The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), on Thursday expressed determination to execute the Federal High Court order directing him to recover monies paid to former governors that are currently serving as senators and Ministers. Justice Oluremi Oguntoyinbo, of the Lagos division of the Federal High Court had made the order on Wednesday while delivering judgment in a suit filed by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
The ruling was a sequel to 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 court also directed the AGF to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such payments. The judge adjourned till February 3, 2020, for hearing on the report of compliance with the court order by the Federal Government.
In defence, the AGF argued that SERAP did not show any injury it suffered as a result of the salaries and allowances given to the former governors. It was contended that SERAP neither constitutes civil servants nor public servants who have any issues with the pension laws for former governors. It was also argued that the suit filed to promote transparency and accountability did not confer locus standi on SERAP.
But the judge said he believed the AGF could “institute action in a court of law to challenge states’ pension laws for former governors.” She said further: “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.”
However, responding to the judgment Thursday, Malami said that the Federal Government will be guided by public interest in complying with the court order. Malami’s position was contained in a statement made available to journalists by his media aide, Dr. Umar Jibrilu Gwandu. “We will work and be guided by the legalities of the case, the dictates of justice and public interest in complying with the judgment,” the minister said.
A total of 21 states had at various times promulgated pension laws allocating huge benefits to their former governors despite public objection. They are Lagos, Akwa Ibom; Edo; Delta; Kano; Gombe; Yobe; Borno; Bauchi; Abia; Imo; Bayelsa; Oyo; Osun; Kwara; Ondo; Ebonyi; Rivers; Niger; Kogi; and Katsina.
Immediately affected by the order are five ministers in the cabinet of President Muhammadu Buhari and nine senators. The ministers are Mr. Babatunde Fashola (Lagos, Housing and Urban Development), Senator Godswill Akpabio (Akwa Ibom, Niger Delta), Hon. Chibuike Amaechi (Rivers, Transportation), Mr. Rauf Aregbesola (Osun, Interior) and Chief Timipre Sylva (Bayelsa, State Petroleum).
The senators caught by the judgment are Orji Uzor-Kalu and Theodore Orji (Abia), Kassim Shettima (Borno), Sam Egwu (Ebonyi), Danjuma Goje (Gombe) Rochas Okorocha (Imo), Ibrahim Shekarau and Kabiru Gaya(Kano) and Ibrahim Geidam (Yobe).
Although it was not clear, how many of the ministers and senators affected by the judgement had started drawing the benefits as a couple of them just left office in May, Fashola, Sylva and Aregbesola had explained in the past that they were not drawing any post-office benefits from their state’s coffers. Theodore Orji also issued an immediate rebuttal Wednesday night, saying he had refrained from enjoying any financial benefit from Abia State since he left office in 2015.
Former senate president and governor of Kwara State Bukola Saraki said he stopped collecting the pension after hearing of SERAP’s suit, subsequently inspiring the passage of a bill by the Kwara State House of Assembly to suspend payment to former governors and their deputies. Saraki had stated at the time: “No, I’m not collecting a pension. The moment I saw that SERAP allegation, I wrote to my state to stop my pension.”
Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, Minister of Labour and Employment Chris Ngige, and Minister of Works and Housing Babatunde Fashola have also denied ever receiving payments both as former governors and current holders of public office.