The wheels of justice turn slowly in Nigeria. On the rare occasions when corruption cases are brought against prominent people, petitions can take years to resolve. It was therefore unusual that on January 25th President Muhammadu Buhari suspended Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen, a mere 15 days after allegations of impropriety were lodged against the most senior judge in the country. This was the first time that Nigeria’s head of state had sacked a chief justice since 1975, when the country was under military rule. Mr Buhari’s move was not merely unusual. It was also unlawful. Nigeria’s constitution seeks to balance the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government; a power play by one part against a second needs the consent of the third. Mr Buhari did not seek support from the Senate, where he lacks the two-thirds majority needed to oust the chief justice, so his act is widely viewed as being against the law.
It has also injected a dose of fury into a previously placid election campaign. Earlier this week Nigerian lawyers took to the streets of Abuja, the capital, in protest (see picture). Some stopped work for two days. Atiku Abubakar, Mr Buhari’s main rival in the presidential race that takes place on February 16th, has called the move “a brazen act of dictatorship”. On January 26th America, Britain and the eu issued statements expressing concern.
Few observers doubt that Mr Onnoghen has a case to answer. Under Nigerian law, officials have to disclose their assets every four years and upon taking a new job. He has not done so since his promotion in March 2017. Nigeria’s judiciary, like many of the country’s institutions, is widely seen as corrupt. Yet due process has not been followed, notes Aminu Gamawa, a member of Nigeria’s bar association.