Knocks, words of caution and indeed a barrage of criticisms have continued to trail President Muhammadu Buhari’s shock suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Samuel Nkanu Walter Onnoghen, and his swift swearing in of Justice Tanko Yusuf in acting capacity.
Taking the lead in flaying what they described as a brutal attack on the judiciary by the President are state governors, embassies, political parties, prominent jurists, socio-political groups as well as civil society groups. They all cautioned Buhari to allow the rule of law to prevail in order not to plunge the country into needless chaos.
The Embassy of the United States, specifically expressed deep concerns over Onnoghen’s suspension, and deplored 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.”
Similarly, the British Government expressed worry over Onnoghen’s removal from office as CJN.A statement from the British High Commission in Nigeria said: “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,” said the statement on it’s 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.
On its part, the European Union said the decision to suspend the 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 body 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.
For the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Yakubu Dogara, Buhari’s action is simply “unconstitutional,” hence the world has now been served with notice that Nigeria is now a full-blown dictatorship. In a statement on Saturday, Dogara called on the President to rescind the decision, even though the action did not come to him as a surprise since the Buhari-led government had never hidden its disdain for the rule of law.
“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 players; suppresses citizens’ civil liberties (especially those of opponents) and tramples 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 authorisation. 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.