Outcry, campaign halted after Nigeria President Buhari orders top judge suspended
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Political parties and legal groups are demanding that Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari rescind his suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, just weeks before the presidential elections on 16 February, calling it a “dangerous and brazen assault on the constitution”.
The main opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), announced on social media it would halt its presidential campaign for 72 hours in protest of Buhari’s decision to suspend Chief Justice Onnoghen.
The PDP questioned how democracy could be carried out.
“The basis for this election is the democracy itself,” according to the statement, adding that Buhari’s actions had effectively suspended the constitution.
Earlier in the week, Nigeria’s Federal High Court refused the government request that Onnoghen step down.
The chief justice was put on trial by the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) last week, accused of not declaring his assets properly. Buhari said that there were suspicious money transactions coming into Onnoghen’s personal accounts. He said that the CCT told him to suspend the chief justice until the trial is over.
‘Deconstruction of rule of law’
While the PDP suspends its presidential campaign, the Nigerian Bar Association called the move by Buhari a ‘coup against the Nigerian judiciary.’
“The action of the Executive portends a slide into anarchy and complete destruction of the Rule of Law and due process,” according to a statement issued by the Nigerian Bar Association.
By using the CCT to carry out this directive, the Nigerian Bar Association called the action a “looming constitutional crisis” and called on the government to reverse the suspension of Chief Justice Onnoghen.
According to Section 292 of the Nigerian constitution, a chief justice can only be removed with “two-thirds majority of the house of Assembly of the State.”
“President Buhari has sent a dangerous signal to the entire world that Nigeria is no longer a democratic nation and that we have returned to the old, jaded era of military dictatorship,” Senate President Bukola Saraki said in a statement, referring to Buhari’s term as president from the end of 1983 to 1985, when he seized power in a military coup.
Timing ‘troubling and unwise’
Others have pointed out the timing of this suspension less than three weeks before the election. Jibrin Ibrahim, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abjua, said on his blog that “whatever the facts, prosecuting the chief justice of Nigeria one month before elections is troubling and unwise. He is the leader of the judicial branch of government.”
If the election results are contested in the Supreme Court, the cases will not be heard by Onnoghen, but by the Supreme Court’s second-ranking judge Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, a move opposed by Senate President Saraki.
"It's quite problematic as it creates a perception that the 'acting' Chief Justice of Nigeria who incidentally sworn in judges that will sit on the election petitions may have been primed to do the bidding of the ruling government," Habeeb Lawal, lawyer and national assistant publicity secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association told RFI.
The EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) said on Saturday it was "very concerned" about the process and timing of the suspension of Nigeria's top judge just weeks ahead of upcoming elections.
“It is our hope that President Buhari will listen to the voice of all lovers of democracy the world over and restore democracy in Nigeria immediately and without qualifications,” said the opposition PDP statement.