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Nigeria Rejects Foreign Criticism Over Judge's Suspension

Attorneys defending Nigeria's Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen appear at the Code of Conduct Tribunal in Abuja, Nigeria, Jan. 22, 2019.

Nigeria's government warned off international "meddling," insisting the West African country will conduct "free, fair elections" for the presidency on February 16.

Reacting to concerns voiced by the United States, Britain and the European Union of President Muhammadu Buhari's suspension Friday of Nigeria's chief justice, the president's spokesman defended the decision.

The Nigerian federal government is "determined to ensure free, fair elections. This government will not bend the rules and will not allow meddling in our affairs," spokesman Garba Shehu said in a statement issued late Saturday, Reuters news service reported.

In a follow-up statement issued late Sunday, the spokesman described the three foreign governments as "friends" but said their criticisms "seem more driven by unfounded assumptions and, to be honest, a certain condescension to this African democracy. … Not one of your nations would allow a person enmeshed in legal uncertainty to preside over your legal systems until the cloud has been cleared from him."

The lengthy statement aimed to clarify Buhari's decision to suspend Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen for allegedly making false claims about his assets. Buhari said the move came at the behest of a Code of Conduct Tribunal that began hearing Onnoghen's case last week. An appeals court ordered the trial's suspension Thursday. Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, the second-ranking judge, was sworn in as acting chief justice on Friday.

FILE - Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at the National Assembly, in Abuja, Nigeria, Dec. 19, 2018.
FILE - Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at the National Assembly, in Abuja, Nigeria, Dec. 19, 2018.

Buhari, a 76-year-old former military leader elected in 2015, is seeking a second four-year term as leader of Africa's most populous country. Challenges to presidential and parliamentary election results would be decided by Nigeria's judiciary, up to the high court.

Nigeria's Senate has scheduled an emergency session Tuesday, with the chief justice's suspension among its agenda items, the Lagos-based newspaper Punch reported Sunday. The news organization said lawmakers had been adjourned until Feb. 19, after the presidential and National Assembly elections.

Buhari leads the All Progressives Congress.

The main opposition People's Democratic Party (PNP) said it would resume campaign activities Monday, after halting them for 72 hours to protest Onnoghen's suspension. Its candidate is Atiku Abubakar, a 72-year-old former vice president. The PDP governed Nigeria from 1999, the year civilian rule was restored, until 2015.

In a statement issued this weekend, the PDP called Buhari's suspension of the chief justice "a constitutional breach and a direct attack on our democracy."

The Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, an umbrella for more than 70 groups working to support credible, transparent elections, released a statement urging Buhari "to reverse this unconstitutional and illegal action and refrain from interfering with the independence of the judiciary. …"