Democracy Tested in Nigeria
Nigeria is less than three weeks away from the country’s sixth presidential election since the military handed over rule in 1999. Despite this seeming progress, all is not well. On Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari unconstitutionally “suspended” Nigeria’s Chief Supreme Court Justice in what became the latest in a series of moves that bring into question his government’s commitment to holding free and fair elections next month.
The week prior to his removal, the Code of Conduct Tribunal listed a number of corruption accusations against Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen. An appellate court ruled the Tribunal had no such jurisdiction over a sitting judge, after which the president took the unprecedented action to suspend him. In a statement released by the President, he said that his office “[r]eceived the Order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal directing me to suspend the Chief Justice pending final determination of the cases against him.”
However, under the Nigerian constitution, only the Senate has the authority to remove a sitting justice. The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, stated: “Our constitution makes no provision for suspension of the nation’s highest judicial officer…Buhari has sent a dangerous signal to the entire world that Nigeria is no longer a democratic nation and that we have returned to the old jaded era of military dictatorship.” Reaction has been swift and almost unanimously opposed to the action. Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, Buhari’s primary election opponent, has called the firing a “brazenly dictatorial act.”
The upcoming election promises to be a close contest, as the Nigerian economy has seen hard times for the past four years and Buhari is much less popular than he was when running in 2015. The Supreme Court plays an important role in Nigeria’s election process, including ruling on any election petitions. Thus, the removal of the Chief Justice raises serious questions in regards to the government’s motives and impartiality. Already, the political opposition, and civil society leaders, have raised several concerns regarding the Independent National Electoral Commission, the institution responsible for administering the election.
Nigeria is the African continent’s most populous country and — depending on whom you ask — its largest democracy. Recall that in 2015, then President Goodluck Jonathan conducted free and fair elections, and upon his defeat at the ballot box to Buhari, stepped aside — a notable high point in a region that is otherwise accustomed to hotly disputed election results. It is thus imperative that this year’s election is conducted in accordance with established international standards, allowing Nigeria to build on its nascent and still vulnerable democratic culture and institutions.
Despite some missteps, Nigeria has long been a leader in Africa and has indeed emerged as a serious diplomatic and political partner on the world stage. It is therefore crucial that the United States, and other world powers, keep a keen watch during the ensuing weeks. Together, we should encourage the Buhari administration to respect the election process with the aim of safeguarding truly free and fair elections, and to ensure an outcome that will be beyond dispute and reflect the true will of the Nigerian people.