By JOSEPH ERUNKE
A conducive atmosphere is in the horizon for workers as the Senate prepares a law to check the excesses of corporate organizations in their dealings with their workers.
IT was a bill that exposed all the lawyers in the senate following the Senate President’s position that it was filled with legal technicalities, hence only lawyer-senators could speak on it.
This development threw a challenge as some senators who were hitherto, not known in the legal field, protested for not being given recognition to speak even as they took time to state when they were variously called to the bar.
The bill titled: “A Bill for an Act to create the Offence of Corporate Manslaughter and Matters Incidental therein, 2013, sponsored by Senator Pius Ewherido, DPP, Delta Central, seeks to create offences of corporate manslaughter to make corporate bodies, entities and agencies culpable for wilful acts of negligence, dereliction of duty and or gross incompetence that result in death of a person or persons.
The bill proposed a fine of not less than N500,000 and not more than N500 million for any organisation found guilty of corporate manslaughter just as it provides that a person convicted under it would be liable to a minimum of three years and maximum of seven-year prison terms with an option of fine from N100,000 to N1 million respectively.
In his lead presentation, Ewherido had told the Senate that he carried out an indebt research and came out with the bill following the Dana Air crash of June 3rd, 2012, at Iju, Ishaga, Lagos State where he noted that in spite of reported advice from the technical crew that the ill-fated MD-83 aircraft in its fleet was not safe for the flight, the management of Dana Air insisted on its flight.
He regretted that after the crash that claimed over 160 lives, the airline was not punished for what he alleged to be its criminal negligence apart from the compensation to individual victims.
According to the lawmaker, the provisions of the bill fall within the definition of killing in Section 308 of the Criminal Code of Nigeria but that the provisions of Sections 316 and 317, which create the offences of murder and manslaughter relevant to Section 308 only addressed one arm of the definition of killing.
Ewherido said while Section 308 emphasised that killing could be brought about by either direct or indirect means, Sections 316 and 317 nevertheless in their ingredients, failed to cover activities of persons who indirectly and or remotely caused the death of another person, saying such was the lacuna the bill sought to fill.
The legislator cited the case of the United Kingdom and Hong Kong which he said, had both enacted similar laws to check the abuses of corporate entities in their operations.
But no longer had he finished his presentation than the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, PDP, Enugu West, stood up to lead an onslaught against the bill. Even as he praised Ewherido’s ingenuity in coming up with the bill, Ekweremadu however, said in terms of content, he had not seen the corporate manslaughter laws of the two countries referred to by the lawmaker.
Ekweremadu described the bill as merely hypothetical, adding that given the level of the country’s development; the bill was, at best, meant for the future.
Senators Umaru Dahiru, PDP, Sokoto South, Joshua Lidani, PDP, Gombe South, Paulinus Igwe, PDP, Ebonyi Central and Heineken Lokpobiri, PDP, Bayelsa West, all rose behind Ekweremadu’s position.
Defending the bill: In his defence of the bill, Senator Solomon Ewuga, CPC, Nasarawa Central, supported the bill. He regretted that “corporate responsibility” was currently excluded in the country’s laws, saying the time had come for the laws to be proactive.
Ewuga cited the issue of electronic evidence, now being accepted in other jurisprudence in criminal evidence, adding that the time had come for Nigerian laws to be proactive in nature. He disagreed with Ekweremadu that the bill was for the future and urged his colleagues to support the bill.
Debate: After a heated debate, the Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, PDP, Cross River Central, provided a leeway with his prayer that the bill be subjected to a public hearing because of its far-reaching implication on the nation’s criminal jurisprudence, a prayer that was subsequently adopted.
It therefore passed a second reading and was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, for more legislative input, with a four weeks’ mandate to submit its report. Incidentally, as chairman of committee, Senator Umaru Dahiru, one of the visible opponents of the bill, was saddled with the responsibility of the public hearing!
In his remark before the Senate position, Senate President, David Mark who had presided over the plenary, said he deliberately limited the debate to senators who were lawyers because of the technicality of the bill.
Expectedly, given the circumstances that necessitated the initiation of the bill, it received wide support by stakeholders at a one-day public hearing held at the National Assembly on Monday, 22nd April, 2013 even as major stakeholders like judges, Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Adoke, Inspector General of Police, IG, Mohammed Abubakar, Ministry of Aviation and various bodies in the aviation industry, invited to the event stayed away without sending representatives.
Criminal and penal codes
At the event which was held in Senate Committee Room 022, the sponsor of the bill, Senator Pius Ewherido, in his welcome address, emphasised that the bill sought to fill such lacuna in criminal and penal codes, repeating how he was touched by alleged reports that the technical crew of Dana Airline reported that the ill-fated MD83 aircraft was not airworthy, but was yet compel to fly by the management.
While declaring the public hearing open, Senate President, David Mark, who was represented by the Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, described the move to create punishment for corporate manslaughter as a noble idea that must be accorded due attention.
All the people who spoke at the event threw their weight behind the bill, lamenting that the instance of Dana Air which led to gruesome destruction of human lives was hitherto not punished, adding that passing the bill into law would serve as a deterrent to organisations which treat human lives with levity.
Some other stakeholders at the public hearing canvassed the need to extend the scope of the bill to include punishment for negligence which culminates in severe injury that render some people paralysed as well as other forms of incapacity.
NBA kicks: In its submission, at the public hearing held at the instance of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, faulted some sections of the bill which it noted, only spelt out punishment for culprits on conviction. It criticised the award of only N500, 000 or imprisonment terms of between three and five years for companies or individuals found guilty of such offence.
Review of punishment
The Nigeria Bar Association which was represented by Paul Erokoro, SAN, therefore called for a review of the punishment recommended in the bill for persons and organisations found guilty of corporate manslaughter, saying severe punishment was necessary so as to hold companies accountable for deaths caused by negligence, dereliction of duty and incompetence.
He reasoned that if mere bribe-for-contract scandal could attract such a huge fine, it would be ridiculous to impose only a paltry sum of N500, 000 on those whose acts of negligence cut off human lives in their prime ages.
He also advised the committee not to put a limit mark on the number of years that those convicted would be sentenced to, but should rather be left to the court to determine in accordance with the level of severity of such negligence.
In its position at the public hearing also, the Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC, called for the bill to also cover the interest of several Nigerians who lose their lives on the roads as a result of negligence on the part of drivers or transport organisations and wanted the scope extended to the road.
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