Court reserves judgment
By Alex Enumah
A director of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Mr. Ayo Olowonihi has asked the Court of Appeal in Abuja to make an order directing the anti-graft agency to pay him his accumulated salary arrears.
Olowonihi in a cross appeal against part of the judgment of Justice Musa Kado of the Abuja Division of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, predicated his request on the grounds that the trial court erred in law when it refused to order payment of his outstanding salaries after it nullified his suspension by the commission.
The EFCC under the suspended Acting Chairman, Mr. Ibrahim Magu, had in 2015 following alleged “offence against discipline,” placed Olowonihi, who was then Director of the EFCC Academy, under suspension without pay.
Although the commission recalled him back to service in 2017, it however demoted him from grade level 17 to 16/7.
Displeased with the commission’s decision, Olowonihi then approached the Industrial Court, to challenge his demotion and also prayed the court to order his reinstatement as well as payment of his entitlements held during the period of his unlawful suspension.
In the suit marked: NICN/ABJ/347/2017, the claimant in a 62-paragraph affidavit deposed to in support of the suit said he was not given fair hearing before disciplinary action was taken against him.
Among the issues his lawyer, Professor Joash Amupitan (SAN), raised for determination by the court include; whether the EFCC Staff Regulations Handbook 2007 used for the discipline of the claimant was validly made, having not been approved by the commission.
In its judgment, the Industrial Court decided all three issues raised for determination in favour of the claimant.
“There is a violation of natural justice,” the court held the claimant’s appointment is statutory and can only be tampered with strict public service rule”.
He subsequently held that the letter of reinstatement downgrading the claimant to GL 16 is “nullified and set aside” and ordered the EFCC to reinstate the defendant back to his position as Detective Commandant Grade Level 17.
However, the court refused to grant the prayers of the claimant on the payment of all his salaries and allowances within the period of the suspension on the grounds that the claimant failed to prove that he was entitled to such relief.
Miffed by the court’s decision, Olowonihi then approached the appellate court to challenge the denial of his outstanding emoluments.
In the cross appeal marked: CA/A/190/2020 and filed on April 8, 2020, Olowonihi’s lawyer argued that, “the refusal of the trial judge to order the payment of the outstanding salaries and emoluments of the Cross Appellant is contradictory and at cross purpose with the principal reliefs already granted by him”.
He further submitted that having nullified the EFCC’s Staff Regulation Handbook, 2007, Justice Kado erred in law when he failed to set aside the letter of query dated December 22, 2015 as well as the Notification of Suspension dated December 29, 2015.
“The letter of query dated December 22, 2015 was the instrument that originated the disciplinary proceedings against the Cross Appellant and it was issued pursuant to the EFCC’s Staff Regulation Handbook and not the Public Service Rules. Being the originating instrument, it is defective and all other steps or action taken based on it is a nullity”, Amupitan submitted before the three-man panel of Justices of the appellate court.
He further submitted that the court is duty bound to set aside the query and suspension of Olowonihi ,having voided the disciplinary proceedings.
He therefore prayed the appellate court for, “An Order reinstating the salary and emoluments of the cross appellant which was suspended by the cross respondent on December 29, 2015, pending the outcome of the disciplinary case against him which disciplinary action was resolved in favour of the cross appellant on February 26, 2019 by the trial court”.
He also prayed for another order, urging the Court of Appeal under its inherent powers under Section 16 of the Court of Appeal Act, to set aside the letter of query dated December 22, 2015 and notification of suspension dated December 29, 2015, “because there was no valid query and suspension in the first place to warrant stoppage of his salary.
He is seeking “an order of the Court of Appeal restoring the usual accumulated salary of the cross appellant from December 29, 2015 to date being an employee with statutory flavour”.
However, the three man panel led by Justice Stephen Adah after Amupitan and Mr Makinde Olufemi, counsel to Owonihi and EFCC respectively adopted their brief of argument, announced that judgment in the cross appeal is reserved to a date that will be communicated to parties.
The Court of Appeal had on August 25, this year, in a unanimous decision, dismissed the main appeal by the EFCC for lacking in merit.