Can the National Assembly summon private citizens over comments on national issues? Lawyers say no. FOLUSO OGUNMODEDE reports
Lawyers were at the weekend unanimous that the nation’s upper legislative chamber, the Senate, lacks the requisite powers to issue summons on private citizens for exercising their rights to freedom of expression as guarantee by the Constitution no matter how injurious such comments may have had on the second arm of government. At best, the lawyers said the Senate can approach the court for remedy should such comments injured it. Last week, the Senate issued summons on the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN) for allegedly describing senators as “childish and irresponsible”.
The senate had summoned Sagay to appear before its Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions Committee to explain why he allegedly described senators as “childish and irresponsible”. Besides, it asked Sagay to explain why he allegedly said that the Senate is “filled with people of questionable character, who put personal interest ahead of the nation”. According to the Senate, Sagay must name the questionable characters in the Senate.
The resolution followed a motion of privilege by the Senate Deputy Leader, Bala Ibn Na’Allah (Kebbi South), who said that Sagay’s alleged comment had infringed on his integrity, character and privilege as a Senator. Na’Allah said: “There is no dispute to the fact that today, distinguished Senator Na’Allah is a senator. If somebody in the standing of Professor Sagay made this comment, it means this Senate is under obligation to invite Itse Sagay to come and name the questionable people that fill this Senate. It is very important at this stage of our political development; it is very important.
“Let me say with the greatest respect that if due diligence has been done in respect of who the person and personality of Professor Sagay is, I am absolutely sure that he will not have been appointed in that position. “But let me say with due respect that I, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, I am not a person of questionable integrity.
Let me equally say that no senator here is a person of questionable integrity. “For somebody in Itse Sagay’s position to come and call this Senate irresponsible and that we are childish and persons of questionable character, it behooves on this Senate to call upon him to appear before the Ethics and Privileges Committee to say who are of questionable integrity because we came here by name and he should name names and Nigerians are entitled to know and we should know the basis of that. “We will argue about this matter here and there but in conclu-sion, the public will have the benefit of knowing where the irresponsibility lies and I hope I have made my point.”
The Senate, which however, asked its Ethics and Privileges Committee to look into the matter, mandated to give its report in four weeks. “I think this matter will be referred to the committee on Ethics and Privileges and to report back in four weeks,” its President, Senator Bukola Saraki said. But Sagay said the Senate lacked the requisite powers to summon him for expressing an opinion especially a private citizen.
According to the Senior Advocate, the lawmakers were embarking on a ‘futile’ venture with an “embarrassing consequences” should they insist on his appearance before them especially since he did not fall within the category of government officials that such a summon would be issued against. Instead, Sagay said any Senator aggrieved by his comment should seek redress in court as the senate was not a court of law that had powers to summon his appearance.
He said: “I expressed an opinion in the newspaper. It is my constitutional right. Now, they say they are inviting me. I have not got the summons yet, but I am saying that they absolutely have no authority to summon me before them, just as I have no power or authority to summon them before me.
Our powers in that regard on virtual summons are exactly the same. “So, it is a futile exercise. My advice to them is to ask their legal advisers to tell them how limited their powers are under Section 82 to 89 of the 1999 Constitution. Then, they will know that I am far, far outside the category of people they can ever invite. And they would save themselves the embarrassment of the consequences of that futile invitation. “They absolutely have no authority to invite a private citizen who expresses an opinion.
They have been defeated in court so many times for trying to invite people over whom they have no power.So, that is why I said they should just save themselves that embarrassment. They can’t intimate anybody. They can’t stop me from expressing my views which are guaranteed by the Constitution.
“They can’t become a court for me to appear before. Courts are established and I can only appear before a court, not before them.” Sagay’s colleagues also described the senate’s invitation not only as bizarre but a flagrant abuse of power.
For instance, a group– the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) called on the Senate to immediately withdraw ‘the unwarranted and unconstitutional’ summons on Sagay. SERAP in a statement signed by its Executive Director, Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni, said “the Senate’s decision to summon Professor Sagay simply for exercising his right to freedom of expression is arbitrary, a travesty, mala-fide, and cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny.”
SERAP went on: “The Senate is not immune from constitutional control simply because it’s a lawmaking body. In fact, the Senate has neither a special immunity from the operation of the Constitution nor special privilege to invade the constitutionally and internationally guaranteed right to freedom of expression of Professor Sagay or other citizens for that matter.
“The framers of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) would never have contemplated a legislative power without responsibility, and the Senate can’t continue to carry on in a manner that implies its law-making and oversight powers are not open to question.
“Therefore, its powers under the Constitution ought to be exercised reasonably and responsibly, consistent with the fundamental notions of peace, order, good governance and the public interest. “The human rights of Nigerians are secured against not only executive lawlessness but also legislative excesses.
To trample on citizens’ freedom of expression is to thwart the ideals of representative democracy and the rule of law. “The National Assembly is constitutionally empowered to make laws for the peace, order and good governance of Nigeria but recent events in the Senate would seem to stir the public anger.
It seems curious that the Senate will be giving a raw deal to the heads of the two leading anti-corruption bodies in the country—Ibrahim Magu of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Itse Sagay of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption.
“All public institutions and figures are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition. The Senate in particular and the National Assembly as a whole would do well to respect the inherent rights of Nigerians that are so fundamental to our constitutional structure. “Democracy, constitutional supremacy and the rule of law require no less. Indeed, no principle is more basic to any proper system of law than the maintenance of the rule of law itself.”
A Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Seyi Sowemimo said the Senate will be acting beyond its powers if it insisted that a private citizen who had expressed his or her view on a national issue must appear before it. Sowemimo said: “They can only summon somebody if it has to do with their investigations in the course of passing a law that is connected with their oversight functions. “But, I don’t agree with their invitation to Prof. Sagay simply for expressing his opinion on an issue.
Freedom of speech is one of the rights enshrined in the Constitution. “They should not be worried about any comment if they know they are doing a good job. The way the whole thing is going, it seems the Senate is becoming excessively sensitive to criticism.”
To a Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Monday Ubani, it was beyond the Senators’ power to invite a private citizen for expressing an opinion or the other about them. He said: “I don’t think it lies within the Senate’s power to summon private citizens for expressing one opinion or the other about them.
“What policy have they enacted to warrant summoning a private citizen? Have they appropriated any money to Prof. Sagay’s office that they now want him to explain how it was spent? “The man was only expressing his opinion and if they feel that he has committed any crime in the freedom of that expression, they should either report him to the police or file a civil action on defamation against him. “The Senate does not exist for the prosecution of people.
It is the judiciary that can actually determine the rights and liability of any individual. “The power given to the Senate is to appropriate money to agencies of government and where those agencies have erred, they can invite them to come and give answers to some of the issues. “That is part of their oversight functions and I don’t think this extends to inviting private citizens for questioning.”
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