President Muhammadu Buhari’s controversial suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen from office has drawn criticisms from the United States and the European Union.
The Embassy of the United States said in a statement Saturday afternoon it was “deeply concerned by the impact of the executive branch’s decision to suspend and replace the Chief Justice and head of the judicial branch without the support of the legislative branch on the eve of national and state elections.”
Mr Buhari said he relied on an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, an auxiliary judicial panel that addresses assets filings of public officials, to suspend Mr Onnoghen from office and appoint a replacement.
The decision is contrary to Nigeria’s Constitution which says in Section 292 that only the National Judicial Council could recommend sanctions against a federal judge. The Nigerian Senate would then consider such recommendations and forward its findings to the president before a federal judge could be removed from office.
But those supporting the decision say the president acted based on a court order. This has been countered as every other law is subject to the constitution.
Mr Onnoghen has been facing trial before the tribunal for alleged non-declaration of some bank accounts which contained large amount of dollars and other foreign currencies.
Mr Onnoghen said he forgot to declare the account, an admission the president said was tantamount to pleading guilty and warranted his immediate removal from office.
The president has argued that he only suspended Mr Onnoghen but not removed him. However, the Nigerian Interpretation Act defined suspension and removal as meaning same.
The president has faced serious allegations of constitutional breach, with Atiku Abubakar, his main challenger at the next month’s general elections, saying the Constitution has been effectively suspended.
The opposition Peoples Democratic Party on Saturday said it was suspending its presidential election campaign temporarily in protest.
The U.S. authorities said the development was a mockery of Mr Buhari and other Nigerian politicians’ commitment to a free elections exercise next month.
“We note widespread Nigerian criticism that this decision is unconstitutional and that it undermines the independence of the judicial branch,” a statement said.
“That undercuts the stated determination of government, candidates, and political party leaders to ensure that the elections proceed in a way that is free, fair, transparent, and peaceful – leading to a credible result,” it said.
The statement called for immediate resolution of the matter to prevent Nigeria from descending into crisis.
“We urge that the issues raised by this decision be resolved swiftly and peacefully in accordance with due process, full respect for the rule of law, and the spirit of the Constitution of Nigeria.
“Such action is needed urgently now to ensure that this decision does not cast a pall over the electoral process,” the statement added.
The statement reads:
“The Embassy of the United States is deeply concerned by the impact of the executive branch’s decision to suspend and replace the Chief Justice and head of the judicial branch without the support of the legislative branch on the eve of national and state elections.
“We note widespread Nigerian criticism that this decision is unconstitutional and that it undermines the independence of the judicial branch. That undercuts the stated determination of government, candidates, and political party leaders to ensure that the elections proceed in a way that is free, fair, transparent, and peaceful – leading to a credible result.
“We urge that the issues raised by this decision be resolved swiftly and peacefully in accordance with due process, full respect for the rule of law, and the spirit of the Constitution of Nigeria. Such action is needed urgently now to ensure that this decision does not cast a pall over the electoral process.”
Also, in its reaction, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) expressed concern over the process and timing of the suspension.
Its statement reads:
“The European Union was invited by the Independent National Electoral Commission to observe the 2019 general elections.
“The EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) is very concerned about the process and timing of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen, on 25 January.
“With 20 days until the presidential and National Assembly elections, political parties, candidates and voters must be able to have confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judicial system.
“The decision to suspend the Chief Justice has led to many Nigerians, including lawyers and civil society observer groups, to question whether due process was followed. 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 EOM calls on all parties to follow the legal processes provided for in the Constitution and to respond calmly to any concerns they may have.
“The EU EOM will continue observing all aspects of the election, including the independence of the election administration, the neutrality of security agencies, and the extent to which the judiciary can and does fulfil its election-related responsibilities.”
Also, a presidential candidate, Olawepo Hashim, criticised the president’s action, calling for urgent international sanctions against Mr Buhari and his administration officials.
Mr Olawepo in his statement said Mr Buhari has plunged Nigeria into dictatorship.
“This is a clear indication that we have returned to full blown dictatorship. Following the suspension of the Chief Justice of the Federation, we are seeing full-blown dictatorship in Nigeria. It is an abyss, an aberration and a clear violation of our laws.
“We will not allow Nigeria fall into dictatorship anymore.
“I call on all lovers of Nigeria and lovers of democracy and the international community to immediately impose sanctions on officials of the executive arm of government, their families, including their friends and associates,” Mr Olawepo said.