By Freedom Ajala
There is anxiety in Ebonyi government circles following an order of the National Industrial Court, Enugu Division dismissing the dissolution of the Ebonyi State Independent Electoral Commission, EBSIEC by the Governor of the State, Engr. David Nweze Umahi.
The Secretary to Ebonyi State Government, Prof. Benard Ifeanyi Odoh had in a letter dated 9th of June, 2015 announced the dissolution of boards, commissions and agencies of Ebonyi State Government.
The said letter had EBSIEC as number 13 on the listed bodies in the document. It would be recalled also that the present Ebonyi State House of Assembly had after its votes and proceedings shortly after its inauguration dissolved all boards, commissions and agencies, excluding the Judicial Service Commission.
Although the House did not expressly mention EBSIEC, it was learnt that it had added that the list of such bodies included others not mentioned. This was despite the fact that the commission was not among the boards, commissions and agencies that should have been ordinarily affected since they were to stay in office for five years and not four years.
Following this development, four of the affected members of the Commission, led by Gilbert Monday Okorie, a lawyer dragged the Attorney General of Ebonyi State, the Governor of Ebonyi State (who was sued in his official capacity), Ebonyi State House of Assembly, chairman of the commission, Chief Jossy Eze and others to the National Industrial Court,Enugu.
Their five prayers included a declaration that the prevention of the claimants by the defendants from carrying out the functions and duties of their offices is unconstitutional, illegal, null and void in that it is contrary to the provisions of Ebonyi State Independent Electoral Commission Law No. 4 of 2001 and the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; a declaration that the purported dissolution of the Ebonyi State Independent Electoral Commission and the termination of the Ebonyi State Independent Electoral Commission and the termination of the appointment of the claimants by the 2nd defendant is unlawful, wrongful, illegal, unconstitutional, ultra vires, null and void and of no effect whatsoever and a further declaration that the letter dated 9th day of June, 2015 with reference No: EB/SSG/M.53/IX/602 written at the instance of the 2nd defendant conveying the dissolution of the Ebonyi State Independent Electoral Commission is wrongful, unlawful, illegal, unconstitutional, ultra vires, null and void and of no effect whatsoever.
The claimants had also prayed the court to set aside the purported dissolution of EBSIEC and appointment of new members of the Commission, order the reinstatement of the sacked board and restrain the defendants from terminating or interfering with their appointments or enjoyment of the benefits of their office until after their 5 years tenure as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.
The Presiding Judge, Justice Auwal Ibrahim in his ruling, held that the Claimants had proved that the 2nd respondent did not comply with the provisions of Section 201(1) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution and Section 4(3) of EBSIEC Law before the dissolution of EBSIEC and termination of the claimants’ appointments.
According to him, “this is because Exhibit A5 for example, a letter written by Prof. Benard I. Odoh, Secretary to the Government of Ebonyi State, dated 9th June 2015 stated the dissolution of boards, commissions and agencies of the Ebonyi State Government. This document listed EBSIEC as number 13 on the listed bodies in the document.”
Justice Ibrahim further ruled that the votes and proceedings of the Ebonyi State House of Assembly which is Exhibit A7 shows that there was in fact a general resolution by the House of Assembly to dissolve all boards, commissions and agencies, excluding only the Judicial Service Commission.
Continuing, he maintained that “it did not mention EBSIEC expressly but added that the list of such bodies included others not mentioned. The inclusion of EBSIEC in Exhibit A5 shows that it was one of those intended to be captured under ‘others not mentioned’. However, what is important is the fact that the Resolution of the House of Assembly was meant to affect the boards, commissions and agencies that had completed their tenures of four years
The body in question, EBSIEC, however, was not one of such agencies, in view of the clear wordings of Section 199(1)(c) of the 1999 Constitution. The claimants were to be in office for 5 years and not four years. If the 5 year tenure was to be affected, there must be clear resolution on the inability of the claimants to discharge their functions for any of the reasons stipulated in Section 201(1) of the 1999 Constitution. There is nothing before the court to prove that.”
While dismissing the counter-affidavit and arguments of the Counsel to the Respondents that the reasons why the Claimants were removed were based on eligibility issues in relation to their appointment as well as their poor performance in conduct of Local Government Council Elections of Ebonyi State, the Jurist said the problem with all his(Roy Umahi’s) arguments and submissions was that there is nothing placed before the counter-affidavit or Exhibits annexed thereto to show these allegations leveled at the House of Assembly level or at the Governor’s level when he took the decision to dissolve EBSIEC and terminate their appointments as communicated in the letter of 9th June, 2015.
“This can only be an afterthought at best and are accordingly discountenanced. On the whole, I find that the Claimants were not properly removed by the 2nd Respondent. I therefore answer the first question in the negative”, he ruled, adding;
“In view of my findings above questions 2, 3 and 4 are all answered in favour of the Claimants. The 2nd Respondent not having validly dissolved EBSIEC, therefore the letter with Ref No. EB/SSG/M.53/V.IX/602 written on his directive cannot stand and is hereby declared null and void in relation thereto”.
Justice Ibrahim after granting reliefs a, b, c and f and in terms of their monetary claims ordered, “in the circumstance, it is my humble view that since the Claimants were to serve out their term of five years which were to culminate in July, 2016, they should be entitled to the claims for the period in question, i.e., from June, 2015 to July, 2016.”
The Judge therefore ordered that the sums of N445, 726.88 per claimant being the monthly salary for each member from 1st June, 2015 to July, 2016 (ie) (total of N5, 793,825.55 for 13 months) for each member. Also, the sum of N3, 565,815.00 was ordered to be paid to each of the claimants/members as gratuity and another sum of N118,000.00 being the outstanding leave allowance for each member for year 2016.
The Jurist, while ordering that the payments be made within 30 days further ordered that the Claimants be paid the sum of N80,000.00 as costs.
One of the claimants, Gilbert Okorie in an interview with our correspondent applauded the decisions of the court and maintained that the verdict has indeed proven that the judiciary is the last hope of the common man.
Meanwhile, following the expiration of the 30 days deadline given by the court for the payment of the various sums, Government House sources claim that there is anxiety in both the government’s quarters and EBSIEC that the Claimants may be filing contempt charges against the respondents soon.
A source in the commission said this is posing serious concerns for its leadership especially now that they are warming up for a Local Government election in the state.