By Joseph Ushigiale
Few months ago, in the milieu of the RUGA controversy that embroiled the entire country, a landmark judgment almost passed unnoticed. The Court of Appeal headed by Justice Emmanuel Agim, had faulted the payment of either severance allowance, pension or gratuity to political office holders and political appointees, insisting that the practice was morally wrong.
Kogi state government in a suit marked: CA/A/810/2017 filed by the Governor and three others had appealed a decision given on October 10, 2017 by Justice R. B. Hastrup of National Industrial Court (NIC) Lokoja in a suit filed by some former political appointees in Kogi State, who sought to compel the state government to pay them severance allowances, gratuity, among others.
The suit marked: NICN/LKJ/03/2017, was filed by Chairman, Kogi State Local Government Service Commission 2013 -2017, Alhaji Nuhu Ahmed and members, who served in the capacity of Permanent members II within the same period – M. O. Sule, Momoh Steven Azia, Michael Nuhu Akeji, James Olusoji Olumorin and George Agbogun.
At the end of deliberations, the three-man panel of the court, decided that it was outrightly wrong in the face of the nation’s socio-economic reality for privileged politicians, who, just for the sake of holding public office for not more than eight-year, to allocate huge public funds to themselves in the name of pension and severance package while civil servants, who committed most of their active years to the service of the nation are denied their gratuity and retirement benefits.
Delivering its lead judgment which was read by Justice Emmanuel Agim, the court held that it was wicked and morally wrong for political office holders and political appointees, who helped themselves to public funds while in office, to turnaround and lay claims to pension and severance allowances.
Justice Agim said: “I must state here that the claimants’ claim for payment of severance allowance because the tenure of their appointment has come to an end, is as unfounded as is morally wrong”
“As I have held that their letters of appointment did not stipulate their entitlement to such payment. They did not produce any law or any document or instrument that entitles them to such payment.
“The fact that elected pubic officeholders and political appointees are paid huge amounts of money as monthly salaries and other forms of allowances, while in office, is common knowledge in Nigeria and is not reasonable to open question.
“It is also common knowledge that many of them after an office tenure of between three to eight years become stupendously wealthy, exhibiting mind-blowing opulence and splendor. Yet these office holders insist on being paid severance allowance for holding such offices
“Meanwhile, career civil servants, who have served this country or their states or Local Governments, all their lives, can hardly collect their pensions and gratuity when retired.
“They are now being subjected to contributory pension schemes in which they contribute part of their monthly meagre salaries that are always paid in arrears while in service, to be able to earn pension and gratuity upon retirement.
“The political appointees and elected public office holders, who do not work as long and as hard as the career civil servants quickly get paid huge severance allowances upon leaving office in addition to the huge wealth they acquired while holding such offices and without having been subjected to any contributory pension schemes.
“It is not morally right to pay an elected public officer or political appointee pension and gratuity or severance allowance for holding such an office for three to eight years as the case may be.
“It cannot be justified in the context of our present social realities it amounts to gross social injustice.” He concluded.
This ruling would without a doubt go down as one of the landmark rulings in this country. It has to be so because of the far reaching effect or impact this ruling could have on good governance, transparency and accountability by all tiers of government going forward.
We must salute this panel of highly esteemed and courageous justices who rose above all odds to deliver this landmark ruling. Given the level of cynicism and distrust with which the judiciary is viewed, the ruling has restored a level of confidence in the judiciary. It is a strong message which echoes that indeed there are still judges who would stand to be counted.
Our politicians from the executive arm of government, legislature from the federal to grassroots have demonstrated by their conduct and actions that their main interest is to serve themselves. The word service to the people whom they represent is mere lip service. The reality around the country today is that virtually all past governors draw pensions from their state treasuries. This is apart from the humongous allocation of state resources annually to service their homes, pay utilities and provide medicare for them and their families as compensation for their tenure. Former Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke in a recent public narrated how he convinced erstwhile president Goodluck Jonathan not to approve severance, pension and gratuity package for the National Assembly members who had made a law seeking to benefit from such payments. If that law was passed, they would also have joined the ex-governors in the jamboree. This is notwithstanding the fact that some of these governors who were already drawing pensions and enjoying perquisites from their respective states had also transited to the senate.
Yet, retired civil servants some of whom after dedicating a minimum of 35 years of service currently have to groan in anguish, beg and go through harrowing experiences for payment of their gratuity and pension. Some heartless governors introduce biometric data capturing tactics just to delay the payment of their benefits. In the process, most pensioners die before help comes their way.
Why do we patronize these past governors and political appointees; is it for their failed attempts to develop their states and lift their own people out of poverty, failed to create wealth in the face of abundant resources in their respective domains or leave lasting legacies that would stand the taste of time?
The big story today is the state governors complaining that they are unable to pay the new minimum wage of N30,000 per worker because of lack of funds. This is certainly not true. If governors are sincere with themselves and decide to plug the leakages in each of their respective states, I am sure the payment of both gratuity, pension and minimum wage would not pose any problems.
I urge the governors and all political appointees in this country to for once, make the necessary sacrifices by abrogating the security votes, scrapping the payment of severance benefits and pension and gratuity and all frivolous unjustified allowances and free up money for the states to meet the needs of the people.
I enjoin all politicians in this country to heed Justice Agim’s warning that “It cannot be justified in the context of our present social realities it amounts to gross social injustice.” Let us remember that social injustice breeds dissatisfaction and strife in the polity and Nigerians who have been at the receiving end of these acts of impunity may one day take it no more.