National Industrial Court reverses demotion of professor

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The Owerri Judicial Division of the National Industrial Court, has declared the reversion of Professor Vincent Eleasor’s appointment from the rank of Professor of Mathematics to Senior Lecturer by the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike as ultra vires, null and void and of no effect.

The court also ordered the university to restore Eleasor to his post as Professor of Mathematics with all rights, entitlements and to continue to pay his salaries, emoluments and allowances as a Professor.

It held that the purported reversion was not in line with the 2017 University Conditions of Service for Senior Staff, and not only wrong but most oppressive.

The Claimant – Professor Eleasor had submitted that he was offered appointment in the Department of Mathematics and requested to assume duties as an Associate Professor pending the regularization of his appointment, that by letter dated 16/12/2014 he was subsequently confirmed and approved his appointment as a Professor with effect from 1/10/2014 sequel to an assessment by the institution.

However, by a letter dated 20/5/2019, that his purported demotion from the rank of Professor to a Senior Lecturer without affording him a fair hearing was an infraction of his fundamental rights and whilst the action was pending, the institution went ahead to enforce a pay cut of his salary despite his protest.

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In defence, the defendant counsel, Emma Ukaegbu argued that the case was premature and incompetent because claimant never utilized the machinery for settlement internally before proceeding to file the suit that the Defendant had such powers to ensure that Claimant was properly placed in his rank and position as a staff of the institution that the claimant appointment as an associate professor in the past was done in error and so a subsequent administration had the powers to rectify such errors by directing for the proper placement of its staff.

Counsel submitted that it was unlawful and inequitable for the Claimant to have been given an appointment he was not qualified for and so the Defendant must be seen as acting in the overall best interests of the general public and the institution, that Claimant was not denied fair hearing but refused to take advantage of the invitation sent to him to appear before the committee.

In opposition, the Claimant counsel, Alex Eyong and Francis Eyong submitted that the act of the Defendant of “proper placement” of this Claimant, amounted to a ‘demotion’ which is synonymous in the public service realm as a disciplinary action meted out to erring servants that Claimant is justified to question whether he was afforded any fair hearing before determining his civil rights that the Institution cannot rely on the provision of FUA Act to escape liability.

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Delivering judgment after careful evaluation of the submissions and arguments of both counsel, the presiding Judge, Justice Ibrahim Galadima held that the suit as constituted is competent and not premature.

“This Court painstakingly perused the entire submissions and arguments made by the Defendant Counsel to find where he expressly cited or referred to such provisions of the law that grant the Defendant the power to ‘properly place’ its staff where their appointments are perceived to be irregular.

“This Court’s conclusion, and I must be pardoned for thinking so, is that there is a skewed notion by the Defendant that it has an inherent power being the Claimant’s employer, to tamper with his rank or status in office as it pleases without any sound or concrete legal backing.

“Having been so appointed, it is tangential that if his appointment is to be varied or downgraded, then at least he must be given good cause for such and possibly accorded a fair hearing. The fact is that when he was appointed in 2014, the Appointment and Promotion Committee of the institution approved same and as such, there is a presumption of regularity with regards to his qualification for that position.

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“On the whole, and for all the reasons above adduced, the invalidation and withdrawal of the Professorial appointment of the Claimant by the Defendant vide Exhibit C3 dated 20/5/2019 is not only wrong but most oppressive.”

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