Nigeria Senate Takes Top Judge's Suspension to Supreme Court

(Bloomberg) -- Nigeria’s Senate asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether President Muhammadu Buhari breached the constitution by suspending Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, stoking political tensions in the West African nation just weeks before a general election.

The case marks a key legal test to Onnoghen’s ouster last week that’s sparked condemnation from the opposition and legal community because the Supreme Court will probably have to rule on any challenges to the fairness of the Feb. 16 vote. Buhari, who’s seeking re-election, said he took the action against Onnoghen, accused of allegedly falsely declaring his assets, on the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal.

The Nigerian Bar Association announced a “symbolic” two-day boycott of the courts starting Tuesday and accused Buhari’s administration of “the assault, intimidation and desecration of the judiciary.” Both the U.S. and the European Union have expressed concern that the decision could harm the legitimacy of the election.

“With so many international bodies expressing concern -- and that is very strong word in diplomatic circles -- about the suspension on the eve of election, they have already raised questions on the legitimacy of the outcome if the president wins, even if he wins handsomely,” said Jideofor Adibe, a political science professor at Nasarawa State University.

‘Act of Dictatorship’

The main challenger to Buhari is former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, whose People’s Democratic Party called Onnoghen’s suspension “an act of dictatorship.”

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.

Buhari named the court’s second-ranking judge, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, in an acting capacity.

“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,” Information Minister Lai Mohammed told reporters on Monday. “Neither does it signify the onset of dictatorship or tyranny as some have insinuated.”

Government’s Motives

With Onnoghen holding the position of chief justice since 2017, moving against him just before the election raises questions about the government’s motives, said Jared Jeffrey, an analyst at NKC Africa Economics in Paarl, South Africa.

“Buhari has had four years to clean up the judiciary. Now is certainly not the time for having another go,” Jeffrey said in an emailed note. “While it cannot be definitively stated that this is a move to block the possibility of electoral justice after the polls, it is suspicious enough that it raises risks of contestation once results are in.”

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