On Saturday, the United Kingdom expressed serious concern over the suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari.
According to the British Government in a statement issued by its High Commission in Abuja, the timing for the drastic executive action against the number one judicial official gives cause for concern.
Onnoghen’s suspension came under vehement condemnation and criticism from Nigerians, opposition parties and foreign government.
President Muhammadu Buhari had on Friday suspended Mr. Onnoghen and immediately swore in Ibrahim Mohammed as the new Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Mr. Buhari said that he acted on the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal dated Wednesday 23rd January, 2019. The Court of Appeal had also ordered the CCT to stop the trial of the CJN until a verdict regarding his arraignment is reached.
Buhari’s action is contrary to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which says in Section 292 that only the National Judicial Council could recommend sanctions against a federal judge. The Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria would consequently consider such recommendations and forward its decision to the president before a federal judge could be removed.
Suspended CJN Onnoghen was arraigned by the Federal Government through the Code of Conduct Bureau on allegations of false asset declaration.
Here’s how the United Kingdom responded to the development
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.
United States reacts
The United States of America in its reaction to Onnoghen’s suspension through its Embassy on Saturday afternoon said that it was “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.”
The U.S. noted that the development was a mockery of President Buhari’s alleged commitment to free and fair elections in February.
The U.S statement reads below;
“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.”
The European Union reacts, expresses concern over the timing of Onnghen’s suspension
The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) in its reaction expressed worries over the unconstitutional process and the timing of Chief Justice Onnoghen’s removal.
“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.”
Presidency replies U.K, U.S, and E.U
The presidency, in its response to the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, said that as much as Nigeria welcomes prevailing interests and partnerships for successful 2019 general elections, the Nigerian Government would not condone unfair interference in the country internal affairs.
According to the presidency in a statement issued by Mr. Garba Shehu, President Buhari’s senior special assistant on media and publicity, the Nigeria Government vehemently condemns the latest intervention of foreign nations on the suspension of CJN Walter Onnoghen, saying that as a sovereign country, Nigeria deserves respect and honour.
The presidency noted that the Federal Government would ensure free and fair general elections, adding that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has been made truly independent.
“Nigeria reserves the right to be insulated from suggestions and or interference with respect to wholly internal affairs and commends international laws, customs and norms that mandate and require nations and the comity to respect this prerogative to all,” Shehu said.
“Nigeria is confident of its electoral processes and her preparation for the imminent elections and the federal government has supported the independent electoral umpire in both its independence and resources needed to accomplish our desire and insistence on free and fair elections,” he added.
“In addition, the Federal government has ensured the independence of all organs, institutions and arms of government to perform their functions in a manner that is transparent and is not lacking in integrity whether institutionally or by persons within such institutions or organs and will continue to do this.
“Although the question of foreign interference, whether state sponsored, promoted or otherwise has dominated recent elections and outcomes globally, the federal government assures citizens and the global community that it will fiercely and assiduously promote the will and the right of Nigerians to choose and elect their leaders without pressure or assistance from persons or entities that are not constitutionally empowered to participate in the process.”