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2019: Chaos or election?

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Justice Walter Onnoghen

I raised this alarm last May in this column on whether or not we are heading for an election or chaos. Reason is that the history of wars and turmoil in Africa is the history of power struggle. From Angola’s 27 years civil war to the collapse of Somalia and the unending crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), among others, all the crises were fueled by power struggle. Politicians with overvaulting ambition stoked the upheavals. The interest of Nigeria should be paramount; it should be over and above any personal or sectional interest. All lovers of Nigeria should rally to save this country from avoidable crisis.

Nigeria has had its unfair share of political crisis that led to a three-year fratricidal war from 1967 to 1970 in which over a million citizens perished and millions dislocated from their homes, especially on the defunct Biafra side. Whatever would spark off another conflagration should be avoided. Politicians should be wary not to endanger this country once again. Politicians sowed the seed that led to the unfortunate civil war. Why are the politicians leading us to yet another dangerous precipice?

The confusion arising from last week’s unilateral suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, by President Muhammadu Buhari, has raised the tempo of uncertainty that the forth-coming general elections may be anything but free, fair and peaceful. That is a very sad development for Nigeria, a country battling with myriads of social, economic and security problems amid a scheduled general election.

Nigerians are befuddled that a crisis of this magnitude that could engulf the country in avoidable conflagration could be stoked at this eleventh hour to the long-awaited 2019 general elections, with the presidential election barely two weeks ahead. What sort of ill wind is this? Why are the embers being fanned vigorously? The sudden removal of Onnoghen is an ill wind that blows no one any good. President Buhari should be patriotic and save this country from avoidable crisis. For it is said that there are two people that matter in a country namely, the one who turned a forest into a country and the one who turned a country into a forest! Some people have labored to establish Nigeria as it were. Let there be no one who would turn this country into a forest.

Nigerians were shocked over the weekend when news broke that President Muhammadu Buhari has suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, pending the completion of his trial at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Buhari announced the suspension at the Council Chambers of the Presidential Villa in Abuja on Friday, January 25, 2019. He said the suspension was as a result of the order of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), directing him to suspend Onnoghen, pending the completion of his trial. Legal pundits are analyzing the legality of the order.

Buhari did not stop there; he went ahead to swear-in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammad from Bauchi as the acting CJN. Onnoghen is from Cross River State in Nigeria’s South-South Niger Delta Zone. The ethnic colouration bolstered the general perception that President Buhari has been filling all strategic arms of government with his own kinsmen. The suspension of Onnoghen, a man whose appointment was not favoured by Buhari in the first place, is seen as the last straw that breaks the camels back in the light of the elections at hand. Why did the President do this now?

Following the suspension, a flood of protests, agitations and outcry have greeted the polity from both within and outside the country. At the swearing in ceremony of the chairmen and members of the Election Petition Tribunals numbering 250, by the new Acting CJN, Tanko Mohahmad, only one Justice out of the 25 Justices of the Supreme Court was reportedly present, the rest boycotted the event in a show of solidarity with Onnoghen. Right now, the entire legal fraternity in the country is outrage at what they call unconstitutional action by Mr. President. Both the National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) have called emergency meetings to discuss the anomie.

Also, the National Assembly (NASS), which has been on recess, is reconvening to deliberate on the burning issue. The restive Niger Delta militants that have sheathed their swords for a while are fuming and threatening fire and brimstone on oil industry facilities in the area. And the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) announced the suspension of its electioneering campaigns for 72 hours in protest.

The international community is not keeping mute. The United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) governments have expressed serious concern about the development, which they fear would affect the coming elections. There is fire on the mountain, one would say. Except something is done urgently to douse the tension, we may be in for evil days the end of which no one can fathom.

It needs to be stressed that no one is saying that Onnoghen should not be disciplined if he had run afoul of the law. Not at all. What people are saying is that due process should be followed. Legal luminaries in the country are in agreement that there is a constitutionally laid down procedure for disciplining a legal officer of Onnoghen’s status. Flouting or shortchanging that process, as the President Buhari has done is tantamount to what they call a ‘coup’ against the constitution and the judicial arm of government in a democracy. Whereas, there is national outrage over the President’s action, the presidency, on the other hand, is busy justifying the unprecedented action of Buhari. Can Nigeria wriggle out of this self inflicted problem? The coming days and weeks are indeed uncertain. But can Nigeria survive a political upheaval amid the ravaging Boko Haram war in the North-East and the nationwide insecurity?

It is sad that rather than preach peace in the run up to the polls, some unpatriotic elements are out to cause mayhem. How to tackle the myriad of problems confronting the country should be the focus instead of diverting attention to the destablisation of the judiciary, a critical arm of Nigeria’s democratic government.

What is happening give credence to what those who know Buhari think that he can’t easily be brushed aside as was the case with Jonathan in 2015. Buhari’s exponents think that he will deploy all the forces within his power, including the power of incumbency, to counter the opposition to win the re-election. The unilateral and unconstitutional suspension of Onnoghen is a clear testimony that Buhari is not Jonathan, who patriotically refused to orchestrate crisis and bloodshed in 2015.

Nigerians want peace and not chaos. As things stand now, except Buhari and the APC adopt a “no bloodshed mantra,” adding political crisis to the already degenerate killing fields across Nigeria may spell doom for the country. That way, the prediction that Nigeria could not survive the 2015 elections may only have been postponed to 2019. President Buhari should not let this happen under his watch.


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