On January 25, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the country’s top judge, Walter Onnoghen, and replaced him with an acting chief justice merely weeks before a presidential election in which judiciary can play an important role.
Onnoghen, as the head of Nigeria’s independent judiciary, had helped resolve electoral disputes in past elections, some of which have been marred by violence and vote-rigging. He was similarly expected to preside over any dispute that may arise in the upcoming February 16 election.
The judge’s controversial suspension so close to the election date caused uproar across Nigeria, with the Nigerian Bar Association embarking on a two-day strike and the main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, calling the president’s decision “an act of dictatorship”. The international community also expressed dismay over the usurpation of the judicial arm of the government by the executive branch, with the US and the EU suggesting the judge’s removal could “cast a pall over the electoral process”.
Violating judicial independence
Only four years ago, following the March 2015 presidential election, former President Goodluck Jonathan conceded his defeat to then-opposition candidate Buhari, becoming the first sitting president in Nigeria to do so. Jonathan’s voluntary admission of electoral defeat, which was a rarity not only in Nigeria but across the African continent, encouraged Nigerian voters to place their trust in Buhari, an erstwhile dictator who famously labelled himself “a reformed democrat”, to protect their rights and freedoms.
Democratic governments function on the principle of separation of powers – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – which aims to prevent a descent to autocracy by providing for checks and balances. This is why Buhari’s decision to suspend Onnoghen, an apparent violation of judicial independence, was a cause for disappointment and alarm for many who believed the president would uphold democratic values. However, it needs to be noted that the suspension of the chief justice was hardly the first time the Buhari administration infringed the principle of separation of powers and put the future of Nigerian democracy at risk.
Since Buhari took over the presidency, the federal government repeatedly used the fight against corruption – one of the cardinal promises of the current administration – as a tool to side-step the judiciary and illegally lock away, intimidate and silence its opponents and adversaries. For example, the federal government refused to release former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, who had been arrested on corruption charges in December 2015, even though he has been granted bail by several Nigerian high court judges and the ECOWAS court of justice. He remains behind bars to this day.
Moreover, throughout his first term in power, President Buhari openly argued for putting national interests over the rule of law, preparing the ground for authoritarianism and lawless actions.
At the 2018 General Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association, for example, the president said, “Rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest,” and maintained that the state should be allowed to waive fundamental rights of alleged offenders when national security and public interest were threatened. Ironically, the suspended Chief Justice Onnoghen was in attendance at the event, but failed to respond to the president’s blatant attack on the rule of law and the integrity of the judiciary.
Muzzled media, civil society
The judiciary was not the only branch of the government that faced attacks during Buhari’s presidency. The members of the legislative branch have also been targeted by state operatives for acting against the Buhari administration.
In August 2018, armed and masked officers from the Department of State Services (DSS) staged a blockade of the National Assembly. That very same summer, prominent senators who have maintained opposition to the government also had their homes raided. The Senate president, Bukola Saraki, and one of his key allies in the Senate, Dino Melaye, are currently being investigated and harassed by the police over alleged criminal activities. The list can go on.
When the institutions that are meant to provide checks and balances, such as the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, are subdued, independent media and civil society are supposed to take over the responsibility of holding corrupt executives to account.
Unfortunately, neither the media nor the civil society fared any better in Buhari’s Nigeria.
Nigeria declined three places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index in the last three years, ranking 119th out of 180 countries in 2018. Under the Buhari administration, several journalists and activists have been imprisoned and tried on terrorism charges. A section of the Nigerian Cyberterrorism Act 2015, which was signed into law by former President Jonathan, has also been weaponized against dissenters, especially Nigerian citizens active on social media. Moreover, in 2016 the Nigerian Senate flirted with the Frivolous Petitions Bill, aka “the anti-social media law”, which included over-reaching provisions for social media regulation. The bill, seen by many as a dangerous encroachment on free expression, was eventually pulled following public outcry. A similar bill that seeks to equate hate speech with terrorism, however, is currently being deliberated in the National Assembly.
In the last four years, the Buhari administration erased all the gains we made in the 2015 election and created the perfect environment for autocracy by further weakening our democratic institutions, muzzling our civil society, silencing independent journalists and questioning the supremacy of the rule of law. As Nigerians head to vote in the upcoming polls, we must bear in mind that elections do not make a democracy. The current state of affairs in Nigeria should be a bigger concern for us all than any potential outcome of the upcoming election.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.