Amid growing criticism, Nigeria’s information minister denied on Monday that the president’s recent suspension of the country’s chief justice was related to the upcoming presidential elections. The suspension of Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen had “nothing to do with the forthcoming elections” and did not “signify the onset of dictatorship or tyranny as some have insinuated,” Minister Lai Mohammed said. The chief justice faces trial on charges of allegedly failing to declare his assets, which Onnoghen has argued is without merit. This is the first time a chief justice is standing trial in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 190 million people. Critics say the suspension of the chief justice just three weeks before the election is an effort by President Muhammadu Buhari to weaken Nigeria’s judiciary and pave the way for his election to a second term in the Feb. 16 vote. The chief justice plays a key role in any legal challenge to what could be a disputed vote.
The Nigerian Bar Association called the suspension an “attempted coup against the Nigerian judiciary” this weekend and the president’s rival called the suspension “an act of dictatorship” meant to influence the election.
The U.S., Britain and the European Union said Saturday that Buhari acted “without the support of the legislative branch.” The U.S. warned this suspension could “cast a pall” over the Feb. 16 vote, in which Buhari seeks a second term.