Trial of Nigerian Chief Justice Slammed by Opposition, Lawyers - EcoFinBiz Blog

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Trial of Nigerian Chief Justice Slammed by Opposition, Lawyers

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(Bloomberg) -- Nigeria’s chief justice is due to go on trial for alleged improprieties in declaring assets in what the opposition said is an attempt to intimidate the judiciary and spark a constitutional crisis a month before presidential elections.

The Nigerian Bar Association described the decision by the West African nation’s Code of Conduct Tribunal to put Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on trial starting Monday as an “assault, intimidation and desecration of the judiciary” by government agencies. The tribunal said Onnoghen, who took up the post in March 2017, would be charged on six counts, which it didn’t detail in a statement on Saturday.

The trial comes ahead of the Feb. 16 election, which pits 76-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari against former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, 72. Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party has accused Buhari and his All Progressives Congress of clamping down on dissent and preparing to rig the vote, which they deny. The president has refused to sign an electoral bill that lawmakers say they passed to ensure the vote is free and fair.

Since neither candidate is expected to concede in the election, the courts may have to play a important role in determining the eventual winner, said Cheta Nwanze, head of research at Lagos-based risk advisory SBM Intelligence.

“What this means is that it is highly likely that the judiciary will have the definitive say via election petition proceedings on who will be the next president,” he said. “Coming after the country’s highest judge at this time raises questions about the motives of the ruling All Progressives Congress.”

Buhari’s party said any suggestion it was meddling with the judiciary is “baseless” and that the PDP’s commitment to fight corruption is weak. The president and the APC are committed to ensuring free elections in Africa’s biggest oil producer, it said.

Onnoghen couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Any attempt to force Justice Walter Onnoghen to vacate his office, four weeks to an election for which the unpopular Buhari administration has shown every intention to manipulate, is a move pregnant with negative meaning,” Abubakar said in a statement. “Nigeria is still a democracy and not a fascist dictatorship as President Buhari may wish.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Wallace in Lagos at pwallace25@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sophie Mongalvy at smongalvy@bloomberg.net, Karl Maier

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