Three former federal lawmakers risk being imprisoned following their refusal to honour Supreme Court judgment, ordering them to return some monies to the National Assembly.
The court in 2017 awarded judgment debts against Abubakar Danladi, then a senator, Herman Hembe and Sopuluchukwu Ezeonwuka, both members of the House of Representatives as at that time.
In separate judgments by the apex courts, each of the federal lawmakers was sacked and ordered to return all salaries and allowances they had received while in the National Assembly.
However, two years after the judgment, none of them has refunded the money.
Although the National Assembly has refused to release information about the enforcement of the judgment, multiple sources revealed that none of the lawmakers honoured the judgment.
In total, the politicians are expected to return about N62 million to the coffers of government.
First to be sacked by the Supreme Court was the member of House of Representatives representing Orumba North/South of Anambra Federal Constituency, Sopuluchukwu Ezeonwuka.
The lawmaker who had spent 22 months at the National Assembly then was sacked by the court and replaced with Ben Nwankwo.
Mr Nwankwo had approached the court on the argument that his name was wrongly substituted with that of Mr Ezeonwuka after he had obtained the nomination of the party to contest the National Assembly election.
Prior to this judgement, the candidacy of Mr Sopuluchukwu of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was upheld by the Federal High Court in Abuja and the Court Appeal
Dissatisfied with the judgements, Mr Nwankwo approached the Supreme Court.
Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun who read the judgement. set aside the judgement of the Court of Appeal delivered on June 26, 2016, as a nullity. The apex court ruled that the appellate court exceeded its jurisdiction by granting relief not sought by the parties before it.
Mr Sopuluchukwu was also asked to make refunds.
“It is further ordered that Ezeonwuka shall refund to the National Assembly all monies collected by him by way of salaries and allowances since he took the seat within 90 days.
“And finally, a fine of N500, 000 is awarded in favour of the appellant against the first respondent’’, the judge held.
By the time this judgement was delivered, Mr Sopuluchukwu had spent 22 months at the House of Representatives.
According to the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) approved emolument for Rep members, Mr Sopuluchukwu was to return N794, 085 he received monthly for 22 months.
The RMAFC determines the remuneration of political office holders, both elected and appointed, from the national level to the local government level.
Going by the salary and allowances prescribed for his position by the commission, the lawmaker was expected to return N17, 469, 870 within 90 days after the judgement was delivered.
Checks conducted however codued at the Finance Department of the National Assembly in September 2017 indicated that the lawmaker was yet to return the money five months after judgement.
However, the situation remains the same htherto.
When contacted, Mr Sopuluchukwu confirmed that the Supreme Court judgement was not implemented but said he had ‘settled’ with the National Assembly. He would not reveal the nature of the settlement.
“Are you aware that there are other judgements? About three of us. Hembe…have they returned their own? It is a general thing. They treated it equally, if they have returned, all of us have returned.
“What is the rationale behind asking me to return the money expended when I was working? Allowances, did I put it in my pocket? Is it not when you’re working that you use it to work? In this country, where have you seen a judgment that after removing a governor he (is asked) to pay all the money he received? Have you seen it?
“The National Assembly considered all of them that time…at the height of the National Assembly, it has been discussed but I will not reveal to you because I have some documents with me to that effect.”
He said further when this reporter asked if he was willing to honour the Supreme Court judgment, should the National Assembly compel him to do so; “Who and who have paid? Who and who have they compelled before? We have settled with the National Assembly,” he said.
Mr Nwankwo could not be reached to ask if the fine awarded in his favour has been paid. His lines were switched off for several days.
Two months after Mr Sopuluchukwu’s case, the Supreme Court sacked another House of Representatives member, Herman Hembe. The court ruled that he was not the valid candidate of the All Progressives Congress.
RepresentingVandikwa/ Konshisha Federal Constituency of Benue State, Mr Hembe was replaced by Dorathy Mato, who was declared the rightful winner of the APC primaries.
Mr Hembe was also ordered to return all the salaries and allowances he received as a lawmaker since he was sworn in in 2015. The Supreme Court also awarded one million naira against Mr Hembe in favour of Dorathy Mato, the defendant.
After the judgement, Mr Hembe approached the Supreme Court asking the court to refer the case to a lower court for retrial. His prayer was not granted.
“I have however been unable to refund the salaries I received from the House of Representatives. The salaries were received monthly and were used for the upkeep of my family and the high cost of living made it impossible for me to have any savings.
“I have tried very hard to raise a loan to enable me to comply with the above order of this Honourable Court, but have not yet succeeded. I will comply with the order of this Honourable Court as soon as I am able to raise the money,” he noted in an application filed before the apex court after the judgement.
Checks by this newspaper indicate that the lawmaker has not returned N19,058, 040 received in the 24 months he spent as a lawmaker. He has also not paid the N1 million fine.
For several days, Mr Hembe did not answer multiple calls put through to his line. He also did not reply to text messages.
In a telephone conversation, Mrs Mato said the one million Naira fine awarded in her favour has not been paid.
“He has not paid me anything,” Mrs Mato said. “Even the fine of one million (Naira) he has not given me. I tried to complain to the National Assembly through the leadership, by then Dogara (was the Speaker), but nobody answered me. At a time, I became quiet but I wrote a complaint to the National Assembly and nothing was done.”
Mr Danladi was sacked the same day as Mr Hembe and asked to refund what he had earned for 24 months as a Senator.
By RMAFC standard, Mr Danladi, who represented Taraba North Senatorial District until his sack, is expected to return N25, 532, 640 to the National Assembly within 90 days of delivery of the judgement.
In April 2018, the then-Senate President, Bukola Saraki, appointed Mr Danladi as his Special Adviser on Special Duties.
Shortly after his appointment, this newspaper wrote the National Assembly to request for evidence of the refund the salaries and allowances he collected as directed by the Supreme Court. The National Assembly never responded to the request.
However, multiple sources have revealed that Mr Danladi is yet to refund the money.
Like Mr Hembe, Mr Danladi also refused to answer calls and text messages.
Lawmakers risk jail terms
The Sheriff and Civil Process Act guides judgement debt in Nigeria. The Act allows the creditor, in this case; the National Assembly, several options in enforcing a judgment debt.
First, the Act under Section 20 (1) provides an option for the creditor to apply for execution whereby the properties of the debtor can be sold.
“Any sum of money payable under a judgment of a court may be recovered, in case of default or failure of payment thereof forthwith or at the time or times and in the manner thereby directed, by execution against the goods and chattels and the immovable property of the judgment debtor in accordance with the provisions of this Act.”
The creditor can also apply for Garnishee process. With this, a judgment creditor (garnishor) can obtain an order of the court attaching some money in the hands of a third party like the bank, (garnishee) which belongs to the judgment debtor.
Such order compels the garnishee to pay over such funds to the garnishor to satisfy the judgment debtor’s indebtedness.
Also, there is the option of committal of the debtor to prison. The sheriff, under Section 38 (1) of the Act, is empowered to “take the body of the person against whom the order is made or warrant issued, and deliver him to the officer in charge of the prison mentioned in the order or warrant.”
This can only be effective after a court at the conclusion of an investigation directs so. Such debtor may be committed to prison and discharged after presenting a certificate signed by the creditor or by any officer of the court, to the effect that such person has satisfied the debt or instalment.
As stated in section 68 and 69 of the Act, the court after the hearing has the power to send such defaulters to prison terms for contempt of court.
“If such judgment debtor does not show cause to the satisfaction of the court why he should not be punished, or if being ordered to show cause as aforesaid he does not attend the court and does not establish sufficient reason for not attending, the court may remand the judgment debtor to prison if he has been already arrested, or issue a warrant for his arrest and commitment as for a contempt of court.
“A person committed on account of any misconduct enumerated in section 66 of this Act may not be committed to prison for a longer period than one year in any event, or for a longer period than six months if the judgment be for payment of money not exceeding N200, or for a longer period than three months if the judgment be for payment of money not exceeding thirty naira.”
Section 76 of the Act notes that imprisonment does not extinguish the debt.
However, to enforce any of these, the court has to receive a formal application from the creditor.
Lekan Alabi, a lawyer, said the Attorney-General can enforce the judgement on behalf of the state but it needs to be notified by the National Assembly to do so. This option, he said, is viable because the National Assembly was not a party to the case.
“The Attorney-General of the Federation can enforce that judgement because it is public fund. On the strength of that judgement, the AGF can take an application to the High Court and file for action for an attachment of the property of the debtors. The sheriff of the lower court will attach the properties and pay to the coffers. But somebody must draw the attention of the AGF to it because he’s not a party,” Mr Alabi said.
He said even though the law does not disallow settlement between parties, the National Assembly needs to make public the terms of the settlement “if such actually exist.’ He added that there are many consequences for the affected lawmakers.
“They are owing the state. If they want to vie for any elective post now, the judgement can be brought out to show that they are bankrupt. On the strength of that argument, they cannot represent anybody. They are in contempt of the highest court of the land.
“A party who is in contempt of a court does not have any right to get anything from that court. In other words, if the court directs you to comply with a judgement and you fail to do so, the court may refuse to listen to you in another matter,” he said.
National Assembly keeps mum
Several efforts to get official comments from the National Assembly were made but all did not yield success.
On July 11, this newspaper under the empowerment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act wrote the Clerk to the National Assembly, Sani-Omolori, to request for details and evidence of the payment by the lawmakers.
This newspaper also requested for details of official communication by defaulting lawmakers, if any, and moves made by the parliament to enforce judgments.
The letter was acknowledged the same day and replied on the 19th of the same month. In the reply signed by Charles Yiola, Secretary, Directorate of Legal Services, the National Assembly requested more time to respond.
“I am also directed to inform you that your request requires consultations with the Courts, Parties, various Directorates of the National Assembly, the Federal Treasury Office and other offices. National Assembly was also not a party to the suit and needs to verify your claims. Time is therefore extended by one month to answer to your application,” the response reads.
Days after the expiration of the time requested, a reminder was sent with the same content. This has not been responded to as at the expiration of the seven days grace provided by the Act and as of the time of filing this report.
The Clerk to the National Assembly is yet to respond to an email enquiry as at the time of filing this report.