Between A Citizen’s Rights And A Legislator’s Privileges
By Abdullahi Usman
Wikipedia defines a privilege as “a certain entitlement to immunity granted by the state or another authority to a restricted group, either by birth or on a conditional basis. These can be revoked in certain circumstances. In modern democratic states, a privilege is conditional and granted only after birth. By contrast, a right is an inherent, irrevocable entitlement held by all citizens or all human beings from the moment of birth”.
On its own part, Dictionary.com defines privilege, amongst others, as a prerogative, and it refers to “a special advantage or right possessed by an individual or group. A privilege is a right or advantage gained by birth, social position, effort, or concession. It can have either legal or personal sanction: the privilege of paying half fare; the privilege of calling whenever one wishes. Prerogative refers to an exclusive right claimed and granted, often officially or legally, on the basis of social status, heritage, sex, etc.”
It also, amongst others, describes it as “an advantage or source of pleasure granted to a person”. Rights, as a noun, on the other hand, is “that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc”
The above preamble becomes very necessary on account of the growing penchant by our elected legislators, especially those among them that occupy the hallowed Red Chamber, to shout themselves hoarse by pleading abuse of their privileges, in response to any legitimate inquiry, or questions being asked of them, regarding certain conduct on the part of one or more of them, or the entire group, as a collective.
This range from situations involving the normal police investigations into certain criminal activities in which the names of some of their members may have featured prominently, or those pertaining to some very peculiar, but well known illegal activities that some of them may have been engaged in, in the course of the normal discharge of their constitutionally assigned responsibilities.
A case in point is the recent uproar generated in both the red and green chambers, in response to two major revelations or disclosures that happened in the course of the past one week or thereabouts. One of such is the disclosure by a former Minister of Finance in a recently published book titled, “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous “, that a certain curious concession of a whopping N17b had to be traded by the previous government in favour of the 7th NASS, in order to facilitate the smooth passage of the 2015 budget.
In another startling revelation made at the recently organised 2018 Democracy Day Lecture that took place at the International Conference Centre, the NASS was also openly accused of extorting huge sums of money from heads of government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), via their respective Committee heads, for the sole purpose of facilitating the passage of their respective budgets. This is in addition to the huge salaries and allowances accruing to the legislators, which many people are still openly complaining about, and clamouring for their reduction. Failure to comply on the part of the MDAs may result into significant delays in the passage of their budgets.
A case in point is the current situation in which the 8th NASS is openly being accused in some quarters of willingly sitting on the 2018 budget for more than 6 to 7 months now, and still counting, with many people rightly or wrongly attributing this rather unusual delay to the failure or outright refusal of the current government to play ball, in the same manner that the former Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the Economy had outlined in her latest book above.
What I consider most baffling in all of this, is the fact that rather than taking these high profile accusations as a wake up call and an immediate call to action in order to check themselves, with a view to cleaning the augean stable and doing away with this kind of strange and questionable behaviour on the part of their membership, they often prefer to play the ostrich by hiding behind the safe confines of their hallowed chambers and screaming to the rooftops about a certain brand of unexplained abuse of their unique privileges as our elected representatives.
In most cases, the next step they usually take is that the people raising these queries often get summoned to the chambers essentially to be ridiculed, rather than addressing the main substance of the issues being raised by them.
This is by no means the most appropriate approach to adopt towards salvaging whatever is left of their collective integrity, and also calls to serious question the propriety of such an attitude, especially considering the rights of the citizens to effective representation, honesty and fair dealings by their elected representatives; a significant part of which involves the speedy and timely passage of annual budgets, in order to facilitate the smooth running of government and it’s programme.
Part of this fair dealing also includes the prompt, efficient and effective discharge of their assigned legislative funtions and responsibilities, without making additional pecuniary demands, over and above their legitimate earnings.
Which then takes us back to this very important question that needs to be promptly resolved: what is preeminent, between the rights of the citizens and the privileges of a legislator? In other words, which one transcends the other?
Parliamentary privileges should not be allowed to be sweeping or ubiquitous in nature, lest they become a very dangerous tool in the hands of our elected representatives, to be universally applied by them against us, as they deem fit.
As a learned Indian Professor of Law and Vice – Chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hydrabad, Faizan Mustafa, rightly posited, we must all be worried by the existing state of affairs in which “our legislators (appear to) have the power to be the sole judges to decide what their privileges are, what constitutes their breach, and what punishment is to be awarded in case of breach”.
We must actively and collectively push for the urgent need to codify their privileges, while granting primacy to a citizen’s rights to free speech and other basic fundamental rights over legislative privileges, especially considering the fact that these legislators are essentially our servants, as our elected representatives.