The suspension and replacement of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari contravened international human rights standards on independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, a United Nations expert has said.
The embattled Justice Onnoghen was suspended on January 25, 2019 and replaced by Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammad in acting capacity.
“International human rights standards provide that judges may be dismissed only on serious grounds of misconduct or incompetence, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayán said in a statement on Monday.
“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,” he added.
Garcia-Sayan, who is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate legal and judicial independence, said 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.
The UN expert said though 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.
He noted that 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.
Some of the judges handling the case of the Chief Justice and the defence lawyers have been subjected to serious threats, pressures and interferences, Mr. García-Sayán said.
“I am seriously concerned at such allegations, which may constitute, if proven, grave attacks to the independence of the judiciary and the free exercise of the legal profession,” said the expert.
“One of the senior advocates defending the Chief Justice was arrested on Wednesday by security agencies. 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 added.