It was a moment of joy recently as some retirees of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) celebrated their victory in court over the unjust pittance being paid to them as pensions by the corporation.
Some analysts have noted that, in some other climes, the retirees would have been celebrated and given the best treatment in their old age, having contributed their best in their prime to the economic growth of their fatherland. But, for years, the reverse was the case for this group. They were left behind and ignored when the new improved and harmonised pension scheme was made a policy of government.
Under the aegis of Retired Management Staff Association of NNPC (REMANSON), the retirees, who left the employ of the corporation between 1990 and 1997, were awarded victory by the National Industrial Court, Lagos Division, after a decade-long legal tussle over the inequality and lack of fairness in the pension scheme of the NNPC.
REMANSON chairman, Chief Samson Azebeokhai, addressing journalists, gave an insight into their struggle for justice: “The problem started when NNPC improved the condition of service for staff, including retirees. This improvement substantially increased the pension emoluments of retirees from 2003 to reflect the cost of living. Unfortunately, they forgot those who retired earlier than that date. The result was that some of the junior staff retirees under the new scheme were earning multiples of what the earlier management staff retirees were earning. So, the earlier retirees had been in a battle since then to get the NNPC to do the needful and harmonise the pension emoluments of the earlier retirees with those of latter counterparts.
“We were left with no option than to seek redress in court when all efforts to resolve the injustice due to the disparity in the pension scheme of NNPC failed. We had been on this battle in the court since 2011 pleading our cause for full harmonisation of our pension entitlement.
“To God be the glory, on Monday, July 20, 2020, the National Industrial Court, Lagos, gave us justice as it delivered judgment in our favour,” he said.
The affected retirees, who were mostly in the management cadre before their retirement, were denied harmonised pension by NNPC for several years. And in a judgment delivered by Justice Elizabeth Oji, the court gave succour to the affected retirees who are septuagenarians and octogenarians.
Delivering judgment in the suit brought by Dr. Ikechukwu Nwobodo and 13 others on behalf of other concerned retired staff, Justice Oji ordered the NNPC to pay the affected retirees the harmonised pensions, beginning from January 1, 1997, till date, in accordance with the Constitution and government policy.
The court rejected the discriminatory approach of NNPC in the payment of pensions, which was the grievance of REMANSON members.
The trial judge, in analysing of the case as presented by parties, held that, by the extant provision of Section 318 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), the claimants were public servants, hence, the defendants must ensure the periodic harmonisation of the pension of its retirees, as provided under Section 173 of the Constitution.
The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the payment of pensions should be based on affordability and sustainability and held that payment must be based on provisions of the Constitution and government policy as expressly provided for in Section 173 of the Constitution.
The affected retirees shared their plight over the years with journalists during a press conferences in Lagos, while also expressing joy that the court eventually gave them justice after several years.
Azebeokhai said: “When all efforts to seek redress through negotiations and dialogue failed and some of our members were dying without getting their due pension from the institution they served so diligently, we decided to approach the court through our solicitors, Messrs Cheakley Chambers, under the leadership of Mr. Adeleke Agbola and his team of dedicated lawyers.
“As you can see, we do not have the money but he believed in our cause and pursued it with vigour and uncommon zeal to help us get justice. After 10 years in court, the court has once again proved to be the last hope of the common man.”
Speaking on the role of his law firm in getting justice for the retirees, Agbola said: “As legal practitioners, our duty is first and foremost to assist the court to arrive at justice, irrespective of who the parties are. That is why lawyers are referred to as ministers in the temple of justice.
“So, it was not difficult for us to take up their matter when we studied the facts connected to it. Unequal treatment of equals amounts to injustice. That is the simple explanation one can give about their case.
“A situation whereby two staff retired in an establishment as managing directors and one is paid a N10,000 monthly pension and the other receives N50,000 monthly cannot be said to be fair or equitable. That is the case of the early retirees of NNPC. We are happy because the issue involved is a national issue that affects every citizen. We are happy for them because the court has affirmed the supremacy of the Constitution on pension and no establishment can do the contrary.”
Nwobodo, who retired in 1997, gave a picture of the bizarre pension arrangement thus: “One day, I asked my driver while I was in service to help me pick up my pension payment slip. He went and picked it and his own slip too. He checked the two and said, ‘Oga I dey earn pass you sef. See, I dey earn pass you.’”
The reason for these anomalies was that the driver retired years after Pa Nwobodo retired in 1997.