been debunked. I never slept in the Senate at any time; it is the activity of those who have not come to the reality that Victor Umeh is a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So, that has failed, that propaganda has failed and it never took place.
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