Nigeria Opposition Leader Calls Top Judge Suspension Illegal

(Bloomberg) -- Nigeria’s main opposition figure, Atiku Abubakar, said President Muhammadu Buhari breached the constitution by suspending the nation’s top judge just weeks before a general election in Africa’s biggest oil producer.

The president’s move on Jan. 25 to temporarily replace Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, citing allegations of a false asset declaration, has triggered a political crisis because the Supreme Court would probably have to rule on any challenges to the fairness of the vote. Abubakar, 72, is running against Buhari in what has become a tight race to govern Africa’s largest democracy.

“I want to note the universal condemnation of this unlawful act by all Nigerians as well as the international community,” Abubakar told reporters Monday in Abuja, the capital. “How we react to this challenge in the following days will determine the fate of our democracy, which has been brought to great peril by this needless crisis.”

Nigeria’s main stock index fell for the first time in five days. It dropped 0.3 percent by the close in Lagos, while yields on the government’s 12-month T-bills rose 37 basis points to 17.48 percent, their biggest jump since Dec. 20.

Nigeria Opposition Leader Calls Top Judge Suspension Illegal

Buhari’s announcement that he had appointed the Supreme Court’s second-ranking judge, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, in an acting capacity has drawn condemnation from the legal community and legislators and expressions of concern from the U.S. and European Union that it could undermine the integrity of the Feb. 16 vote. Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party called it “an act of dictatorship.”

‘Suspicious Transactions’

The decision came after Onnoghen was put on trial two weeks ago by the Abuja-based Code of Conduct Tribunal. In addition to being accused of not declaring his assets properly, Buhari said security agencies had linked “suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars” to Onnoghen’s personal accounts. The president said the CCT ordered him to suspend the judge until the trial is over.

“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 EU’s election-observer team said in a statement.

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

‘Unfounded Assumptions’

Nigeria’s government will ensure the elections are free and fair, said Garba Shehu, a spokesman for Buhari.

The statements by the EU and the U.S. “seem more driven by unfounded assumptions and, to be honest, a certain condescension to this African democracy,” he said. “Not one of your nations would allow a person enmeshed in legal uncertainty to preside over your legal systems until the cloud has been cleared.”

Information Minister Lai Mohammed denied Onnoghen’s case has anything to do with the election.

“The suspension of Justice Onnoghen is a consequence of his breach of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers and has nothing to do with the forthcoming elections,” Mohammed told reporters on Monday. “Neither does it signify the onset of dictatorship or tyranny as some have insinuated.”

Nigeria Opposition Leader Calls Top Judge Suspension Illegal

Whether the suspended chief justice has done something wrong or not isn’t the main concern for most people, according to Sola Tayo, a Nigeria analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House.

“It is the manner in which he was removed,” she said. “A lot of people find it very unsettling.”

Nigeria’s Federal High Court had declined on Jan. 22 the government’s request that Onnoghen be made to stand down. Two days later, an appeals court ordered the suspension of his trial.

Buhari, a 76-year-old former military ruler, was elected in 2015 as the first opposition politician to win power through the ballot box since independence from the U.K. in 1960. He is running for a second four-year term.

Nigerian Bar Association President Paul Usoro said the former general 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.

Senate President Bukola Saraki said Buhari is threatening to return Nigeria to the days of military rule, from which it emerged in 1999. The Senate, currently on recess, said in the morning it would reconvene Tuesday but this plan was cancelled later in the day.

“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,’’ Saraki said in a statement.

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