Some former state governors may have to return pensions and allowances received after leaving the office. This followed a judgment by a Federal High Court in Lagos ordering the Federal Government to recover pensions collected by former governors who are now serving as ministers and members of the National Assembly.
Justice Oluremi Oguntoyinbo delivered the landmark judgment last week, a certified true copy of which was obtained yesterday.
The ruling was a sequel to an application for an order of mandamus in suit number FHC/L/CS/1497/2017 brought by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
The court also directed the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such payments.
The judge adjourned till February 3, 2020, for hearing on the report of compliance with the court order by the Federal Government.
In defence, the AGF argued that SERAP did not show any injury it suffered as a result of the salaries and allowances given to the former governors. It was contended that SERAP neither constitutes civil servants nor public servants who have any issues with the pension laws for former governors. It was also argued that the suit filed to promote transparency and accountability did not confer locus standi on SERAP.
But the judge said he believed the AGF could “institute action in a court of law to challenge states’ pension laws for former governors.”
She said further: “I do not see any substance in the submissions of counsel to the attorney general on this issue. I, therefore, resolve this issue against the attorney general, in favour of SERAP. On the whole, I find no merit in the attorney general’s preliminary objection. It is accordingly dismissed.”
The affected governors include: Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso (Kano); Kabiru Gaya (Kano); Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom); Theodore Orji (Abia); Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa); Sam Egwu (Ebonyi); Shaaba Lafiagi (Kwara); Joshua Dariye (Plateau), Jonah Jang (Plateau); Ahmed Sani Yerima (Zamfara); Danjuma Goje (Gombe); Bukar Abba Ibrahim (Yobe); Adamu Aliero (Kebbi); George Akume (Benue); and Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers).
Former senate president and governor of Kwara State Bukola Saraki said he stopped collecting the pension after hearing of SERAP’s suit, subsequently inspiring the passage of a bill by the Kwara State House of Assembly to suspend payment to former governors and their deputies.
Saraki had stated at the time: “No, I’m not collecting a pension. The moment I saw that SERAP allegation, I wrote to my state to stop my pension.”
Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, Minister of Labour and Employment Chris Ngige, and Minister of Works and Housing Babatunde Fashola have denied ever receiving payments both as former governors and current holders of public office.
Last month, the Zamfara State House of Assembly abolished the law allowing former governors and their deputies to get pensions and other allowances.
The move came on the heels of a complaint by a former governor, Abdul’aziz Yari, that he had not been receiving his monthly pay.
But a Kano-based lawyer, Mr. Abubakar Sani, noted that the court verdict could fail over lack of jurisdiction. “As welcome as that verdict might be, on morals, if not legal, grounds, it might prove to be short-lived because the Federal High Court, which delivered it, lacks the requisite jurisdiction, under Section 254C(1)(k) of the 1999 Constitution. By virtue of that provision, only the National Industrial Court (NIC) possesses exclusive jurisdiction over issues of pay, emoluments, pensions and the like,” he said.
Similarly, Lagos-based lawyer, Lotanna Dim, said: “The possibility of recovering previously paid pensions is not very feasible.” She nevertheless described the judgment as “landmark.” According to her, it would “serve as an advantage to the economy in terms of saving on the excessive expenses on political officials.”
Commending the ruling, however, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ozekhome, said: “The fresh judgment will sanitise the heavily fouled and putrid political environment. It has opened up new vistas and rejigged the weak moral fabric with which politicians’ garments of public service is sewn.”
He added: “These humongous and heartless severance allowances, pensions, gratuities, prerequisites, salaries, etc., some running into billions of naira, of political office holders and appointees are morally wrong, scandalous and mindboggling.”
Barrister Stephen Azubuike clarified: “I believe the important thing is that the Federal High Court merely ordered the AGF to perform his public duty. The Federal High Court never made any determination squarely on pension matter per se.”
He commended SERAP for pursuing the “worthy cause,” stating: “The interesting thing is that there is now a subsisting court order which the AGF should obey in compliance. The AGF has no reason to do otherwise.”
Another SAN, Olisa Agbakoba, praised the verdict saying: “The judgment is brilliant and should be enforced by seizing the asset shares properties of these men. I suspect the appellants will have a hard time succeeding as the law of pensions is based on a lifetime of work, not limited time.”
On his part, Owerri-based legal practitioner, Mr. Ike Augustine, said by virtue of the provisions of the1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) and a legion of courts’ decisions, every judgment delivered by a court of competent jurisdiction is binding and enforceable on all authorities and persons, unless it is set aside by an appellate court.
“It is indeed a welcome development and a victory to all oppressed Nigerians. We need more of this judicial activism by our courts to help checkmate the annoying ostentatious lifestyle by politicians, while the masses live in abject poverty,” he said.