‘Give me my retirement benefits’
BY EGUONO ODJEGBA
The Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, is presently embroiled in a messy retirement saga, threatening to expose both present and past management to ridicule for its apparent blunder and involvement; and the plot to cover up amid sordid show of executive rascality.
Documents sighted by our reporter show that the questionable retirement which took place in December 2011 apparently on doubtful medical ground, appear further complicated by allegations of forgery, salary stealing and perjury.
These has further been laced with allegation of official conspiracy, negligence and nonchalance; all of which may worsen the service’s corporate image which has in recent time been assailed with poor public image perception and unfavourable legal verdicts.
The victim of the customs questionable actions, Olorunoje Lateef Adewale, a Superintendent of Customs, with Service No. 24053, was served a retirement letter on December 20, 2011, supposedly on medical ground. Superintendent Olorunoje who joined the service August 1, 1979 and was expected to retire by age on January 6, 2020, and by year of service, August 1, 2014.
The retirement letter reads: “At its 41st Regular Meeting held on 19th December, 2011, the Nigeria Customs Service Board, NCSB, approved that you be and you are hereby retired from Service on Medical Grounds with effect from Monday, 19th December, 2011.
The Board has further directed that I express its appreciation to you for the services you have rendered to the Nation over the years, and to wish you success in your future endeavours.
You are to hand over all Government property in your possession including (uniforms, accoutrements, identity card, etc) to your immediate superior before you proceed on your retirement.”
The retirement letter with reference NCSB/ABJ/AP&D/94/S.4/VOL.XXXVIII/79 dated 20 December 2011 was signed by Mohammed .M.mni, NCSB Secretary. Olorunoje had received the retirement letter and a promotion letter to the rank of Superintendent on the same day, in Katsina, whilst serving in Katsina Command.
Olorunnuje faulted the ground for his dismissal as morally and administratively questionable, arguing that he participated in a series of medical fitness tests in which he was given a clean bill of health. Some of the medical tests he informed include those organized and conducted by the NCS with the collaboration of the health ministry.
Documents attested to the medical test of 2003 conducted by the NCS through a circular NCS/LZ/006, dated 2ndJune 2003 and signed by J.O babatope on behalf of the ACG/ZONAL CO-ORDINATOR, ZONE ‘A’ Lagos. On 16th March 2011, Olorunoje again got a medical certificate of fitness from the General Hospital Idiroko. He has not ceased to avail himself information on his medical status, and even in retirement, on 18thMarch 2020, he received a medical certificate of fitness from the Alimosho general Hospital, Lagos state.
To show that some elements in the NCS who didn’t like his face, deliberately set out to plot jis ouster from the service, Olorunuje averred that not only was salary was been paid until 2010 when he was due for disengagement, he also received transfer Staff Order on 6thMarch 2012to Ogun Customs Command, signed by the self same ACG Mohammed M, who signed his compulsory retirement letter December 2011. He attributed the conflicts and inconsistencies in his case to “evil plot of those who wanted me out by all means, but God disgraced them in their own acts”, he said, adding:
“Do you know that my salary kept been paid for more than a year after I was retired? I have all the documents, who were those collecting it? So I believe that my retirement was contorted, I was not medically unfit, but then I have gone past that, I leave them to God”.
To add salt to injury, Olorunnoje claimed the service has frustrated him from getting his retirement benefits by refusing to provide him with a copy of the medical report/certificate being a requirement by the Pension Fund Administrator, PFA, to assess his retirement savings.
He explained he visited the customs headquarters, wrote to apply for the said medical report, and have exhausted every official and legitimate avenue, including legal options, all of which he said have been abortive, due to customs strange and inexplicable attitude.
Looking forlorn and dejected, the embattled retired officer said the behaviour of the service has subjected him to intense physical and emotional sufferings, such that he could no longer cater for himself and his family. He said his wife left him as a result while he also lost a grownup daughter owing to his inability to foot her medical bills when she became sick.
The bulk of the savings comprise of deductions from his monthly salary with a counterpart statutory contribution by the NCS, his employer, which current value as at the date of his retirement stood at N26, 632.78.
He expressed regrets that after faithfully serving fatherland and the NCS for 32 years without any blemish to his record, the service not only forcefully disengaged him, but choose to punish and subject him to sundry sufferings and humiliation, and have for nine years prevented him from accessing his gratuity for no just cause.
He has therefore began to toy with the idea that the only reason the NCS will refuse to let him access his retirement benefits cannot be far from plot to frustrate him to commit suicide, just so to allow some elements within the management cadre steal what was left of his benefits, having allegedly also connived to steal his salary which were paid for about fourteen months, starting from the month he was wrongfully retired.
Lamenting, he said, “My wife has left me because I can no longer fulfill my family responsibility. Last year one of my daughters died, she was sick and hospitalized and I didn’t have the money to buy her drugs and pay for her hospitalization. I served the customs faithfully, my records are intact”, he said crying; even as he provided further insight into the ugly incident.
“What struck me as strange at first was the fact that my retirement was a lone case, and the reason the board presented. It was clear to me that the board action was unjust and phony, and after efforts to get reinstated failed, I took my fate in good stride.
“Then I discovered that the same customs I served for 32 years was preventing me from getting my entitlements. The PFA said I cannot access my gratuity without the medical certificate. I thought it was a mistake, so I wrote and applied to be given the medical report. They have refused to do so up till as we speak.
“The headquarters have engaged in funny manoeuvres and attitude and at this point, I am fed up. I think that what the NCS is trying to do is to frustrate me, to try to make me commit suicide in order to cover up the crimes of those who stole my salary and those who contorted my retirement. I believe that there is a ploy to protect individual officers in the service who plotted my retirement, and others stationed to frustrate me from getting my entitlements.
“But I am not really after the stolen salary and retirement, and I am not after anybody, I just want justice and compensation for my service to fatherland. I have been treated unfairly and unjustly, I have left all of that to God to reward. All I want now is for customs to pay my entitlements and compensation”, he said.
Presenting documents to back his claims, Olorunuje said he was forced to approach the court to prevail on customs to fulfill obligations owned him. He lamented that despite court judgments, dutifully served on the customs service; those in leadership at headquarters have failed to honour court rulings and commands, relating to the matter.
He further explained that owing to the curious refusal of the customs service to honour the court command, he instituted legal proceedings against the customs service to compel it to release the medical certificate in 2017; in Suit No. NIC/LA/101/2017, between him and the Nigeria Customs Service Board. He said despite the court ruling on Thursday 12th December 2019 by His Lordship Hon. Justice Elizabeth A Oji in his favour, the NCS refused to provide him with the medical certificate.
The court ruling sighted by our reporter reads in part:
“I hereby declare that the claimant is entitled to be provided or furnished by the defendant with the Medical Report or Certificate warranting his retirement on medical grounds from his employment in the Nigeria Customs Service on 20th December, 2011, same being required by the Pension Funds Administrator to process the release of the funds standing to his credit in his Retirement Savings Account.
“I here declare that the failure, refusal or negligence of the defendant to furnish the claimant with the Medical Report or Certificate warranting his retirement on medical grounds from his employment in the Nigeria Customs Service to enable him access Retirement Savings Account with his Pension Funds Administrator is unlawful and wrongful.
“I here order the defendant to forthwith furnish the claimant with the Medical Report or Certificate warranting retirement of the claimant on Medical Grounds from his employment in the Nigeria Customs Service on 20thDecember, 2011 to enable the claimant access his Retirement Savings Account with his Pension Funds Administrator.
Hon. Justice Elizabeth Oji ruled that, “The above order is to be complied with not later than 30 days from this judgment.”
Olorunoje believe that the NCS has demonstrated total disregard for a court of competent jurisdiction and may continue to ride rough shod over his rightful claims, in the hope that “when I die, and I think the scheme is to frustrate me to the point of taking my life, so that the matter will also die”, he said.
The judgment preamble by Hon. Justice Elizabeth Oji further read in part:
“The defendant filed no process in defence of this action. The Court records show that defendant was served with the originating processes and hearing notices were served for every day the Court sat over this matter. Trial commenced on 1st November 2018 and was concluded on the 28thof January, 2019.
“The claimant testified himself and tendered nine exhibits marked exhibits C1-C9. The Court adjourned for cross examination. The defendant was not present to cross-examine and the claimant closed his case. There was no defense at all by the defendant. The matter was then adjourned severally due to the Court being on national assignment. It was finally adjourned to 10thDecember 2019 for adoption of final written addresses. The defendant did not file any written address. The claimant’s final written address was adopted on the 10th of December 2019 and the Court adjourned for judgment.”
“During the course of his employment, a Retirement Savings Account, RSA, with Personal Identification Number, PIN, 100060990718 was opened for him with Premium Pension Limited, pursuant to the Pension Reform Act, 2004.
“Sometime in or around March 2011, the claimant proceeded for medical examination at General Hospital, Idi-Iroko, Ogun State as was directed and was issued with the Medical Certificate of Fitness dated 16th March, 2011 which indicated his fitness. However, the defendant served him with a letter of retirement on medical grounds despite his being declared fit by General Hospital, Idi-Iroko, Ogun State. The claimant by a general form of complaint dated 3rd March, 2017 instituted this action and sought for the following reliefs, circumstances surrounding the termination of his employment by challenging same at the National Industrial Court which suit was eventually dismissed, inter allia on grounds of non-compliance with Section 2(a) of the Public Officers Protection Act. The claimant subsequently proceeded to take steps to access the benefits accrued to him in his Retirement Savings Account domiciled with Premium Pension Limited but was instructed by Premium Pension Limited to furnish them with medical condition warranting his retirement since his retirement was based on medical grounds. The claimant approached/wrote the defendant severally to produce the medical certificate upon which he was retired all to no avail till date.
“Exhibit C6 shows claimant’s enrolment with the National Pension Commission. Also in evidence is claimant’s retirement savings account statement, exhibit C5 which shows that payments were made into his account. It shows a continuous remittance of both the employee and employer’s contributions and spans a period from February 2006 to April 2013. Having been retired by the defendant, it behooves the defendant to take all necessary actions to enable the claimant to access his pension contribution. As held by the Court of Appeal in the case of Martins and Others v. Kolawole, 2011, LPELR-4475(CA):
‘Pension is a serious matter. It is designed to cushion the retiree from the hardship of life in retirement and to, also, serve as a reward for the retiree’s past meritorious service to the employer’
Justice Elizabeth Oji further notes that “it is a right which cannot be unilaterally taken away by the employer.”
Olorunoje also gave reasons why he lost his reinstatement bid. “You wouldn’t believe this, but immediately I was wrongfully retired, I made my intention to challenge it in court known. Some top management staff at customs headquarters invited me for talks, they expressed regret about it and said I should not go to court that we should settle.
“They said they will arrange a compensation package for me, that as a customs officer and member of the customs family, I should not be the one dragging the customs to court. Few other colleagues had previously also appealed to me in Lagos, and I fell for it. Because when you look at it, the customs is actually my family is many respect. So I agreed. I was asked to go and return after three months.
“I returned to headquarters after three months and met the Secretary Board, ACG Mohammed M mni, who advised me earlier against going to court. To my utter disappointment, he reneged and said since I have been retired, I should just take it as an act of God, that there is nothing they can do anymore; and that the service could no longer arrange anything for me. I was shocked. I cried.
“I returned to Lagos and started arrangement to fight the retirement and to be reinstated. I lost because the court said the matter was statute bar that I did not bring the matter up within the 90 day allowable time frame as spelt out by the public service rule.
“At that point I decided to take my faith in good stride, and decided to see what I can do with my pension benefits. I didn’t know the NCS had also plotted to frustrate me from getting my benefits. That is where we are. I applied for the medical certificate, headquarters refused to give it to me.
“I then went to court where I secured judgment to be given the medical certificate. But up till now the headquarters have refused to give me the certificate, it has snubbed the ruling of a competent court of jurisdiction.”
Asked if he has been to the headquarters since then, he explained that under the circumstances, it would be dangerous to do so.
“I cannot be going to the headquarters after a court process, what if something happen to me? I went to the headquarters repeatedly, they refused to resolve my matter amicably and I went to court. I don’t feel safe going back there after court ruling. The service have frustrated me so much, I need to be careful where I go to at this point.”
He however expressed confidence in the current leadership of the NCS to do what is right and to obey court ruling.
When contacted, the National Public Relations Officer of NCS, Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah advised that the complainant should come to the headquarters and process his papers, noting that the NCS has no reason to prevent him from enjoying his benefits.
“If you retire from the service, it is for you to regularize your papers and collect your entitlements and go. Why will the service of anybody sit on his papers? Let him come to the headquarters and meet with the comptroller welfare.
“For me, there is no need running to the court or media over simple administrative matter. He could be the one delaying himself, retirement is a process, he should submit himself to the process and enjoy his retirement.”