By Vincent Ujumadu, Godwin Oritse, Wahab Abdullah Ikechukwu Nnochiri & Enyim Enyim
Thirty-two retired judges, including five retired state Chief Judges in Anambra State, led by Justice Godwin Ononiba (retd), have dragged Anambra State governor, Willie Obiano, to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria in Awka for non-payment of their severance gratuity, upward review of pensions, arrears of housing allowances and overall welfare.
Also joined in the suit tagged complaint No: NICN/Awk/43/2016 filed by their lawyer, Gabriel Udoka Moneke is the Attorney-General of Anambra State.
The action of the retired judges drew the praises of some senior lawyers, including Chief Mike Ozekhome, SAN, Yusuf Ali, SAN, Femi Falana, SAN, and others, who commended them for using the instrumentality of the law to fight their cause.
The development came on a day 126 former supervisors, who served in the various local government areas of Anambra State until their dissolution in August this year, demanded a severance package of N1.2 billion from Governor Willie Obiano.
Of the 32 retired judges, 13 of them are dead, while 19 are still alive, including five former chief judges.
The former retired chief judges are G.U. Ononiba, C.J. Okoli, Nri-Ezedi, E.A. Nzegwu, and P.A.C Obidigwe who were members of the Association of Retired Judges of Anambra State.
Part of the suit read: “You are hereby commanded that within fourteen days after the service of this complaint on you, inclusive of the day of such service, you do cause an appearance to be entered for you in an action at the suit of HON. JUSTICE G.U. ONONIBA C.J. (Rtd) & 31 Ors, and take note that in default of your so doing, the claimants may proceed therein, and judgement may be given in your absence.
The claimants are praying the court for: “A declaration that each of the 1st-19th claimants and each of the estates of the 20th to 2nd claimants are entitled to be paid severance gratuities based on 300% of each claimant’s annual basic salary while in active service.
“A declaration that each of the 1st to 19th claimants and each of the estates of the 20th to 32nd claimants are entitled to be paid housing allowances per annum and in the tune of 200% of each claimant’s annual basic salary.
“A declaration that the 1st defendant does not have the power to amend, alter or vary the provisions of an Act of the National Assembly and in particular the “certain political, public and judicial office holders (salaries and allowances, etc) (Amendment) Act No. 1 of 2008 which took effect from 1st February, 2007”
“A declaration that each of the 1st – 19th claimants and each of estates of the 20th to 32nd claimants is entitled to an upward review of each of the claimant’s pension in line with Section 210(3) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“An order of court directing the defendants to pay to the 1st-19th claimants and the estates of 20th-32nd claimants forthwith their severance gratuities, based on 300% of annual basic salary of each of the claimants while in active service.
“An order of court directing the defendants to pay the 1st-19th claimants and the estates of the 20th to 32nd claimants forthwith the arrears of their housing allowances based on 200% of their annual basic salary.
“An order of court directing the defendants to recompute the pensions and gratuities of the claimants based on 200% of their annual basic salaries as housing allowance.
“An order of court directing the defendants to pay to the claimants the arrears of their respective pension and gratuities from the withheld 100% of their annual basic salary as housing allowance.
“An order of court directing the defendants to pay to each of the 1st-19th claimants and the estates of the 20th to 32nd claimants all the balance and arrears of their pensions which would have accrued to them had the pensions been reviewed upward in line with the provision of the constitution and the directives of the salaries and wages commission.”
The retired judges (claimants) stated that they had at different times meritoriously and successfully served as judges of the Anambra State High Court and Customary Court of Appeal but were forgotten and abandoned without payment of their due benefits, allowances and entitlements.
The Association of the Retired Judges was formed pursuant to the directive of the Chief Justice of Nigeria in a letter addressed to all judges, dated July, 10, 2010.
The claimants averred that they had on May, 5, 2016, issued and served on the defendants, through the Secretary to the State Government, SSG, and the office of the 2nd defendant respectively, the three months mandatory notice of intention to institute the legal action against them, adding that no response came from them.
Reacting to the development, Mike Ozekhome, SAN, said: “This is a good omen. For the first time in the history of this country, judges can pick up courage to drag a government to court over unpaid gratuities and pension. It is a shame that such senior citizens had to resort to the court to get their constitutional right.
“It is also a shame they can be subjected to this kind of treatment over pensions and gratuities. Before now, they could not talk while they were in service and with their action, they are also speaking for serving judges.”
Femi Falana, SAN, said: “The legal action is in order. The government cannot successfully fight judicial corruption if retired judges are owed pension for months.
“You are simply telling serving judges to take care of the raining day by engaging in corrupt practices. The Anambra State Government and others involved in the illegality should pay the outstanding pension of retired judges.”
Yusuf Ali, SAN
Ali said: “Yes, what they have done is right, except you want them to take laws into their hands, which expectedly they won’t do. These are the people who have worked and are getting old. Do you want them to die before enjoying the fruits of their labour? It is sad. For me, what government is doing in this clime is unexpected, if it is true. We only wish they pay them and not allow them to wait for court judgment before receiving their pension.”
Joseph Otteh, Executive Director, Access to Justice, said: “No one should be owed pension, whether judges, doctors or messengers. This situation shows that anyone can be a victim of government’s neglect and failings. But this can have a serious, predictable effect on judicial independence as some judges might feel they need to stack up money during service for raining days of lack. Anambra State government should immediately pay up all retirees their entitlements.”
In its reaction, the National Judicial Council, NJC, yesterday, said it only had the mandate to pay pension to retired federal judicial officers.
Though the Council explained that such judges were entitled to receive their benefits from the state government, it, however, declined to officially react to the development, stressing that it would amount to sub-judice since the case was already in court.
A top source at the NJC, who pleaded anonymity, said: “We have paid salaries of all judges in the country serving in federal courts.
“Likewise, when they retire, we only pay pension to those that were in federal courts. So it is the state that is responsible for the payment of pension of judges that served under them.
“Meanwhile since the matter is already in court. I think it will be better to allow the court to make the interpretation. I cannot say anything more on the issue as such action will be sub-judice.”
Ex LG supervisors demand N1.2b severance package
Meanwhile, 126 former supervisors, who served in the various local government areas of Anambra State until their dissolution in August this year, have demanded a severance package of N1.2 billion from Governor Willie Obiano.
The former supervisors were appointed by their elected local government chairmen as provided under Section 72 of the Anambra State House of Assembly Law, 2012.
In a letter addressed to the governor after their meeting in Awka, yesterday, the ex supervisors threatened to drag the secretary of the state Joint Action Committee, JAC, Mr. Tony Oli, to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, for allegedly misappropriating funds meant for the payment of their severance allowances.
Oli could not be reached at press time, but the ex supervisors said he told them when they visited his office that he had no business with them.
The letter was signed by the chairman of the ex supervisors’ forum, Mr. Chijioke Eruchalu, the secretary, Mr. Cliff Nneli and the coordinator, Mr. Cajethan Okafor.
The letter read in part:
“In view of this, we therefore plead with you to redress all the anomalies. We believe that as our father, we will get a favourable response so that we won’t feel left out and abandoned after serving our state diligently, in spite of the hard times.”