WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
Because the action is likely unconstitutional and potentially upends Nigeria’s delicate democratic balance of power, grafting the powerful presidential authority over the power of other arms of government. However, it signals Buhari’s determination to address the hydra-headed corruption that has kept the nations economy small and stagnated development. It gives an inkling to how Buhari will conduct his government if he secures a second presidential term in February.
Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, has unilaterally suspended the Chief Justice of the country, Mr. Walter Onnoghen, replacing him with Mr. Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, who will function in the role of Chief Justice in acting capacity. Justice Mohammed is the next in line of succession to Onnoghen.
The president claimed he suspended Onnoghen on the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal, which had commenced prosecution of Onnoghen for not fully declaring his asset, in contravention of extant Nigerian laws.
Onnoghen had been under intense pressure from the government to resign after details of his malfeasance emerged. A move the former CJN stoutly resisted.
On Friday, the former CJN through his media aide, denied speculation that he had resigned. According to him, “There’s absolutely no truth in the rumours making the round that the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria, His Lordship Hon. Mr Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, has resigned his office. It is fake news!
“The Hon CJN was in the office all through yesterday (Thursday) and sat in court. As part of his duties, the Hon CJN will be swearing in members of the 2019 National Assembly, Governorship and State Assembly Election Petition Tribunals tomorrow (Saturday 26th January 2019).”
The news of the CJN’s sack has drawn mixed reviews. Members of the presidents party generally laud the move, claiming it sends a strong signal that no body is above the law in the country, and will energize the government’s anti-corruption campaign.
However, opposition political parties, civil society, and a section of the international community have expressed serious concern that Onnoghen’s suspension is ominous and capable of pushing the country precipitously to the brink of anarchy.
According to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, which suspended its presidential campaign for three days in protest of the suspension, Buhari is baring his dictatorial fangs. While calling on the society to challenge the constitutional breach, the PDP advised Onnoghen to resist the sack.
Senate President Bukola Saraki has also condemned Onnoghen’s suspension, describing it as a coup and a deliberate attempt to endanger Nigeria’s hard-won democracy. Saraki claimed Buhari, by the suspension of the CJN, had acted outside the provision of the constitution, and exercised powers that he does not have.
According to him, “This action is capable of undermining the nation’s judiciary, subverting the constitution, intimidating judges of all the courts of record, and creating uncertainty in the electoral process.
“By unilaterally suspending the CJN without following the provision of the constitution, President Buhari has sent a dangerous signal to the entire world that Nigeria is no longer a democratic nation and that we have returned to the old, jaded era of military dictatorship .
“Our constitution makes no provision for suspension of the nation’s highest judicial officer. The constitution provides a clear process for removal of the CJN and specify the roles of the three arms of government, beginning from the National Judicial Council (NJC), the National Assembly and lastly, the Presidency, have different roles to play in that process.”
“There is no condition under which the President can usurp the powers of other arms of government. I do not know where the President and his advisers got this idea of suspending the CJN on the so-called order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal but this is novel, disingenuous and alien to our laws. It is strange that President Buhari is claiming to be taking orders from a Tribunal which has been ordered by a superior court to halt all actions on the trial.
“With this action, President Buhari has initiated a process the consequence of which nobody can predict. They have precipitated a constitutional crisis.
“At this point, all democratic institutions in the country, the international community and democrats across the world should rise against this blatant act of impunity. We should jointly condemn this retrogressive, uncivilized and despotic measure”, Saraki stated.
Saraki asked Buhari to immediately reverse his decision on Onnoghen to avoid a constitutional crisis.
Similarly, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt Hon Yakubu Dogara, says the CJN’s suspension confirms Buhari as a dictator with a strong distaste for the rule of law. He argued that Buhari had been gradually, but progressively eroding democratic values in the country.
According to him, “We have watched in disbelief as the Government recklessly deploys institutional prerogatives; routinely flouts the rule of law; subverts and assaults democratic Institutions; refuses to accept opponents as legitimate; suppresses citizens civil liberties(especially those of opponents) and trample underfoot the media. In short, the Government’s tyrannical and authoritarian credentials are loathsomely legendary.
“No provision in Sections 157 and 292 of the 1999 Constitution as amended supports the President in purporting to suspend the CJN or swearing in an acting CJN. The whole idea of a limited government is that the President’s powers is limited by law and it is ultra vires his powers to act in the absence of explicit legislative authorization. That is representative democracy at its best which our 1999 Constitution as amended guarantees.
“It is instructive to note that our Constitution does not contemplate or presupposes a situation whereby the Judiciary will have a suspended CJN and an acting CJN at the same time. Therefore, it is right to posit, as some have done that the President now has his own Chief Judge to do his bidding while Nigeria has a sitting CJN until he is removed in line with the provisions of the Constitution.
“The awfully crude annexation of the judiciary by the President in violation of his oath of office and the Constitution cannot be for any other reason except, as alleged by so many, to prepare the judiciary ahead of time for the purpose of conferring some aura of legitimacy to the contraption that the 2019 general elections may after all become.
“I therefore call on the President to remember that he has no better legacy to bequeath other than a good name: which cannot be achieved without honour, character and integrity. Honour and integrity demand that he upholds his oath of office by reversing this assault on our Constitution and following the manifestly clear and unambiguous constitutional procedure for the removal of the CJN if he must be removed. Anything short of this demeans all of us.
“To our citizens, we must now head the warning of the Irish lawyer cum orator, John Philpot Curran who said, “the condition upon which God had given liberty to man is eternal vigilance: which condition if he breaks, servitude is at once the consequences of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt”. Despotism can only prosper in Nigeria if good men and women do nothing.
“I also call on all lovers of freedom and democracy all over the world to rise to the occasion and demand of this Government and the President to halt the march to anarchy and bedlam: which dictatorship promotes. The world has an experience in this and it must not allow this unmitigated disaster on Nigeria before it acts to restore sanity.
“As of today, Nigeria is now Germany in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire. Our democracy is on fire; ignited by the very people who swore to protect and defend it. That this fire must not convert the Chancellor to Fuhrer as it happened in Germany in 1933 depends on our collective response and that of the international community. We must not bow our knees to dictatorship: not now, not ever again. “
Meanwhile, the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union have expressed serious concern over Onnoghen’s removal.
The US 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.”
According to the UK government:
“The British High Commission expresses serious concern over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. We have heard a wide range of credible and independent voices, including in the Nigerian legal profession and civil society, who have expressed concern over the constitutionality of the executive branch’s suspension of the chief officer of the judiciary.
“We respect Nigeria’s sovereign authority and its right to adjudicate on constitutional provisions but as friends of the Nigerian people, we are compelled to observe that the timing of this action, so close to national elections, gives cause for concern. It risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections. We, along with other members of the international community, are following developments closely.
“We encourage all actors to maintain calm and address the concerns raised by this development through due process, demonstrating their commitment to respecting the constitution and the impartial administration of the rule of law. We further urge them to take steps to ensure that elections take place in an environment conducive to a free, fair and peaceful process.”
Also, in its reaction, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) observed:
“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.”