IN THE NATIONAL INDUSTRIAL COURT OF NIGERIA
IN THE OWERRI JUDICIAL DIVISION
HOLDEN AT OWERRI
BEFORE HIS LORDSHIP HONOURABLE JUSTICE I. S.GALADIMA
Dated: 15th May 2019 SUIT NO: NICN/OW/37/2016
1. Okoroma Iwuji
2. Matilda Ijeoma Chikwe Claimants
3. Ignatius Ikechukwu Uzoechi
Nwangele Local Government Defendant
C. H. Azuine; U.C Njemanze (Miss) for the Claimants.
J. C. Ibe (Mrs.), Solicitor General, Imo State; Osita Chukwuemeka (P.S.C); M.I. Osuji, (Mrs.) (P.S.C). for the Defendant.
This suit was commenced by way of Complaint duly accompanied by other originating processes dated and filed the 1st day of July 2016, wherein the Claimants claimed against the Defendant as follows:
The sum of N11,543,654.7 (eleven million, five hundred and forty-three thousand, six hundred and fifty-four naira, seven kobo), being unpaid salaries for the months of May 2011 to July 2012, due and payable to the Claimants as Members respectively of the Legislative Council of the Defendant, which the Defendant had failed, refused and/or neglected to pay despite repeated demands.
The sum of N14,131,773.6 (fourteen million, one hundred and thirty-one thousand, seven hundred and seventy-three naira, six kobo), being unpaid furniture, severance and other allowances and entitlements due and payable to the Claimants as Members respectively of the Legislative Council of the Defendant, which the Defendant had failed, refused and/or neglected to pay despite repeated demands.
Interest on the aforesaid sums at the rate of 10% per annum from the date of judgment until the judgment is liquidated.
The Defendant entered conditional appearance and filed its defence 30/1/2017 vide an application for extension of time.
SUMMARY OF THE CAUSE OF ACTION:
The Claimants were elected as councilors in the legislative council of the Defendant on 7/8/2010 for a fixed tenure of 2 years. They were issued with Certificates of return by the Imo state Independent Electoral Commission (ISIEC). The Claimants’ case is that they were only paid salaries for the months of August 2010 to April 2011, while their salaries for the period of May 2011 to July 2012 remain unpaid, after the Governor of Imo State Rochas Okoroacha dissolved all the elected local Government Councils in Imo state upon assuming office on 29/5/2011.
The 1st Claimant testified as CW1 and adopted his written deposition of 1/7/2016. He tendered 5 documents as exhibits in the course of this trial thus:
Exhibit C1(a-i)—Claimants’ certificates of return from ISIEC.
Exhibit C2—CTC of the Court of Appeal’s judgment.
Exhibit C3—remuneration package by Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC)
Exhibit C4—imo state government circular
Exhibit C5—pre-action notice dated 24/2/2016
CW1 was cross-examined on 16/11/2018, and the Claimants closed their case on that same day.
The Defendant called one witness: Ajogu Augustina who adopted her written deposition of 21/2/2017 but did not tender any documents as exhibits. The Claimants’ counsel cross-examined him on that day. With the close of trial, parties’ counsels were ordered to file their final addresses in compliance with the Rules of this Court. The final addresses of both counsel having now been duly filed, served and adopted, was adjourned to today, the 15/5/2019 for delivery of judgment.
DEFENDANT’S FINAL SUBMISSIONS:
The Defendant’s Counsel proposed one issue for determination in his written final address filed 12/3/2019, thus: Whether in the light of the evidence before this honourable court the Claimants are entitled to their reliefs in this suit?
On this sole issue, Counsel argued that the Claimants are not entitled to their claims, owing to the fact that they did not challenge the dissolution done by the Governor in 2011 when it occurred, and they were not parties in the Court of Appeal’s judgment they are seeking to rely on. It was further argued by counsel that the Claimants have a duty to prove their case on its strength and not rely on the weakness of the Defendant’s case. See Adeniran v Alao, and Enigwe v Akaigwe(citation supplied). Also, counsel contended that the pleadings of the Claimants allege that it was the Governor that dissolved the legislative council, the said governor not being a party to this suit, the Defendant cannot be liable for his acts.
Further, counsel contended that the CW1 admitted under cross-examination that the Claimants never challenged the act of the dissolution done by the Governor, implying that they accepted the Governor’s act, and they cannot be entitled to any remuneration after walking away from their duties.
It was further contended on the strength of NPA v Saidu Ahmed, Aboyeji v Lateju(citations supplied) that exhibit C3 ought to be given its plain and ordinary meaning, which is that, it is a remuneration package for the period of 2007-2009 and does not extend to the period of the Claimants’ tenure. Thus there is nothing before the court to justify the claims of the Claimants.
At this point, counsel proffered alternative arguments in respect of exhibit C3, he stated that the Claimants are not entitled to furniture or severance allowance that is paid once every four years, and at the completion of tenure respectively, because the Claimants’ tenure was for only two years. Similarly, counsel submitted that exhibit C3 did not provide for security, imprest and recess allowances, an indication that the documentary evidence in this suit does not support the oral evidence of the Claimants.
Also, counsel submitted that the Claimants who admitted that they did not challenge the dissolution of their legislative council cannot rely on exhibit C2, as they were not parties to the suit, and in the event that they are entitled to rely on it, this extant suit ought to be dismissed for being an abuse of court process, per PDP v Umeh (No. 1)(citation supplied).
In conclusion, counsel submitted that the Claimants have failed to prove their claims, and are not entitled to recess allowance council leader’s “imprest” as these are subject to funds availability, and the Claimants never went on recess having not been at work.
CLAIMANTS’ FINAL SUBMISSIONS:
The Claimants’ Counsel on 6/3/2019 filed his final address, in which two issues were formulated for determination as follows:
Whether the pleadings and evidence led, the Claimants are entitled to the reliefs sought in this suit?
Whether the Governor of Imo State has the powers to dissolve democratically elected local government councils in Imo state?
Issues one and two were argued together by counsel.Counsel submitted that the Defendant admitted facts pleaded by the Claimants in paragraphs 3, 4 and 9 of their statement of facts about their election, swearing in, and their remuneration package, in addition to the Defendant’s admissions CW1 led unchallenged evidence in proof of their claims.
More so, counsel submitted that the Defendant pleaded contradictory facts in its pleadings, by stating on one hand in paragraph 3 that the Claimants are not entitled to severance and other allowances, and on the other hand in paragraph 4 stating that the Claimants were paid their furniture allowance before the dissolution of the local government councils. It was further submitted that by reason of section 138 of the Evidence Act, the burden of proving any furniture allowance and May 2011 salary was not the Defendant, who did not discharge the burden.
Again, counsel argued that the Claimants are entitled to their claims because the Governor has no power to dissolve Local Government Councils, per Eze v Governor of Abia State (citation supplied). In the same vein, counsel submitted that the Claimants despite being prevented by the Defendant, continued in their official duties till the end of their tenure, and on the assumption that the Claimants did not serve their tenure, it was owing to the fact that their tenure was truncated by an illegal act of the Governor, and the Claimants whose rights have been infringed are entitled to a remedy. See Bello v A.G. Oyo State, Labode v Otubu (citations supplied).
Furthermore, counsel submitted that by virtue of order 14(1)&(3) of the NICN Rules the issue of non-joinder of the Governor of Imo state does not defeat this suit.
Likewise, counsel argued that this suit is about unpaid salaries and allowances not about the dissolution of local Government Councils, and there was a ruling delivered on 25/9/2017 by Justice Anuwe which had not being appealed against, to the effect that the Claimants do not have to challenge the dissolution of their legislative council before bringing an action for their unpaid salaries.
Finally, counsel urged the court to discountenance the arguments of the Defendant’s counsel and grant the reliefs sought by the Claimants.
Having heard the submissions of both counsel and carefully considered the pleadings and evidence in this suit, I find that only one issue calls for resolution, that is: whether the claims in this suit should be granted?
The claims of the Claimants are for salaries from May 2011 to July 2012 and other allowances they were entitled as former Councillors of the Defendant Local Government.
Their case is that they were elected Councilors of the Defendant in 2010 for two years tenure and their salaries and allowances were fixed by the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission. However, the Defendant did not pay them their furniture, severance and other allowances in addition to their salaries from May 2011 to July 2012. See Paragraph 3,6, and 9 of the statement of facts.
The fact that the Claimants were elected as councilors was admitted by the Defendant in paragraph 1 of the statement of defence.
In proof of these claims, exhibit C3 was tendered. Exhibit C3 is captioned:“Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission Remuneration package for political, public and judicial office holders (Feb., 2007—date)”
On the face of this document it is obvious that the Defendant counsel’s submission that the remuneration package is for the period of 2007-2009 and does not extend to the period of the Claimants’ tenure is wholly erroneous and is hereby discountenanced. The Claimants also averred that by virtue of exhibit C3 pleaded, they are each purportedly entitled to:
severance allowance N2,280,288;
recess allowance 2 years N152,015.2;
Total of N25,675,428.3
In paragraph 4 of the statement of defence, the Defendant averred that the Claimants were paid their furniture allowance before the dissolution of the local government councils. Also, in paragraph 6, the Defendant averred that the Claimants are not entitled to receive any salaries from the time they vacated office in May 2011.
The Defendant denied the Claimants’ averment that they had not been paid their salaries from May 2011 to July 2012 as well as their furniture allowances. It was expected that the Defendant in view of its denial, will proceed to show evidence of the payment of the said May 2011 to July 2012 salaries including the Claimants’ purported unpaid furniture allowances. Immediately the Claimants averred that they had not been paid, the burden shifted to the Defendant to prove that the Claimants did indeed receive those payments.
The legal principle remains incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat, which means the burden of proving a fact rests on the party who asserts the affirmative of the issue and not upon the party who denies it – for a negative is usually incapable of proof. See Omisore v Aregbesola (2015) All FWLR (pt 813) 1673 at 1728, A-B. The effect is that this averment of the Claimants that they are yet to be paid arrears of salaries and their furniture allowances has not been disproved by the Defendant.
From all the evidence before me, it is crystal that the Claimants were elected as councilors for a two-year tenure and returned by the Imo State Independent Electoral Commission (ISIEC). Section 168 of the Evidence Act provides that where any official act is shown to have been done in a manner substantially regular it is presumed the formal requisites for the validity were complied with. The Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission is the body vested with the power to determine the appropriate remuneration for political office holders in Nigeria, including Councilors and they have shown this with the production of exhibit C3.
There is no doubt that the duty of a Claimant is to adduce evidence to prove his reliefs, and support his pleadings. The proof before me is the instrument (i.e. exhibit C3) entitling the Claimants to the quantum of the sums they claim. The Defendant did not challenge the applicability of exhibit C3, but merely stated that the Claimants are not entitled to salaries and allowances they did not work for because the State Governor purportedly dissolved their legislative council terms on May 29, 2011 immediately upon assumption of office.
It is unquestionable that the dissolution of legislative councils by the Governor unlawfully abridged the tenures of the Claimants. The law is quite settled in this regard – where a contract of service is for a fixed term or tenure, the employee cannot be removed save for misconduct; frustration of the contract of service; or where the employer dies; and or when the contract of such employee is determined before the effluxion of the term agreed, the employer shall be made to pay the employee the full salary and allowances he/she would have earned for the period of his/her fixed tenure - C.O.E. Ekiadolor v Osayande (2010) 6 NWLR (pt 1191) 423 at 449, G-H.
The justice of the extant case would be served in my thinking, by regarding these Claimants as retired councilors for the purpose of enabling them to be paid their salaries and allowances. See Oyeyemi v Owoeye (2017) 12 NWLR (PT 1580) 364 at 404 which has similar facts and circumstances as the instant case.
It is ultimately my finding therefore, that the Claimants have made out a case for the payment of their salaries and allowances considering the provisions of (RMAFC) Remuneration Package for political Public and judicial Office Holders applicable from February 2007 to date.
The only question to be answered now is: What exact amount does RMAFC determine in Exhibit C3, to be the Claimants’ due entitlements?
Now, Exhibit C3 provides that a councilor of a local government council is entitled to N247,024.70 as monthly salary and regular allowances. I find and hold that each of the Claimants are therefore entitled to be paid the sum of N3,705,370.5 (that is, N247,024.70 multiplied by 15 months) as their May 2011 to July 2012 salaries and regular allowances. For their other allowances, I hold that each of the Claimants is entitled to be paid N2,280,228 as furniture allowance and N152,015.2 as leave allowance. Each of these claimants is entitled to be paid the sum of N6,137,613.70 according to the above breakdown.
The issue now is whether the Claimants in the circumstances of this case are entitled to the severance gratuity provided for by Exhibit C3?
Obviously, from the aforementioned decided cases referred to earlier, the only monies each of these Claimants who were unlawfully removed from their offices is entitled to be paid is “the full salary he would have earned for the period of his fixed contracted term”. See again C.O.E. Ekiadolor v Osayande (supra). The mode of payment of severance gratuity in exhibit C3 is stated to be “after successful completion of tenure”.
Severance gratuity is a benefit given by the employer to the employee in gratitude for the services offered by the employee, and is one of the many retirement benefits offered by the employer to the employee upon leaving his job. It can be understood as a form of tip paid by employer to the employee as a reward for the employee’s loyalty and for services offered. Owing to the fact that it acts as a “reward” or “tip” given by an employer, makes it a gratuitous terminal benefit appreciating an employee for the cessation of the employment relationship.
On the other hand, employers offer various kinds of additional benefits in monetary terms to their employees over and above the basic salary, which are known as salary allowances. One of such is a severance allowance; which may be paid regularly as part of their salary package or is paid in bulk where the employee is prematurely disengaged to buffer for the loss of his/her employment.
It is my view that the nature of the severance gratuity, exhibit C3 contemplates is a terminal benefit paid as compensation upon the completion of tenure, as against a termination benefit usually accruable on a premature termination of an employment contract.
A terminal benefit compensating for completion of tenure cannot be paid as compensation for loss of office, as claimed by the Claimants in this case. Thus, it is my considered view that that the severance gratuity does not fall into the category of allowances accrued during the tenure of the Claimants, to enable them to be awarded same now that their contracted tenure was unlawfully determined. Accordingly, I find that the Claimants are not entitled to be paid severance gratuity.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Defendant is hereby ordered as follows-
Pay each of these Claimants the sum of N6,137,613.70 made up of his unpaid salaries and allowances for 15 months including furniture and leave allowances, that is from May 2011 to July 2012.
Pay the total sum of N18,412,841.10 to these Claimants within 60 days of this judgment which sum shall in default, attract 10% interest per annum until it is fully liquidated.
Delivered in Owerri this 15th day of May, 2019.
Hon. Justice Ibrahim Suleiman Galadima