Gov Bello v. Judiciary: Industrial court puts a spanner in the works

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By

Idowu Akinlotan

(Palladium, back page)

The Nation Newspaper

June 16, 2019

IN a landmark but little celebrated judgement delivered days ago by the National Industrial Court, the Kogi State government was ruled out of order on two counts: withholding the amounts standing to the credit of the state judiciary in the consolidated revenue fund, and attempting to control and direct the staff of Kogi State judiciary. The state government had stopped the salaries and allowances of judicial workers since July last year. But according to Justice E.N. Agbakoba, the state government had clearly violated the provisions of the constitution, especially Section 121 (3) and Paragraph 2 (1) Item C Part II of the Third Schedule. The judge therefore ordered that the state government should pay the judiciary N1.529bn in 30 days.

Governor Yahaya Bello unlawfully withheld the funds due to the state judiciary because he said they resisted his staff biometric and audit exercise and what he called pay parade. The judiciary had insisted he had no such powers to impose any such rules or methods on them, let alone withhold their allocation. To compel the government to comply with the constitution, the Kogi State chapter of the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) went to court last March to seek an interpretation of where the governor’s powers began and ended on that vexed issue. The court has finally determined who acted unlawfully. But whether the state government can risk the ire of the courts by failing to pay the huge sum it claimed to have only withheld but not spent is another thing entirely.

In both his 2019 budget speech and the New Year’s Day address, Mr Bello tried to sway the public behind his government by announcing that the judicial workers were only punishing themselves over their salaries and allowances lying idle in the bank. He claimed he had not touched the money, but that he only embargoed it. Not only does he not have the authority to withhold anything, it turns out, according to the courts, that he does not even have the authority to dictate to judicial workers or regulate their deployment or work. For a governor fighting for re-election, his abominable treatment of civil servants and judiciary workers is certain to be very problematic.

Not too long ago, the National Judicial Council (NJC) sent a panel to Kogi State to mediate in the misunderstanding between the governor on the one hand and the chief judge, Nasir Ajanah, and judiciary workers on the other hand. The NJC, however, dithered. Indeed, before the governor told the visiting NJC panel that he could not work with the state’s chief judge, he had tried to instigate the House of Assembly to remove him. That effort came to nought on the altar of a High Court judgement in the state. But rather than point out the illegality of the governor’s action, the visiting NJC panel tried to placate him and even handled his contemptuous treatment of the judiciary with kid gloves. It has taken a resolute Industrial Court and a courageous and brilliant Kogi High Court to expose the impeachable actions of Mr Bello.

Mr Bello has managed to pay one month out of the about 12 months salaries and allowances owed judiciary workers; and he took one month to find the money after the NJC admonished him to pay. Yet he claims not to have touched their allocation. The Industrial Court has determined that he has violated provisions of the constitution, and it has ordered him to make amends within 30 days. It remains to be seen whether he will comply or persist in his acts of impunity. He believes he will win his party’s primaries, and then go on to win a landslide in November’s governorship election. Perhaps he has started to believe he is a magician, no longer a politician. For a governor so completely lawless and so inept, a governor who owes civil servants years of salaries and openly lies about it, it beggars belief that he thinks so highly of himself. Yet he ought to consider himself extremely lucky to have ridden on the back of a governorship mandate he neither worked for nor deserved, either by virtue of his education or by dint of character. Re-election? That’ll be the day!

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