A political storm has broken out in Nigeria following President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to sack the country’s Chief Justice just weeks before the presidential elections.
Buhari signed a decree replacing Justice Walters Samuel Nkanu Onneghen with Tanko Mohammed last Friday, after he failed to appear before the Code of Conduct Tribunal to answer charges of breaching asset declaration rules for public officials.
Punch says it is now able to report that Buhari could not wait for the court to decide on Onnoghen’s fate because he was about to inaugurate 250 judges appointed to handle petitions that may arise from the elections.
Vanguard publishes a statement from the Chief Justice’s office debunking “rumours gaining traction online” that he had resigned, branding them as “fake news circulated by mischief makers”.
Manir Dan Ali is the editor in chief of the Nigerian Daily Trust newspaper. He told RFI that the statement was released as the National Judicial Council met in an emergency session to discuss Onnoghen’s suspension and Muhammad’s emergence as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
He told RFI that hundreds of lawyers also staged a demonstration outside the Abuja headquarters of the Nigerian Bar Association on Monday to protest the so-called "attempted coup against the judiciary".
Coup against democracy?
Despite claims by President Buhari’s spokesperson that he acted in the public’s interest, a spokesman for the main opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party candidate Atiku Abubakar denounced the decision as “an attempted coup d’état against Nigeria’s democracy and the people of Nigeria.
“He didn’t only act outside the prerogatives of his office, but in violation of processes in the constitution (Section 291) spelling out how the Chief Justice of Nigeria are appointed and can be removed from office” says Paul Igbe.
The spokesman for the former Vice President’s campaign also accuses Buhari of ignoring a ruling by the Federal Appeals Court to maintain the status quo on the matter while the Code of Conduct Tribunal examined the case. “It was clear they had an objective , which was to have somebody, a client as the Chief Justice of Nigeria ahead of the elections set on February 16”, he insisted.
Paul Igbe also accuses President Buhari of hypocrisy, because he decided to suspend Justice Onneghen on suspicions and remaining in office despite facing charges of not presenting his certificates to the elections body before contesting the 2015 elections, as stipulated in the constitution.
The Code of Conduct Tribunal, behind President Buhari's decision to replace Chief Justice Onnoghen is the same ethics tribunal which filed charges of undisclosed assets against Senate President Bukola Saraki which were thrown out by the Supreme Court.
Several media outlets noted with amazement that that the CCT’s case against Saraki was opened after he led a massive defection of ruling party lawmakers to join the opposition PDP party.
In the twist to the crisis, the Senate President’s office issued a statement on Monday claiming he had filed a case in the Supreme Court, asking it to rule on whether Buhari acted "in usurpation” of the powers of the Upper House.
Auwalu Yadudu is a political science professor at Bayero University in the northern Nigerian state of Kano. He told RFI that even if there were grounds to support Buhari’s argument that he acted in the national interest, there were constitutional issues of due process, the president should have paid attention to.
Issues of constitutionality
”He does not have the power to remove any judicial officer let alone the Chief Justice of Nigeria without a recommendation of the National Judicial Council and a National Assembly motion backed by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers” says Professor Yadudu.
Walters Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen has been a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria since 2005 and was the first CJN from the southern part of the country in about 30 years.
The only previous case of a chief justice being removed in Nigeria was in 1975, after General Murtala Muhammad ousted Yakubu Gowon in a coup, according to the Nigerian SBM Intelligence Analyst group.