The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayán, has described President Muhammadu Buhari’s suspension of Walter Onnoghen as the Chief Justice of Nigeria a serious violation.
Onnoghen is facing six charges of non and fraudulent declaration of assets relating to his failure to declare a series of bank accounts, denominated in local and foreign currencies, as required by law.
President Buhari controversially suspended the top judge and inaugurated Justice Ibrahim Tanko as the acting CJN last month based on an order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), a move that has attracted outrage from opposition parties and the international community.
In a statement published on Monday, February 11, 2019, Garcia-Sayán warned that Onnoghen’s suspension and replacement is in contravention of international human rights standards on independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers.
He said, “International human rights standards provide that judges may be dismissed only on serious grounds of misconduct or incompetence. Any decision to suspend or remove a judge from office should be fair and should be taken by an independent authority such as a judicial council or a court.
“The dismissal of judges without following procedures laid down by the law and without effective judicial protection being available to contest the dismissal is incompatible with the independence of the judiciary.”
Garcia-Sayán also noted that Buhari’s decision to suspend Onnoghen based on an order of the CCT was wrong because the court had been ordered by higher courts to suspend proceedings until its jurisdiction could be determined.
“All State institutions must abide by the decisions of national courts and tribunals. In the case of Chief Justice Onnoghen, four national courts hierarchically superior to the Code of Conduct Tribunal had already ordered a stay of proceedings, and the Tribunal had in a previous case, 8 months earlier, held that it lacked jurisdiction over cases involving judicial officers, which should be processed by the National Judicial Council,” he noted.
He further warned that the intimidation of lawyers defending Onnoghen in court is a disconcerting development that constitutes grave attacks on the independence of the judiciary.
“Lawyers play an essential role in securing access to justice, and should never suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or other sanctions for action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics,” he said.
Buhari’s decision to suspend Onnoghen just weeks to the 2019 general elections, scheduled for February 16, where he’s seeking re-election, has led to accusations that he’s trying to bring the judiciary under his control with the courts expected to play a crucial role in the event results are contested.
The president has defended himself against the allegations and accused Onnoghen of using his influence to shield himself from his alleged crimes.