Nigerian Lawyers To Strike Over Suspension Of Top Judge

The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) called a member-wide court strike on Monday, following the executive’s suspension of the country’s top judge, Walter Onnoghen. Merely weeks prior to Nigeria’s general election, the act of suspension has garnered both domestic and international attention, contributing to, and highlighting, the decision’s controversial nature.

According to Al Jazeera, the NBA met in an emergency national executive committee meeting in Abuja, the nation’s capital, and consequently called for the strike, which is set to last from January 29th through the 13th, into action. Following his suspension, Onnoghen had been replaced with acting chief justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed by the call of Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Bahari. The NBA’s protest strike aims to shed light upon the ways in which Onnoghen’s suspension serves as an obstacle to the fulfillment of the judiciary’s role in facilitating fair and safe election practices.

According to statements by Nigeria’s Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), Onnoghen had been facing trial for alleged failure to declare his assets — a claim which has been denied merit by the chief justice himself. The trial was indefinitely adjourned on Monday, however, further motivating the NBA’s strike declaration. According to President Buhari, Onnoghen’s suspension from the chief justice position had been ordered by the CCT until the closure of his ongoing case, perhaps in order to reduce the public onus of the suspension from the executive alone.

Due to the impending election, and the judiciary’s national role in alleviating potential conflicts and disputes, President Buhari’s suspension of Onnoghen has garnered numerous responses, both in favour of, and in opposition to his act.

According to Africa News, Buhari’s main opposition, the Peoples Democratic Party, protested the suspension by halting campaign activities, acting in line with the principles of the NBA strike. Further, Al Jazeera quotes the leader of Buhari’s opposition party, Atiku Abubakar, regarding Onnoghen’s suspension as being “an act of dictatorship”. Similarly, the NBA and several local civil society associations protested Onnoghen’s suspension in Abuja and southeast Enugu, referring to it as “an attempted coup against the Nigerian judiciary.”

Proponents of Buhari, however, including information minister, Mohammed Alhaji Lai, deny all hypothesized links between Onnoghen’s suspension and the upcoming election. Indeed, presidential spokesman Garba Shehestated insists that the president has “done no wrong” with regard to the legality of Onnoghen’s suspension.

The potential implications of the Nigerian judiciary’s strike on the pursuit of eventual world peace are divergent and nearly contradictory. On the one hand, strikes are and have historically been vital strategies for peaceful, nonviolent protests in a direct manner. They are often clear and explicit in public depiction of their goals and tactics, while simultaneously demonstrating the radical self-sacrifice of the wages they depend on for their cause. 

However, with specific regard to the NBA strike, considering the importance of the judiciary in Nigeria’s imminent election, a court strike may appear to be counterintuitive, as the nation needs a consistently functioning court system. The public speech and collective action from the opponents of the suspension are commendable, though their ultimate effectiveness in ameliorating conflict remains to be seen.

According to Al Jazeera, Onnoghen, as chief justice, has played a primary role in helping to resolve disputes in past elections. Nigerian elections have, historically, been impacted by violence and corruption, which is important to note, when considering how both the judicial suspension and strike will impact this year’s impending election — even more so when the chief justice is responsible for presiding over a potentially disputed election result.

Difficulties that hindered the democracy of previous elections in Nigeria can be attributed to interferences by Boko Haram, a group whose primary aim is to institute Islamic Law in Nigeria, according to CNN, as well as “vote-rigging” by election officials, according to Al Jazeera. The election of President Buhari in 2015 was an unprecedentedly peaceful transfer of power.

The suspension of Nigeria’s chief judge has the potential to impact the nation’s upcoming general election — a situation which has been acknowledged by the Nigerian Bar Association in the form of a court strike. Because free and fair elections have long been a landmark of peace, and the conflict over the suspension and strike could be potentially divisive, Al Jazeera reports that “diplomats have urged the top candidates to sign a peace pledge.” External voices, such as the United States and the European Union, have also advocated against Onnoghen’s suspension, and for national political peace.