Reaction to shock suspension of Nigeria's Chief Justice

THE decision by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, to suspend the country’s chief justice, Walter Onnoghen, has come under increasing criticism at home and abroad. Following the suspension of Nigeria’s judicial leader, his deputy as chief justice, Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, was sworn in as replacement. But Buhari’s decision has sparked considerable criticism with commentators pointing out that it comes shortly before a critical election in which Judge Onnoghen could have played an important role.

International and local outrage has followed the shock suspension of Nigeria’s chief justice, Walter Onnoghen, by the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari on January 25, 2019.

Lawyers across Nigeria held a two-day protest against what they termed the “illegal suspension” of the CJ, boycotting the courts for the duration of the demonstration. The protest was called for by the Nigerian Bar Association following a national emergency meeting called to consider the suspension, and it was widely observed.

Posters carried by the protesting lawyers called for the reinstatement of the CJ but also urged the deputy chief justice, Judge Tanko Muhammad, sworn in as acting CJ, to stand down.

Critics of the CJ’s suspension say that it was a political ploy to ensure a compliant judiciary for the country’s elections in February. The CJ has a significant role in any electoral disputes and according to these critics, by removing Judge Onnoghen the President had ensured that the CJ would not act contrary to his interests.  

President Buhari has, however, rejected these criticisms, saying he acted because of charges against Judge Onnoghen related to undeclared income.

The Commonwealth Lawyers Association also expressed its concern, saying that the constitutional procedures and due process stipulated for investigating a judicial officer in Nigeria were not followed. The CLA said the state was entitled to charge members of the judiciary accused of criminal conduct, but this always had to be done in a way that was “consistent with the rule of law and constitutional safeguards”.

“The judiciary like other members of society may not be subjected to violations of their fundamental human rights no matter what the charges are against them.”

Commonwealth countries had accepted the Latimer House Principles dealing with the relationship between the three branches of government. These stated that disciplinary steps that might lead to the removal of a judicial officer should include appropriate safeguards to ensure fairness: “the right to be fully informed of the charges against them, to be represented at a hearing, to make a full defence and to be judged by an independent and impartial tribunal”.

The Latimer House Principles also required that judges should be suspended or removed “only for reasons of incapacity or misbehavior that clearly render them unfit to discharge their duties”.

The CLA urged the Nigerian government to abide by these principles to safeguard judicial independence and to respect the Latimer House Principles which represent a cornerstone of Commonwealth values.

At home, the Nigerian senate has taken steps to challenge the CJ’s suspension in the Supreme Court, with an application for the court to order that the President and the Attorney-General should stop violating the constitution in relation to the suspension. The senate also asked for an order that the suspension should be set aside and the CJ restored to office.

According to the senate its approval was required before such a suspension could take place, but this had not been sought or given. Its approval would also have been needed before an acting Chief Justice would be sworn in, but again, this had not been sought or given.