President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen, and his swift swearing in of Justice Tanko Muhammed in acting capacity have been trailed by words of caution and criticisms from the United Kingdom, United States and the European Union, who all requested Buhari to allow the rule of law prevail in order not to plunge the country into needless crisis.
The Embassy of the United States, specifically expressed deep concerns over Onnoghen’s suspension, and condemned the executive’s decision to suspend and replace the CJN 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 criticisms 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,” the statement said.
It added: “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.”
On its part, the British government expressed worry over Onnoghen’s removal from office as CJN, stressing that it has listened to “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”.
A statement from the British High Commission in Nigeria continued: “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,” said the statement posted on its website.
The UK government therefore urged all actors to maintain calm and address the concerns raised by the development through due process, demonstrating their commitment to respecting the Constitution and the impartial administration of the rule of law. It further urged the actors to take steps to ensure that elections take place in an environment conducive to a free, fair and peaceful process.
Similarly, the European Union said the decision to suspend Nigeria’s Chief Justice has led to many Nigerians, including lawyers and civil society observer groups questioning whether due process was followed, and the timing- just before the swearing in of justices for electoral tribunals, and the hearing of election-related cases.
This development, the European Union Election Observer Mission said, has also raised concerns about the opportunity for electoral justice. A statement by Sarah Fradgley said the EU EOM was invited by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to observe the 2019 general elections, but is now very concerned about the process and timing of the suspension.
The EU noted that 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, independence of the election administration, the neutrality of security agencies and the extent to which the judiciary can, and does fulfill its election-related responsibilities. “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,” the statement read.