Nigerian lawyers have condemned President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of the country’s top judge shortly before the presidential elections, as a “coup” against the judiciary and an attack on the constitution.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the umbrella body for lawyers, added its voice to a growing chorus of protests at Friday’s decision to suspend Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen.
Onnoghen would have ruled on any dispute in the 16 February presidential and parliamentary elections, but Buhari ordered his suspension pending the outcome of corruption charges that he disputes.
Buhari, who came to power in 2015 on a pledge to fight corruption, is seeking a second term in office. The NBA condemned the president’s intervention, accusing Buhari of an attempted coup against the Nigerian Judiciary.
In a statement issued Friday, it appealed to the national assembly to intervene to reverse the decision.
“The action of the Executive portends a slide into anarchy and complete deconstruction of the Rule of Law and due process. It amounts to an absolute breach of the Constitution and the usurpation of the powers of the Senate and the Nigerian Judicial Council,” says the NBA.
Buhari, a retired army general who headed a military government in the early 1980’s, has been criticised in the past for flouting court orders asking him to release suspects facing graft and criminal charges.
However, he said he took the decision in compliance with a ruling by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, a ruling that Onnoghen is challenging. Onnoghen was charged on January 12 for false declaration of assets, after millions of cash in local and foreign currencies were allegedly traced to his accounts.
Buhari also accused Onnoghen of frustrating the war against corruption by freeing graft suspects before his court, and replaced him with Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, his second-in-command.
Lagos constitutional lawyer Olisa Agbakoba, a former president of the Bar Association, described the suspension of Onnoghen as “the most violent denigration of the Nigerian’s constitution”.
The independent Punch newspaper also condemned the suspension in a strongly worded editorial Saturday.
“The President’s singular and misguided action has the tendency to plunge the country into an unnecessary constitutional crisis and, perhaps, derail 20 unbroken years of democratic governance,” it wrote.
Law professor Itse Sagay, head of a government-appointed advisory body on graft, defended Buhari. Onnoghen had admitted that he did not fully comply with the assets declaration requirements, he argued.
“The suspension is morally justified and legally justified. Morally, he should not be in that office considering what has happened. Legally, the president has powers to remove him,” says Sagay.
Debo Adeniran of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders lobby group also backed the president.
“The judiciary has been a clog in the wheel of the anti-corruption war.It’s on record that judges have been frustrating graft cases by granting frivolous rulings and injunctions,” says Adeniran.
The sanctions against Onnoghen would “send a correct signal to other judges to sit up”, he said.
“Onnoghen has to step aside pending the outcome of his trial,” says Adeniran.
On Friday, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) halted its presidential campaigns for 72 hours in protest at the suspension.
Their presidential candidate and Buhari’s main challenger, Atiku Abubakar condemned the move against Onnoghen as a “brazen dictatorial act”.