Nigerian Leader's Suspension of Chief Justice Sparks Uproar

(Bloomberg) -- Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of the nation’s top judge just weeks before a tight election drew condemnation from the legal community and prompted the main opposition party to temporarily halt its campaign in protest at what it called an “act of dictatorship.”

Buhari’s announcement on Friday that he had appointed the Supreme Court’s second-ranking judge, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, in an acting capacity to replace Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen was roundly criticized by the Senate president and the Nigerian Bar Association. Both the European Union and the U.S. expressed concern about the suspension.

Nigerian Leader's Suspension of Chief Justice Sparks Uproar

The decision came after Onnoghen was put on trial last week by the Abuja-based Code of Conduct Tribunal for an allegedly false declaration of his assets. In addition to that charge, Buhari said the security agencies linked “suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars” to Onnoghen’s personal accounts. The president said the CCT ordered him to suspend him until the trial is over.

The move is particularly significant because the results of the Feb. 16 presidential and parliamentary elections may be contested in the Supreme Court, said Adedayo Ademuwagun, a Lagos-based analyst at the risk advisory group Songhai Advisory LLP. Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer, has a history of election rigging and vote results being disputed in the courts.

“This is another one of a string of events that indicates that this election will not be credible and will be challenged no matter who emerges as the winner,” Ademuwagun said.

U.S.-EU Concern

The U.S. said in a statement that it’s “deeply concerned” about the issue and there’s a danger Onnoghen’s removal could “cast a pall over the electoral process.”

“The timing, just before the swearing in of justices for Electoral Tribunals and the hearing of election-related cases, has also raised concerns about the opportunity for electoral justice,” the European Union’s election-observer mission said.

Nigeria’s Federal High Court on Tuesday declined the government’s request that Onnoghen be made to stand down. An appeals court on Thursday ordered the suspension of the trial.

“Our country is falling apart under the leadership of President Buhari and it is time to stand up for democracy,” the main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, 72, said in a statement. “This act of desperation is geared towards affecting the outcome of the elections.”

Nigerian Leader's Suspension of Chief Justice Sparks Uproar

Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party said Saturday morning on Twitter that it would stop campaigning for three days and that Buhari, a former military ruler, had “effectively suspended the constitution.”

Senate President Bukola Saraki said Buhari is threatening to return Nigeria to the days of military rule, from which it emerged in 1999.

“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,’’ he said in a statement.

Nigerian Bar Association President Paul Usoro said Buhari had no constitutional right to suspend Onnoghen without the approval of the Senate and accused the government of trying to intimidate the judiciary before the election.

“What the president has done is essentially a coup against the judiciary,” said Cheta Nwanze, an analyst at SBM Intelligence in Lagos, the commercial capital. “I believe the other arms of government will stand against it.”

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