The suspension of Nigeria’s most senior judge by President Muhammadu Buhari broke international human rights standards on independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, a UN expert said.
Buhari, a military ruler in the 1980s voted into office in 2015, is hoping to win a new term in a presidential election scheduled to take place on Saturday.
The chief justice could preside over any dispute regarding the election result. Nigeria’s judiciary has helped resolve electoral disputes in past votes, some marred by violence and vote rigging.
“International human rights standards provide judges may be dismissed only on serious grounds of misconduct or incompetence,” said Diego Garcia-Sayan, UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.
“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 said in a statement.
Garcia-Sayan, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate legal and judicial independence, said dismissing judges without following legal procedures or offering a chance to contest the decision was incompatible with the independence of the judiciary.
Buhari suspended Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on January 25 following an order by a tribunal on public officials’ conduct and replaced him with Ibrahim Tanko Mohammad.
Four courts superior to the tribunal had ordered a stay of proceedings and the tribunal previously said it lacked jurisdiction over cases involving judicial officers, Garcia-Sayan said.
The UN statement said some judges and defence lawyers in Onnoghen’s case were subjected to serious threats, pressures and interference.