by Adeola Balogun
According to reports, the Federal Government is set to ensure the loyalty of the nation’s legislators by withdrawing diplomatic passports issued to all members of the National Assembly – 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives.
The exercise tagged as a “review” by the Presidency has authorized the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) to scrutinize the diplomatic passports of the legislators in a move which sources say, is an attempt to “whip Senators and Representatives” into line and secure their loyalty.
Following the eruption of the crisis in the ruling party, the Federal Government has reportedly been uncomfortable with the romance between the ‘New PDP’ faction led by one-time Acting National Chairman, Abubakar Kawu Baraje and the opposition in the National Assembly.
Besides the disruption last week of the visit of Group of Seven (G-7) governors and Baraje faction to the National Assembly, as well as the sacking of the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senator Joy Emordi, the ongoing review of the diplomatic passports is said to be part of a crackdown on the ‘disloyal’ members of the National Assembly.
The present exclusive travel document carried by the lawmakers is a product of an executive memo issued by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2008 directing the NIS to grant members of the National Assembly diplomatic passports. The passports were, however, to be automatically withdrawn after the tenure of the holders in the National Assembly.
Although the NIS had always been finding it difficult to retrieve the diplomatic passports from former members of the Assembly, the privilege had been “major bait” being used by the Executive to stabilise its relationship with the lawmakers.
Sources within the administration told The Nation on Sunday that the Presidency was uncomfortable with what they referred to as the “treacherous attitude” of certain members of the National Assembly – particularly those who have openly pitched their tent with ‘New PDP’.
Some principal officers of the National Assembly have been informed of plans to review the diplomatic passports of members. “I am aware that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal and some principal officers have been informally notified,” one lawmaker who craved anonymity said.
A few members of the House who were shocked at the turn of events believe government was hiding under the supposedly wholesale review to target anti-presidency lawmakers.
“We learnt the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Nigeria Immigration Service have been put on notice over plans to review issuance of diplomatic passports”, the source said. “It is an issue we are going to discuss at the Executive Session after we have returned from our one week oversight function.
“Since we started using diplomatic passports, the National Assembly has not recorded any case of abuse. We don’t know why the Presidency is trying to score political points with this.”
A senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who spoke in confidence, however, denied knowledge of the development. “It may interest you to know that our ministry has nothing to do with the issuance of diplomatic passport. In fact, if I want a diplomatic passport, my ministry would have to write the Nigeria Immigration Service to issue it to me.
“Do leave this ministry out of this issue; we have no role to play,” he said.
At the Immigration office a senior official who promised to clarify the matter by Monday morning, however, raised question as to the propriety of issuing the special travel documents to the legislators in the first place.
“Are members of the National Assembly entitled to diplomatic passports at all?” he asked. “Go and look at the convention guiding the issuance of diplomatic passports all over the world. The truth is, members of the National Assembly do not belong to the category of people that should carry diplomatic passport.
“It is only in Nigeria we have this kind of nonsense. People want immunity for notorious reasons. I know some big men go about with diplomatic passports. When I was working at the airport, I was shocked when I saw a rogue with one. We should learn to do things in line with international best practices.”
Another Immigration officer said: “We have our records showing that the Premier of the defunct Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Premier of the former Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello (the Sardauna of Sokoto) and the Premier of the defunct Eastern Region, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, did not use diplomatic passports while in office. Are any of these lawmakers in the class of these great leaders?”
A brief obtained on issuance of diplomatic passports reads in part: “Diplomatic passports are official documents normally given to professional diplomats and ambassadors by their governments, to facilitate their work when they are on posting to foreign countries. Its issuance is governed by rules under the 1815 Congress of Vienna that formalised the exchange of diplomatic agents among states.
“These rules are very restrictive and limit the issuance of diplomatic passports only to professional diplomats who are the personal representatives of their heads of state. Those to whom such passports are given are assumed to be persons of undoubted character and integrity.”