legitimacy of his trial
Lawyers protest against trial

Legitimacy of chief justice’s trial challenged by Nigerian lawyers

  • Lawyers for Nigeria’s chief justice challenged the legitimacy of his trial

Lawyers for Nigeria’s chief justice challenged the legitimacy of his trial on criminal charges on Monday in a case that has been slammed as judicial intimidation one month before a presidential election in Africa’s most-populous nation.

The trial of the chief justice for allegedly failing to disclose assets and foreign currency bank accounts has been criticised as a political plot by Atiku Abubakar, the main opposition presidential candidate, as well as civil society groups and political analysts.

Walter Onnoghen, the chief justice, is head of Nigeria’s judiciary and would play a key role in adjudicating any legal challenges to the results of the presidential race between Mr Abubakar, a former vice-president, and President Muhammadu Buhari.

In a statement over the weekend, Mr Abubakar, a former vice-president, accused the Buhari administration of attempting to “usurp the role of the judiciary” ahead of a February election it had “shown every intention to manipulate”.

In the hearing on Monday Mr Onnoghen’s attorneys challenged the jurisdiction of the court hearing the case, Nigeria’s Code of Conduct Tribunal. The judge postponed the trial until January 22.

Nigerian elections have a long history of rigging and vote buying, and foreign diplomats have expressed alarm over a pair of recent state elections that were marred by irregularities and voter intimidation and suppression.

“Those were a dry run for February,” said one senior diplomat, who added that both main parties are likely to attempt to manipulate the vote in the states they govern.

Mr Buhari’s victory in 2015 was the first time an opposition candidate had won power since democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999.

Mr Onnoghen, who did not appear in court in the capital Abuja, has denied wrongdoing while acknowledging that he mistakenly failed to disclose some assets and accounts, according to local media. The charges against Mr Onnoghen stem from allegations filed last week by a former aide to Mr Buhari.