Omoniyi Salaudeen, Laide Raheem, Ogun, Jeo Effiong, Akwa Ibom, Paul Osuyi, Delta, George Onyejiuwa, Imo
The public resentment against the controversial law enacted by some state assemblies which allows some former governors to enjoy life pension and other juicy severance packages is steadily building to a floodtide and anything on its way can only come down before its overwhelming power.
But the ultimate victory and the desire to free the state economy from mindless predation by the past political officer holders may take longer than expected.
As the 19th Century French Economist, Fredrick Bastiat, rightly said: “People will only stop predation or looting when the gross misconduct is made more painful and more dangerous than labour.”
But the sublime irony in this case is that the process for a repeal of the unpopular law can only be initiated by either the people who suffer direct consequences of the action of the beneficiaries of the jumbo severance package or the state assemblies who enacted the law in the first instance. Either way, there is always a tough road to pass to get to the desired destination.
Due to combined effects of poverty and low level of political awareness, the people, who bear the brunt of the law, are not only complacent, but also lack the right indignation capacity to demand a review of the law. As for the state legislature where most of the lawmakers were handpicked by godfathers, they can only move for a repeal of the law at their own peril.
This is without prejudice to Wednesday’s judgment passed by the Federal High Court, urging the Attorney General of the Federation to initiate a process that would compel the affected governors and their deputies to refund the money they had drawn from the coffers of their respective states.
The Federal High Court sitting in Lagos had ordered the Federal Government to “recover pensions collected by former governors now serving as ministers and members of the National Assembly, and directed the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr Abubakar Malami (SAN) to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such pensions.”
However, in the opinion of legal experts, who spoke with Sunday Sun on the matter, the AGF lacks the power to interfere in the laws passed by the state assembly. The Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, Prof Itse Sagay, commenting on the judgment in a telephone interview, said that the order of the court is not enforceable since the law that gives the governors the right to draw pension has not been repealed.
His words: “I understand that the court did not say they should refund the money they have taken from the states. What the court ordered was that the Attorney General should bring in an action to get them refund the money. And these are totally two different things.
“The order is not enforceable in the sense that you must establish that the law itself is invalid before you can say that those people should be compelled to refund the money. There is a need to establish invalidity of that law. Since it has not been declared invalid, then there is no legal basis for talking of refund. In my view, the Attorney-General is not in the position to get the parties to refund the funds. He is not in that position because it is state money and a state law. So, everything starts and ends with the state. I think the judgment should have concentrated on the state. You can’t even compel the state assembly to repeal the law because they have prerogative to make law. A stakeholder in that state should have brought the action. In that case, the law might have been declared invalid and then action can be taken to get a refund. So, you need somebody who has a legal right (locus standi) to bring the action. After that, the law can be declared invalid and then the money can be recovered.”
Throwing more light on the position of the court regarding the powers of the AGF vis-a-viz the action of the state legislature, Sagay added: “The Attorney General has no authority to challenge the laws passed by the state assembly on pension to their governors. This is a matter which should have been brought by any citizen of that state who is affected by that particular action. The Attorney General in this case would be an interloper. He has no locus standi. It is not his business. So, I will agree with the Attorney-General in that respect.”
He also disagreed with the judge’s submission that the law was against the interest of the country, saying “I won’t say it is against the interest of the country. It is against the interest of the state which is paying such a huge bill. Therefore, people who are in the position to challenge it are the citizens of that state who live and work there.
“All individual members of the states who are aggrieved have to challenge it. If after such a challenge and the matter gets to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court decides, automatically, it will apply to all the states because anything decided by the Supreme Court on broad legal issues applies to all the states.”
He, however, berated the state lawmakers for passing the law which gives the ex-governors the privilege to enjoy life pension and other juicy benefits.
“There is a strong moral issue in it. But as you know, morality and law are different. You cannot enforce morality, you can only enforce law. It is up to the people of the state concerned to get the house of assembly to repeal such law. And if they feel that it is against any law, they can go to court,” he posited.
A former Minister of Information, Tony Momoh, also maintained the same position, arguing that “the state is autonomous, the Federal Government is autonomous and so Attorney General does not have power to audit the state. Federal Government cannot dictate to state governments. It is like asking Federal Government to do what it cannot do.”
Similarly, Senator Anthony Adeniyi, also a legal practitioner, corroborated the same view, saying that “pension is in the concurrent list and so it gives the state the power to make law on its own.”
He equally questioned the morality of the past governors taking pension and at the same time receiving salaries and allowances as either as a minister or member of the National Assembly.
Adeniyi urged the concerned individuals to search their conscience and stop taking state money under the guise of the pension law.
He said: “When I was in the National Assembly, Senator Gbenga Kaka, who was a former deputy governor in Ogun State, stopped his pension to avoid drawing money from the state while still enjoying Senate allowances.
“It behoves on former governors to stop taking pension. They can’t be taking allowances and at the same time taking pension. It is morally wrong to be taking pension and allowances at the same time. It is either you restrict yourself to pension or salary and allowances.”
He also expressed reservation about the courage of the state lawmakers to initiate a repeal of the law. “The state assembly might not have the political will to do a review of the law. It is up to the media as the fourth realm of the estate to let the public know that it is not right for anybody to be earning pension when he or she is in the National Assembly or in government as a minister,” he added.
Efforts to get the reaction of the lawmakers in the Lagos State House of Assembly proved abortive, as many of the lawmakers refused to comment on the matter.
Hon. Tunde Braimoh did not respond to the text message sent to him to verify the action of the Lagos assembly on the controversial law, ditto Hon. Gbolahan Yishawu who also refused to pick calls put through to him for his comment on the issue.
In Ogun State, the Deputy Speaker of the State House of Assembly, Oluwadare Kadiri, told Sunday Sun that the state does not have any law giving outlandish benefits to former governors and their deputies.
He added that the state only follows earning that is in tandem with the recommendations of the RMFAC. These benefits, according to Kadiri, include basic salary, changing of vehicles every four years, security details, among others.
The Chairman, Akwa Ibom State House Committee on Information, Mr Aniefiok Dennis Akpan, on his part, told Sunday Sun that they were waiting to receive the recent judgment on the law before further action could be taken. “There will be no need to repeal the law. Once we get the copy of the recent court judgment, the law will then be considered dead,” he declared.
On the order of the court for recovery of the money paid to former Governor Godswill Akpabio, he added: “It is not our duty in the house to recover whatever money. The executive knows how to recover.”
The leadership of the Imo State House of Assembly kept mum on the plan to repeal the law granting monthly pension to ex- governors and their deputies, as the Speaker, Chiji Collins and his deputy, Okey Onyekanma refused to answer calls put through to them.
However, a member of the House from the opposition Action Alliance who does not want his name on print said that what happened in Zamfara State was not the business of the Imo state Assembly. Rather, he expressed support for the payment of pension to ex-governors and their deputies; especially Rochas Okorocha who, according to him, had done well.
Sunday Sun findings revealled that there is an executive bill pending at the Delta State House of Assembly seeking to amend the pension law for former governors and their deputies. At the plenary on Wednesday, the House received the report of the Joint House Committee on Rules, Business, Legal and Judicial Matters and the Special Committee on Bill Delta State Governors and Deputy Governors’ Pension Rights and Other Benefits Amendment.
Contrary to the general mood of the nation, Sunday Sun investigation revealed that the House was warming up to pass the bill which seeks to accommodate a former acting governor of the state, Sam Obi, to be a beneficiary of the pension act.
Meanwhile, the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) in the state has started campaign, urging the state legislature not to pass the amendment bill on the grounds that it is not in the best interest of the state
The state Publicity Secretary of the party, Sylvester Imonina, said that pension to the former political office holders would be too much for the state to bear, adding that amending the bill to accommodate a former acting governor was a day light robbery that should not be allowed.
The public opprobrium against jumbo pay to ex-governors followed the recent repeal of pension law by the Zamfara State House of Assembly to back the decision of the state government to stop the payment of N10 million monthly pension to former governor Abdul’Aziz Yari.
The Wednesday’s judgment of the Lagos High Court which brought to an end months of litigation initiated by the SERAP questioning the propriety or otherwise of pension for former officer holders further gave an impetus to the agitation for a repeal of the law.
Prior to these new developments, the Court of Appeal in Abuja, had described as morally wrong the payment of severance allowances to elected or appointed public office holders. The court through its three-man panel led by Justice Abubakar Yahaya, expressed the opinion in a unanimous judgment delivered on May 20, 2019.
Justice Emmanuel Agim, who read the lead judgment, stated that such payment “cannot be justified in the context of our present social realities.
His words: “The political appointees and elected public office holders who do not work as long and as hard as 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.
“The judgment was sequel to a dispute between the Kogi State government and some former members of the Kogi State Local Government Service Commission, KGSLGSC, who served for four years from February 2013 to February 2017.”
A former governorship aspirant in Osun State, Kunle Adegoke, a lawyer, reacting to the matter, said that there was no basis for passing the law in the first instance, blaming the absurdity on the seeming complacence of the people.
His words: “It is the highest level of legislative irresponsibility for a state legislature to pass a law awarding life pension to ex-governors, who have served the states for four or eight years, while those who served for 35 years are being denied their pensions. What is the justification for somebody who has used his office to make illegitimate wealth, living in satanic splendor, only for such a person to turn around to be collecting pension for life, receiving free medical treatment and collecting cars every six years? It is an absolute absurdity. Every state assembly should repeal such law. We are sitting on a keg of gunpowder.”
He maintained that the only way to end the ongoing predation was for the relevant stakeholders to put the issue in the front burner so that the state lawmakers could realise the urgency of repealing the exploitative law.
Noting the seeming lack of political will on the part of the state lawmakers to take a review of the pension law, he added: “It is unfortunate that majority of the people in the state assembly got there on the crest of those who planted this law. They owe their seats in the state or National Assembly to these individuals. As such, they don’t have the courage or political will to carry out a review of the law. Many of them are also aspiring to be governors so that they can be collecting life pension.
“This issue should dominate discussion at the level of civil society. By the time public opprobrium is brought on them, it won’t take time before they amend the law. We need to sensitise members of the public on the need for a review of the law”.
The rising poverty in Nigeria is a paradox of sort. While the country is regarded by the international development agencies as the largest economy in Africa with highest GDP, its image as the world poverty capital gives cause for worry. This has been largely blamed on the existing system which allows a few privileged individuals in the positions of authority to corner the resources of the state at the detriment of the masses. It is as if Don Marquis had Nigeria in mind when he made a philosophical postulation saying: “When chicken quit quarreling on their food, they often find that there is enough for all of them. I wonder if it might not be the same with the human race.”
According to economic experts, Nigeria as a nation has no business deal with poverty, but for the inherent greed in the system.