The recent pronouncement by the Court of Appeal in Abuja, describing as morally wrong the payment of severance allowances to elected or appointed public office holders, may have put paid to the controversy surrounding the legality or morality of the issue. But whether the court has the powers to effect a stop to the vexatious practice remains a subject of debate
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 of the court, stated that such payment “cannot be justified in the context of our present social realities.”
He said, “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.
“It is not morally right to pay an elected public officer or political appointee pension and gratuity or severance allowance for holding such an office for three to eight years as the case may be. It cannot be justified in the context of our present social realities; it amounts to gross social injustice.”
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.
The former KGSLGSC members had filed their suit before the National Industrial Court, NIC, in Abuja, claiming the sum of N55.4 million as total of the various amounts of money due to them as arrears of salaries for 17 months, four years leave bonuses, and severance payment for the end of the tenure of their appointments.
The claimants were Alhaji Nuhu Ahmed (ex-chairman of the commission), M.O Sule, Momoh Azia, Michael Akeji, James Olumorin, and George Abogun.
Condemning the payment of severance allowance to political office holders, Justice Agim said the claimants at the NIC failed to produce any law stipulating their entitlement to such payment.
He said, “I must state here that the claimants’ claim for payment of severance allowance because the tenure of their appointment has come to an end is as unfounded as it is morally wrong.
“As I have held, their letters of appointment did not stipulate their entitlement to such payment. They did not produce any law or any document or instrument that entitles them to such payment. The fact that elected public office holders and political appointees are paid huge amounts of money as monthly salaries and other forms of allowances while in office is common knowledge in Nigeria and is not reasonable to open question.
“It is also common knowledge that many of them after an office tenure of between three and eight years become stupendously wealthy, exhibiting mind-blowing opulence and splendour. Yet these office holders insist on being paid severance allowance for holding such offices.
“Meanwhile, career civil servants who have served this country or their states or local governments all their life can hardly collect their pensions and gratuity when retired. Civil servants were being subjected to contributory pension schemes in which they contribute part of their monthly meagre salaries that are always paid in arrears while in service to be able to earn pension and gratuity upon retirement.”
Severance package for political office holders, namely, the president and his vice, governors and their deputies, legislators, ministers, among others, some of whom spend only four years in office, has been quite contentious on the backdrop of the dwindling revenue due to falling oil prices. It is even more nauseating that these public servants get humongous sums of money when civil servants are in many instances owed salaries of seven months and more.
Comparative analysis has shown that the Nigerian federal lawmakers are the highest paid lawmakers in the world. A Nigerian senator, for instance, has an annual allowance of ₦12,902,360. A senator is paid allowances that comprise utilities, entertainment recess, personal assistant, vehicle fuelling, duty tour, estacode, domestic staff; vehicle maintenance, constituency allowance, wardrobe allowance, house maintenance, newspaper/periodic allowance, etc. In addition to these allowances, a senator receives ₦24,000,000.00 at the end of his four-year term.
The snag, however, is that these outrageous emoluments, particularly the severance package, are seemingly backed by law. Section 70 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) empowers the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission, RMAFC, to determine the salary and allowances of members of the senate or House of Representatives, same with Section 6 of the RMAFC Act. Furthermore, Omokolo and Others v RMAFC and Others (2017 CA), showed that each senator, with annual basic salaries of N2,026,400.00, is entitled to a severance package of N6,079,200.00 (that is 300 per cent of the basic salary).
Although judicial pronouncements are regarded as case laws and consequently have the force of law, it is pertinent to review the constitution which is the grundnorm in order to give effect to the Court of Appeal ruling and put a stop to the obnoxious and inequitable distribution of income in Nigeria.