Court orders FG to recover pensions collected by Amaechi, Akume, Kwankwaso, others

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Justice Oluremi Oguntoyinbo of the Federal High Court, Lagos has ordered the federal government to recover pensions collected by former governors who now serve as ministers and members of the national assembly.

She also directed the attorney general of the federation and minister of justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such pensions.

A certified true copy of the judgment delivered last week was obtained yesterday.

Oguntoyinbo’s ruling followed 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 judgment is coming on the heels of the invalidated pension law for former governors and other ex-public officers in Zamfara State, which provided for the upkeep of ex-governors to the tune of N700 million annually.

The state has produced three former governors since 1999.

Oguntoyinbo declared: “The attorney general has argued that the States’ laws duly passed cannot be challenged. With respect, I do not agree with this line of argument by the attorney general that he cannot challenge the States’ pension laws for former governors.

“The question that comes to mind is: who should approach the Court where a particular law is not in the best interest of Nigeria as a country or national interest? Who should approach the court where a particular law is detrimental to the interest of the country? Who should institute actions in court for the purpose of recovering public funds collected?

In answering the questions, the judge said: “In my humble view, the Attorney General should be interested in the legality or validity of any law in Nigeria and how such laws affect or will affect Nigerians, being the chief law officer of the federation.”

Justice Oguntoyinbo adjourned the suit to February 3, 2020 for hearing on report of compliance with the court orders/judgment by the federal government.

Justice Oguntoyinbo’s judgment read in part: “I have considered SERAP’s arguments that it is concerned about the attendant consequences that are manifesting on the public workers and pensioners of the states who have been refused salaries and pensions running into several months on the excuse of non-availability of state resources to pay them. SERAP has also argued that there is need to recover such public funds collected by former governors.”

“It is clear from the facts of this case that SERAP had written the attorney general to institute appropriate legal actions to challenge the legality of States’ laws permitting former governors, who are now senators and ministers to enjoy governors’ emoluments while drawing normal salaries and allowances in their new political offices and to seek full recovery of funds from those involved.

“SERAP has stated that since the receipt of the said letter, the attorney general has failed, refused and/or neglected to institute appropriate legal actions to that effect. In my view, the principle of ‘demand and refusal’ has been satisfied by SERAP. I have also considered the fact that in action to protect a public right or enforce the performance of a public duty, it is the Attorney General that ought to sue.

“Having considered all the facts presented by SERAP on the need for the suit and against same, I find no reason why the order of mandamus should not be granted. I am of the view that SERAP’s suit has merit.”

“I resolve this issue against the attorney general, in favour of SERAP. I hold that the motion of notice for mandamus dated 6th February 2018 and filed on 7th February 2018 has merit. It is therefore granted in the terms sought.”

“In other words, the attorney general is hereby directed to urgently institute appropriate legal actions to challenge the legality of states’ laws permitting former governors, who are now senators and ministers to enjoy governors’ emoluments while drawing normal salaries and allowances in their new political offices and to identify those involved and seek full recovery of public funds from the former governors.”

“I take judicial notice of the essence of the creation of SERAP. I believe that SERAP has the locus standi to bring this suit. More so, this is a constitutional matter. In constitutional matters, the requirement of locus standi becomes unnecessary to a great extent as it may merely impede judicial function. This issue is therefore resolved against the attorney general, in favour of SERAP.”

“SERAP is seeking an order of mandamus to compel the attorney general to file action to challenge States’ pension laws for former governors and recover public funds collected by them in the public interest, since the attorney general has failed/neglected to institute such action. That is the essence of SERAP’s suit.”

“I believe the attorney general can institute action in a court of law to challenge states’ pension laws for former governors. 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.”

Reacting to the ruling, SERAP’s deputy director, Mr. Kolawole Oluwadare, said: “This ground-breaking judgment is a victory for Nigerian workers and pensioners who have not been paid by state governors for several months and struggle to make ends meet whilst former governors now serving as ministers and senators continue to collect double emoluments and enjoy opulent lifestyles.

“Justice Oguntoyinbo’s judgment shows the urgent need for state governors in Nigeria to follow the Zamfara example by immediately abolishing the obnoxious pension laws in their states. We commend Justice Oguntoyinbo for her courage and wisdom, and urge President Muhammadu Buhari and Malami to immediately obey the court orders.

“This judgment should catalyse further action from the chairman, Nigerian Governors’ Forum and Ekiti State governor Dr Kayode Fayemi to use this judgment to abolish pension law in his own state and make a clear public commitment that the Governors’ Forum under his watch will push all governors and ex-governors to abolish life pensions and return public funds collected by them before being compelled to do so.”

Also reacting, human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana said: “SERAP deserves the commendation of all well-meaning people that have agonised over the legalization of obscene pension package for former governors. This is one of the most patriotic public interest litigation ever undertaken in Nigeria. We call on state governors to use the judgment as the basis for formally repealing life pension laws and all other retrogressive laws without any further ado.”

It would be recalled that SERAP had in July 2017 requested Malami to urgently institute appropriate legal action to challenge the legality of states’ laws permitting former governors, who are now senators and ministers to enjoy governors’ emoluments while drawing normal salaries and allowances in their new political offices and to seek full recovery of public funds from those involved.”

Former senate president and governor of Kwara state Bukola Saraki said he stopped collecting pension after hearing of SERAP’s suit, and subsequently inspired the passing of the bill by the Kwara State House of Assembly to suspend payment of pensions to former governors and their deputies.

Saraki had said at the time: “No, I’m not collecting pension; the moment I saw that SERAP allegation, I wrote to my state to stop my pension.”

The repealed pension law in Zamfara State allowed former governors to receive pension for life; two personal staff; two vehicles replaceable every four years; two drivers, free medical for the former governors and deputies and their immediate families in Nigeria or abroad; a 4-bedroom house in Zamfara and an office; free telephone and 30 days paid vacation outside Nigeria.

So far, the governor of Ekiti State, Mr. Kayode Fayemi; the minister of labour and employment, Dr. Chris Ngige and the minister of works and housing, Mr. Batunde Fashola denied ever receiving double payments and retirement benefits as former governors in addition to other roles in public office.

At least 22 states starting from Lagos State have passed life pensions laws for former governors and other ex-public officials. Other states include Akwa Ibom; Edo; Delta; Kano; Gombe; Yobe; Borno; Bauchi; Abia; Imo; Bayelsa; Oyo; Osun; Kwara; Ondo; Ebonyi; Rivers; Niger; Kogi; and Katsina.

SERAP’s letter to Malami read in part: “According to our information, those who reportedly receive double emoluments and large severance benefits from their states 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), and Jonah Jang (Plateau).

“Others include: Ahmed Sani Yarima (Zamfara); Danjuma Goje (Gombe); Bukar Abba Ibrahim (Yobe); Adamu Aliero (Kebbi); George Akume (Benue); and Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers).

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