Nigeria's President Suspends Chief Justice


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has faced criticism after a decision to suspend Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen on January 25. Following this move, Buhari appointed Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, the next in line, as the acting chief justice.

Onnoghen has been summoned to appear before the Code of Conduct Tribunal as a result of his failure to declare his acquisition of foreign currency. The president leveled further accusations, saying, “All credible evidence indicates the [chief justice] owned and operated several secret bank accounts. Unexplained large sums of money, exceeding several million dollars have passed through these accounts.” The source of the money remains unaccounted for. Onnoghen’s lawyers reject the authority of the tribunal, and he has not responded to the accusations. However, Buhari has stated that Onnoghen’s suspension is contingent upon the decision of the tribunal.

Both the timing and the manner of Onnoghen’s suspension have been cited as reason for international outcry and criticism. Many Nigerians fear this signifies a descent into the corruption and tyranny that mires the country’s history. According to the Nigerian constitution, the removal of a chief justice requires a “two-thirds majority of the house of Assembly of the State.” But, Buhari acted unilaterally. Furthermore, Nigeria’s presidential election is scheduled to take place on February 16, and Buhari is running for re-election. The judiciary has ruled on elections in the past, and as chief justice, Onnoghen would have ruled on any electoral legal proceedings. The election is already contentious: the suspension occurs amid accusations that the president’s party has engaged in vote-buying.

In response to Buhari’s decision, the opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party, suspended his campaign for 72 hours following Onnoghen’s suspension, claiming that there is no point in campaigning for a biased election. The Nigerian Bar Association echoed these concerns, calling Buhari’s actions an “attempted coup against the Nigerian judiciary.” Speaker of the House Yakubu Dogara has gone as far as to call the president’s actions dictatorial. Additionally, both the United States and the United Kingdom have released statements expressing reservations over the suspension and the possible effects it may have on the credibility of the upcoming elections.