Last week, the Delta State House of Assembly, in an attempt to assert itself and prove that the house was not a rubber stamp for the executive, overrode Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, who had earlier withheld his assent to the bill prescribing death penalty for kidnappers in the state.
At the sitting last week, 26 of the 29 members of the assembly voted to override the governor, which has automatically made the bill a law. The lawmakers predicated their actions on Section 100 sub-section 5 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which gives them the power to override the governor.
After passing the bill into law, Speaker of the Assembly, Hon. Victor Ochei, directed the Clerk of the House, Mrs. Lyna Ocholor, to urgently enroll the law into the state judiciary as it has become a law of Delta State with effect from Wednesday, April 17, 2013. The bill, known as “Law to Prohibit Terrorism, Kidnapping, Hostage-taking, Cultism, Use of Bombs and Explosives and Other Matters thereto”, was unanimously passed by the 28 members of the assembly late last year. The bill was initially passed in 2009 but the governor refused to assent to it.
Also, under the bill, any traditional ruler in the state in whose domain hostages are held will be deposed or his kingship withdrawn. Also, a telecommunications company, which refuses to make available to security agencies, within 24 hours of request, information on the communication made by a suspected kidnapper or terrorist, will pay a fine of N20 million for every request not granted.
Other highlights of the bill are that the governor or his authorised representative shall have power to sign an order sealing up premises used to harbour persons kidnapped or held hostage, with or without the demand of ransom. The bill further states that the sealing of the premises shall remain in place until a competent court decides on the forfeiture.
It is an offence under the Act, for a person, who, not being a member of the armed forces, unlawfully receives or has in his possession, bombs and other explosives with intent to cause harm. Such a person is liable, on conviction, to 14 years imprisonment. The same goes for those that manufacture the explosives. It also forbids a person or group of persons from threatening the life of anybody through letters, phone calls or other electronic methods and gadgets, as any person found guilty is liable, upon conviction, to 14 years imprisonment.
For person in authority who receives information on operations of kidnappers and terrorists and fails to take proper action, he is liable on conviction to three years imprisonment. Community ruling organs including executives of town, trust members and youth leaders in whose domain people are held hostage with their knowledge are also liable on conviction to be jailed for five years without option of fine. Besides, those who aid and assist kidnappers to escape will be sentenced to 21 years imprisonment on conviction.
To many people in the state, when the governor refused to assent to the bill the second time, it was just a case of who would blink first between him and the lawmakers.
Citing reasons why the assembly decided to veto the bill, the Speaker said the legislature considered the harsh and wicked activities of kidnappers and other terrorist acts too overwhelming to Deltans. “The House of Assembly in its judgment considered the harsh and wicked activities of kidnappers and other terrorist acts too overwhelming to Deltans,” he said.
Ironically, both members of the executive and the legislature had either directly or indirectly fallen victims of kidnapping in the state and therefore concluded that one of the ways to tame the growing menace was to veto the bill.
Such excuses notwithstanding, Uduaghan disagreed. In a letter to the assembly on why he refused to assent to the bill, the governor said from experience, death sentence had never reduced crime.
“I have in the last one year studied reports on these crimes and what I find is that in most of the kidnap cases, the offence of armed robbery is disclosed. Suspects are therefore charged for both offences. The death sentence for armed robbery has not deterred criminally-minded persons from engaging in the crime and fixing the same death penalty for kidnapping in the bill is not likely to achieve that desired purpose.
“There is the current world-wide campaign calling for the abolition of death sentence from the law books and this campaign has been taken up by the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies among several agencies,” Uduaghan said in his letter.
Beside, Uduaghan, argued that there was already a death penalty in the state law and that the state did not need another law that would amount to duplication.
“Every kidnapper is an armed robber. So, I don’t know why we are talking today of death penalty for kidnappers. Why do I have to sign another law for kidnappers? So, why this unnecessary debate about Uduaghan not agreeing to sign the death penalty for kidnappers and all that?” he said.
He, therefore, condemned the bill saying death penalty had never staved off the perpetuation of capital crimes since it was introduced in the statute books, but that death sentence makes criminals more desperate, adding that a life sentence would have been better.
According to him, statistics had also shown that incidents of kidnapping are more pronounced in some neighbouring states where the same laws were in place and that it pales into insignificance when compared with the spate of killings and sectarian strife in some parts of the country.
Indeed, many analysts agreed with the governor to an extent because experience is believed to have shown that enacting laws was not the problem in the country but enforcement as well as securing conviction at the law courts. But in a country with weak enforcement and poor justice system, observers are sceptical on how the Delta assembly would succeed with its bill.
In about seven states where the bill against kidnapping has been signed into law, there has not been a case of one person arrested, arraigned and tried for kidnapping. And in spite of such a law, instances of kidnapping and other forms abductions have continued unabated.
Unfortunately, since the law was vetoed by Delta assembly, all is said not to have been well between the executive and the legislature. No matter how the two arms of government had tried to play it down, observers see evidence of crack between the two.
Until the development, the assembly was known to always tag along with the executive on practically everything. The governor, sources say, always invites the lawmakers to dine and wine with him at the Government House as a way of ensuring their loyalty at all times.
But the executive has denied any instance of disagreement between it and the legislature. Information Commissioner in Delta, Mr. Chike Ogeah, said in a statement that “As an independent arm of government, the house was well within its rights in the exercise of its legislative functions in taking its decision. It must be pointed out here that the house’s decision does not in any way portend a strain in the relationship between the governor and the lawmakers. Far from it, both arms have enjoyed and continue to enjoy warm and cordial relations.”
On the contrary, he said the development was the outcome of the principled stance of the governor against the prescription of death penalty for convicted kidnappers in the state. “In his letter to the house explaining his decision to withhold assent to the bill, the governor had noted that death penalty for armed robbery in existing laws has not deterred criminally minded persons from engaging in the crime.”
Therefore, fixing the same death penalty for kidnapping in the bill was not likely to achieve that desired purpose. “There is no incident of kidnapping that does not involve the charge of violent crime, including armed robbery and use of dangerous weapons in prosecuting suspects. In effect, existing statutes provide enough grounds for charges of armed robbery which attracts the death penalty should the law enforcement agents so desire.”
The commissioner noted that Uduaghan, as a true democrat, respects the decision taken by the Assembly which was done in exercise of its constitutional powers and will continue to collaborate with the lawmakers in curbing the scourge of kidnapping and other violent crimes in the state.
Whilst an obviously fulfilled assembly has refused to be drawn out on the matter, analysts believe it does not require a soothsayer to know that the development may have created a hard feeling between the executive and the legislature. But how far they would suppress the obvious disagreement in order not to be seen as rocking the boat is yet to be seen.